Last winter, DeKalb County farmers Mark and Ed Houston placed day-old chicks in their eight poultry houses during the third-coldest December on record. But unlike many farmers who shelled out thousands of dollars to keep their flocks warm, the Houstons simply loaded up their truck with what some folks are calling “black gold.”Oil, that is. Used oil.Since 1997, the Houstons have been using oil recovered from local garages to heat their poultry houses. The secret to this low-cost energy solution is a clean-burning heater originally developed for businesses that generate an abundance of waste petroleum products.Tom Silver, president of Free Heat Services Inc. of Henager, Ala., said he first heard of clean-burning oil furnaces when he was expanding his used tractor parts business.”When we built our new building in 1989, a friend of mine in New York said I should buy a Clean Burn heater. In fact, he said, ‘Don’t buy anything else,'” Silver recalled. “But when I called the folks at Clean Burn, they didn’t have a marketing program in the South. They said, ‘You don’t need heat down there.'”That’s when Silver became a Clean Burn distributor. Over the next eight years, he sold more than 300 heaters to farm equipment dealers, garages and manufacturing plants. He also began experimenting with the newfound technology, eventually developing water heaters, generators, bake ovens and steam cleaners–all powered with used oil.”I grew up in a garage, and from the time I could walk, I was around cars,” Silver said. “I’ve always wanted to find out how everything was made.” Despite his inquisitive nature, however, Silver was reluctant when Ed Houston first asked him about heating a poultry house with oil.”Ed put a Clean Burn heater in his dairy barn back in 1992, and he loved it,” Silver recalled. “In 1997, he called me up and said ‘this 45-cent gas is killing me, you’ve got to help me.’ I told him they had tried heating chicken houses with oil in Arkansas, and it failed.”But Silver never stopped thinking about Ed’s question, and one day he spotted a fatal design flaw in the Arkansas trial. “They were putting the units inside the chicken houses, and they can’t burn in a dusty area.” Silver said.Always the inventor, Silver soon devised a plan for locating a heater outside the poultry house and piping heated air into the building through a collapsible duct (similar to those found in commercial greenhouses).Silver installed an oil-burning heater at one of the Houston’s poultry houses on Christmas Eve 1997. A second house was converted to oil heat in March 1998, and when the Houstons built four more houses in 1999, they purchased enough clean-burning heaters for the new houses as well as two remaining older ones.The 350,000 British thermal unit (Btu) furnaces are shielded from the weather by an awning and are equipped with a squirrel-cage fan and return air intake that circulate air around the super-heated combustion chamber. Once the used oil is filtered, it’s pumped into the burner assembly from an exterior storage tank (single-walled tanks of less than 900 gallons meet all environmental regulations).The oil is preheated to 150 degrees by an aluminum heater block then sprayed into the combustion chamber as a fine mist where a high-voltage electrical spark ignites the oil/air mixture. Practically all of the oil is burned, leaving only a sooty residue that Silver said can be removed using a vacuum about once a year. Because the heated air circulates around the combustion chamber, no gases are pumped into the poultry house, and the efficient ignition system means very little exhaust is released into the atmosphere.Silver said clean-burning oil heaters enhance production because they don’t consume oxygen inside the poultry houses like open-flame brooders, and they help reduce caking of the litter because the heated air contains no added moisture. The heaters also benefit the environment by providing a safe way to dispose of waste oil and other petroleum-based fluids, he added.
For the Houstons, however, recycling oil not only is environmentally friendly, it also makes good economic sense. When propane prices were soaring past the $1.50-a-gallon mark last winter, the DeKalb County farmers were getting much of their used oil for free. The rest they bought for about 60 cents a gallon. Of course, the Houstons had to use some propane on colder days, but their heating expense still was a fraction of what many poultry producers spent.”Last winter we got chickens on the 12th of December, and we used about 300 gallons of gas per house,” Ed Houston said. “One of our neighbors spent $8,000 on four houses.”Houston said when he bought the heaters two years ago gas was 48-52 cents a gallon. At those prices, he predicted it would take about five years to save enough money to pay for the units, which cost $7,900 each. But with gas prices more than doubling last winter, he said the investment already is paying dividends. “It’s hard to talk a farmer into spending that much money,” Houston said. “But the way I look at it, it’s going to take 12 years to pay for the houses, so if you pay for the heaters in four or five years, they are a better deal than the houses.”Silver and his business partner, Tim Davis, have put together a fact sheet showing that one gallon of used oil can generate 250,000 Btu of heat, compared to 92,000 Btu for a gallon of liquid petroleum (LP gas). At 60 cents a gallon for used oil and $1 per gallon for LP, that equates to a savings of 63 percent. Davis, who is both a full-time preacher and a financial advisor, said helping farmers save money is one of the most rewarding aspects of the oil heater business.”Our goal is to have a Christian business that reaches out and helps people,” Davis said. “Our guarantee to farmers is that, if we put a heater in and it won’t do what we say it will–or we can’t make it do it–we’ll take it out and give them their money back.”Since 1997, Silver and Davis have sold about 20 clean-burning oil heaters to poultry growers in Alabama and Georgia, including five they installed for Dr. Michael Brown, an Arab veterinarian who later joined Free Heat Services as a partner. They hope to eventually manufacture their own line of heaters that will combine existing technology with Silver’s inventive modifications. In addition, they currently are fine tuning an oil-powered generator that Davis predicts could save customers up to $12,000 a year, based on an average power bill of $1,000 per month.As for the supply of used oil, Silver said farmers like the Houstons can get much of the oil for free–if they have a truck to haul it. Others may prefer to contract with a used oil broker, which can deliver the filtered oil directly to their farms. During the past year, he said used oil prices have ranged from 35-60 cents a gallon.Poultry growers interested in oil-burning heaters may contact Silver at 1-800-862-HEAT (4328). Free Heat’s poultry consultant is retired University of Georgia poultry specialist Dr. Larry Vest, (706) 629-0929.