Professional Carwashing & Detailing

10 common questions about waste oil heaters

October 11, 2010
With the cold weather behind us, many carwash and lube owner/operators are tossing aside those scary heating bills and looking forward to the summer. But the costs to heat your shop or carwash are likely to continue rising, and ignoring this won’t help matters in the fall. For those of you with a quick lube center, now is the time to start thinking about waste/used oil heaters and boilers.

Many of you ask the same questions when researching what, where or how to buy a waste/used oil fired heater or boiler. Over the past few months, I have collected a few of the most common questions and will address those.

Common question #1:
I’m interested in installing a waste oil heater. Where can I obtain information?

Mason Smith: There are different manufactures of this type of equipment. You can find a list of them and information about burning waste/used oil at the Used Oil Management Association’s (UOMA) website, Each manufacturer that is a member of UOMA has a link to their individual website there.

Common question #2:
What should I look for in a waste oil heater?

MS: You should look for a heater that has a UL® safety listing for heaters and a UL or American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) listing for a pressure boiler. Not all heaters and boilers carry this safety listing.

You should also determine how many BTU’s are needed to heat the area you want and match up the BTU output from the heater. You also need to determine if you generate enough waste/used oil for the size heater needed.

Some manufactures have distributors throughout the country to help you size a heater.

Common question #3:
How much does a waste oil heater cost? Does this cost include installation?

MS: Heaters range in price from about $4,000 to $13,000 depending on the set-up and BTU rating. Heater installation can run from $1,500 on up depending on whether you are running duct work or just hanging the heater.

Boilers range from about $6,300 up to $17,000. Installations can vary a lot depending on what you are hooking the boiler up to.

Common question #4:
How does a waste oil heater operate?

MS: Waste/used oil fired heaters and boilers use a technique called atomization. The waste/used oil is pre-heated and mixed at the nozzle with compressed air. This sprays a mist of fine waste/used oil drops into the main fire chamber. A set of electrodes with an electrical charge arced between them ignite the fine mist for combustion.

Depending on the unit you have, the hot gases flow through an exchanger or exchanger tubes and then out through a stack. Air is pushed across this heat exchanger and the heated air then flows into the area to be heated.

A boiler operates in the same fashion except that water is heated in a tube and then sent to where it is needed.

Common question #5:
How much will a waste oil heater save me?

MS: A waste/used oil fired heater has a return on investment anywhere from 12 to 36 months, depending on what the price of fuel is and how cold it gets where you live. Most shop owners say the heaters pay for themselves the first season.

Boilers have a little longer return on investment because they are the more expensive option.

Common question #6:
What is the maintenance schedule and costs associated with the heater?

MS: The brand, size of heater, what you are burning and hours used will determine how often you need to service your unit. Some units require more frequent cleanings while others need a cleaning once a year/season.

At the end of the heating season, you should have the unit and the burner cleaned. This maintenance can be done by yourself or by a factory trained representative. Costs can vary; some have a flat rate, others will charge by the hour.

Common question #7:
What is the warranty on a heater?

MS: Most unit heaters come with a 10-year limited warranty on the heat exchanger. Others have a limited lifetime warranty on the heat exchanger. Ask your representative for details.

Common question #8:
Is burning waste/used oil environmentally friendly?

MS: Yes, burning waste/used oil for heat or hot water is an approved way of recycling under the Federal EPA, CFR 40 #279.25

Common question #9:
How much oil does one of these units burn?

MS: Every gallon of waste oil contains 140,000 BTU’s of energy. Take the BTU input of a unit, divide by 140,000 and that will tell you how many gallons per hour of operation the unit will use.

Common question #10:
How is the heat controlled?

MS: Waste/used oil fired heaters and boilers are thermostatically controlled. They will cycle off and on.

Mason Smith has been in the waste/used oil heating industry for 11 years. He is the Corporate Sales Manager for Firelake Manufacturing Co.