The Empty Tank Challenge

The situation

1140 liters of furnace oil fit in there
1140 liters of furnace oil fit in there

It’s October and it’s getting cooler.

We have an oil furnace that delivers heat through vents in the main floor, and two smaller vents in the kids bedrooms on the top floor. It is called a forced air furnace because it heats air and then blows it through ducts. Forced air is common in Canada but the furnace is usually natural gas, which is cheaper and more efficient than oil.

We use electricity for our hot water and appliances.

The furnace has been turned off all summer (as you know from my post Turning off the Heat).

We have about 1/8 of a tank. That's about 142 liters.
We have about 1/8 of a tank. That’s about 142 liters.

The 1140-litre furnace oil tank in the basement is showing almost empty. (Really, I should not have let it get so low. Just like in a gas car, there may be dirt in the bottom of the tank that is not good for the furnace.)

As we noticed the kids’ rooms on the top floor starting to feel cooler I steeled myself to call Ridley Fuels and order more oil. As I wrote in my post The Fossil Fuels in the Basement, I really didn’t want to.

The History

The last time we bought furnace oil was March 6, 2013 so it has been about 18 months. That’s pretty good. We paid $1443.51 for 1100.7 litres (a full tank) at $1.2490 per litre plus 5% tax. Averaging evenly over that time would say we used 61.15 litres and spent $80.20 per month on space heating alone. Of course, we turn off the heat for about four months in the summer, so we must be using more than that per month in the colder seasons.

I don’t have all the receipts in front of me, but here is what I do know:

On March 6, 2013 we bought          1100.7 litres at $1.2490/litre for a total $1443.51

On January 23, 2012 we bought                                                                      total $1134.95

On January 4, 2011 we bought        812.80 litres at $0.9690/litre for a total $830.13

I think we’re getting better at conserving fuel. Ridley normally fills up the tank, so while it took us a year to use a tank of oil from 2011 to 2012, it took us 18 months the last time around.

It’s interesting that with a gas furnace, you may be able to reduce your costs by lowering your thermostat, etc. but you will always be paying the monthly fee for the connection to your home, no matter how little gas you use. That’s one advantage of having your own tank (it’s about the only advantage).

Oil goes in one pipe, air vents out the other.
Oil goes in one pipe, air vents out the other.

I made the call and talked to Darren and asked him to deliver 600 liters to our house. I haven’t seen them do it, but I understand a tanker pulls in front of the house, and they pump fuel into the house as if it were a gasoline or diesel car. Only it isn’t gasoline or diesel. It’s furnace oil, the least efficient fuel you can heat your house with and a producer of a lot of CO2.

I didn’t ask for a full tank this time because I have this optimistic idea that we’re going to dig out the basement and the furnace with it before we use 600 liters of oil. I am optimistic because I am spending some time cleaning out the basement and it feels like things are moving along a bit.

Darren at Ridley Fuels is very helpful and he said the driver would call in the morning and make the arrangements. Both Leanne and I would not be home, so I thought it might be the following week before we saw any oil. He even said he could give me information on the history of fuel consumption for the house since this furnace was installed in 2000. That will let me fill in the gaps for you.

The delivery didn’t happen. Too short notice for both sides. Apparently it’s best to call near the beginning of the week to find a mutually agreeable time.

I felt relieved. I got to thinking.

Do I really have to buy this oil?

The Background

Leanne and I lived in Japan for three years in an apartment that had no central heating or hot water. In the cold Gifu winter, we grew accustomed to heating only the room we were in with a propane heater and wearing outdoor coats to go to the toilet.

We have a couple of small electric space heaters we could put in the kids’ rooms. Maybe we could get another one for our bedroom or the bathroom. Electricity in BC is mostly produced by hydro-electric dams, much more sustainable than fossil fuels.

Our wood-burning insert
Our wood-burning insert

Our wood-burning insert is state-of-the-art and heats up the living and dining rooms very nicely. The heat doesn’t reach the other rooms very effectively, but in the worst case, we could camp in the dining room.

Leanne and I have just been talking about how our credit card bill is now being subsidized by our credit line and it is not sustainable. Do I really want to  spend $1000 now?

Of course not!

The Challenge

We will live as a family as long as possible without buying any furnace oil. What could go wrong?

I thumb my nose at the oil tank and say,

No thank you oil truck, we're quitting! (at least until we get too cold and then we'll give you a call)
No thank you oil truck, we’re quitting! (at least until we get too cold and then we’ll give you a call)

“We don’t need you! We will last all winter without buying a single drop of fuel oil! We will save money and reduce our contribution to climate change at the same time! In the spring we will remove the furnace and the fuel tank forever, knowing that even if we have to go through another winter with the reno incomplete, we can survive. Victory!!!”

First, of course, I had to talk to the boss, Leanne, about it.

Her first reaction was that she prefers a warm house to a cold house. Go figure. I began to try to convince her.

I believe this will be a parallel to Jen and Grant of The Clean Bin Project and Just Eat It. Once Leanne gets inspired by this idea, she will do most of the work and I will sit back like Grant and coast. Right honey?

That morning I had to go to work and so Leanne told the kids my idea. After school they told me they are on board. Yay! The Empty Tank Challenge is a go!

It feels like that time 20 years ago when I did a cleansing fast for three weeks. I ate nothing but drank hot water with lemon or lime juice, maple syrup and a little cayenne pepper in it. The biggest impact was breaking the obsession with food and learning that if I do not eat for 12 hours I will not die. Living without heat, hot water and  television in Japan also changed our perspectives profoundly.

Join us!

You can try this at home, too! Simply turn off your heat and see how long it is until you can’t stand the cold anymore. While you are doing it, ask yourself these questions:

How fast does the temperature drop?

How much does the temperature vary throughout the day and night? (this will give you a clue as to how well-insulated and sealed your house is)

Do you notice any draughts? Can they be fixed easily? (forced-air furnaces tend to mask these issues by simply blowing warm air at them)

If you open the blinds and let the sunshine in, how much does that help heat your home?

At what times in the day do you feel that itch to turn on the heat? In which rooms?

Is this really as simple as, “put on a sweater” or is it more complex than that?

When you do turn the heat back on, can you program your thermostat to lower temperatures now that you know you can handle them? You will save money and burn less fuel.

Please share your results with me! (I’ll share mine!)

Published by

James Rowley

James lives in Maple Ridge, BC, Canada with his amazing partner, Leanne Koehn, and their two amazing kids in their beautiful house. He studied Science and English Literature at the University of British Columbia where he met Leanne. He also studied acting for a while at Studio 58 in Vancouver. He works as a teacher of English and curriculum writer for new Canadians.

15 thoughts on “The Empty Tank Challenge”

  1. I have to say that Grant tried one of those lemon cleanses once. He became the grumpiest (or should I say hangriest) person ever. He lasted about 20 hours.

    Good luck with your The Empty Tank Challenge! We haven’t turned our furnace on this Fall yet, but I doubt we’ll last much longer, but you’ve inspired me to go for another couple weeks anyway.

    1. Way to go, Jen! I am so impatient to renovate! It’s a nice experiment to get a sense of how over-sized our current furnace is and how small the new one could be.

    1. No, this post is from October, 2014. We tried to sell the oil furnace and tank but ended up having to pay a company to haul them away. Go figure!

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