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Servicing ‘dinosaur’ oil furnaces a growing problem in West Kootenay

No one has the expertise, and oil is getting more expensive
Kootenay heating mechanics say it’s nearly impossible to find someone in the area who can service aging oil furnaces, so good maintenance is essential for avoiding real problems this winter. Photo by John Boivin

by John Boivin

Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Valley Voice

Homeowners in the West Kootenay who have oil furnaces could face extended periods in the cold should their heating system fail this winter.

People in the home heating business say there are no mechanics servicing that kind of heating system in the region, even as the systems get older and less reliable.

“There are very few people who do servicing in this area,” said Lin Harker of Lin and Mike Plumbing in Castlegar, who don’t provide the service. “They are pretty obsolete, especially the older ones.”

“It is a dinosaur,” says Glenn Baynes, whose Blue Flame Furnace and Mechanical still services the systems out of Revelstoke. “Last year I couldn’t find a new oil furnace anywhere in Western Canada. I had to replace the customer’s with a used one.”

It’s not a new phenomenon. While oil furnaces are still common in Eastern Canada, they’ve been becoming rarer in B.C. over the last 10-to-15 years. Replacement parts are becoming harder to find, people who service them are retiring, and young plumbers want no part of the messy business.

“It’s such dirty stuff,” said Dave Murdoch of Kootenay Plumbing and Heating. “No one wants their skin smelling like oil for the next week.”

The situation is reaching a tipping point in the Slocan Valley, where a long-time oil furnace mechanic retired a few years ago. The young man who replaced him was run off his feet with work, but has now moved out of the province. The result is people whose oil furnaces break down this winter may search far and wide in vain for someone to fix them.

What it’s also meant is that the people who are still using oil-furnace systems are often the people who can least afford to replace them should they fail for good.

“What we’ve seen change over the last few years – people who can afford to change to other systems, to upgrade to other types of heating systems, can do so. But people who already have systems in place, it’s obviously more cost-effective to keep using them,” says Chris Sapriken, the general manager of the Slocan Valley Co-op, which provides home heating oil to the region.

“What we’ve seen is little by little over time, people have been upgrading to new forms of heating systems, or they’ve ripped them up entirely because of the lack of service and gone to wood heat.”

Servicing critical

If you can’t afford the switch, your best option is to keep your furnace trouble-free by ensuring your system is kept in good repair. That’s what Judy Dupuis in Nakusp decided to do. But the senior got a surprise when she started trying to find someone to check to ensure her oil furnace was working properly.

“Winter’s coming, so everyone’s getting anxious,” she said, especially as her furnace is now more than 20 years old. “We’re not sure how much longer we’ll get out of it but we’ll deal with that when it comes.”

She says she knows oil furnaces are on the way out, but her options are limited. She won’t have a propane system, electric is an expensive investment, and wood heat doesn’t interest her.

“I’m 75 years old. I’m not going to haul around bags of wood pellets,” she says.

Dupuis says she posted to Facebook, asking others with oil furnaces if they had any solutions. Someone in town had found Baynes in Revelstoke, but needed six other people to sign on to make his trip worthwhile. She was successful.

“I got sweet-talked by those folks,” laughs Baynes, who says that’s about as far as he’s willing to travel to do servicing.

Baynes says people wanting to avoid being left in the cold may want to learn a few do-it-yourself maintenance tricks.

“I would take the time to learn basic things,” he says. “Ninety per cent of the problems with oil furnaces will be the nozzle. You should know how to take it apart and replace it. And know the size of the nozzle, find one and get a spare.”

Keeping your oil clean is also important, he says. That can be done with oil conditioners, which helps keep water out of the system, and by allowing the tank to settle after refilling it, to keep particles out of the furnace filters.

End of (furnace) life planning

While it’s not a problem now, even getting oil for the furnace may be a headache one day. It certainly is getting more expensive, but the company that runs oil up the valley, Castlegar Petroleum (a branch of the Slocan Valley Co-op), says it’s not the profit centre it used to be.

“There has been a decline in the number of people using petroleum-based heating systems,” says Sapriken. “We still continue to provide the service of home heating delivery, but it is very definitely one of those that we do it more as a service. But if we want to make a dollar off of it, we recognize we’re not – we’re actually losing money by providing that service to some degree.”

The bottom line is, time has essentially run out on your home oil furnace. None of the alternatives are cheap or easy – wood, propane, and electric all come with multi-thousand-dollar price tags. So start saving for the inevitable change, experts advise.

“It is the way of the world. Either fix it yourself, or get something that can be fixed,” says Baynes. “People should start saving for an alternative, because it is going to phase out.”

“It’s challenging because there’s a lack of servicing individuals who can maintain the equipment,” advises Sapriken at the Co-op. “It’s definitely worth looking into what other forms of heating resources they have available to them, so they don’t get stuck. Where they have older equipment and something that could break down, they could be left in the cold.”