The Evolution of the Commercial Heating Industry and the Fuel We Use

The Evolution of the Commercial Heating Industry and the Fuel We Use


It is a natural instinct for people to keep warm. So it’s important that we find a sustainable heat source, to accommodate this requirement not only for domestic appliances but commercial heating also.


From the beginning of time and the discovery of fire we have been able to generate heat, but how has this evolved over the years and how does it affect us now and in the future and how has the use of biofuels influenced the decisions that business’s make about their commercial heating.


Between the discovery of fire and the industrial revolution, coal and wood were the most used source of heat, with one being a fossil fuel and one a biofuel.


Roman descent Sergius Oratas design of the underfloor heating system, widely known as Hypocaust roughly translated as “the fire beneath”. The common use of fuel for this type of heating was wood, used in a wood burning furnace creating heat that was then directed underneath the floor that was raised on pillars and through the walls that had clay pipes built into them. As the warm air rose, both the walls and the floor heated up and regenerated the heat into the room. Today technology is not much different from the use of radiant heaters today using reflectance, absorbance and emissivity. These were mainly used to heat the higher class of Roman houses and public baths. The common fuel source for this type of heating was wood.


The first recorded use of warm air heaters dates as far back as the 1200’s where the city hall in Luneburg and also at Marburg Castle. These were very basic which involved the use of three furnaces, in which the heating chamber had been connected to the rooms above with ducts that opened underneath the seating. They managed to regulate the temperature of the building using iron covers. The primary fuel source for this type of heating would have been coal.


Warm air heating grew more advanced over time, especially during the industrial revolution. During this period in the late 1700’s that William Strutt alongside Charles Sylvester constructed a warm air furnace known as the Cockle or Belper. This was installed into the Derby Infirmary, that consisted of a riveted wrought iron chamber encased in brick, leaving a space between the brick and the iron to allow the air to circulate.  The fuel of choice for this system was usually coal. And during the 1900s was used widely in a variety of applications such as prisons, hospitals, schools and workhouses, beginning the transition from the use of fossil fuels for heating.

In 1812 Benford Deacon patented a forced air furnace that used a fan powered by a descending weight.

Today’s systems use a similar technology, where the heater will pull in the colder air from the building where it is then moved over the heat exchanger via the fan. As it passes through the heat exchanger, the cool air is then heated and distributed throughout the building.


As the heating industry progressed so did the diversity of the equipment. With the passing of the clean air act 1956, gas and oil fired systems began to overtake coal and wood systems and became a primary source of energy.


What this shows us is that over time, regardless of the advancement of the system we are continuing to use similar methods, and switching between the use of biofuels and fossil fuel for centuries. So what does that mean to us now and in the future?


Before we can decide, it’s important that we understand the history of Biofuels. This is not just a recent discovery with biofuels actually discovered when man first discovered fire, burning the wood to provide warmth. This was the primary fuel that was utilised before the discovery of electricity. The first demonstration of a biofuel product was at the 1900 world’s fair by creator Rudolf Diesel, who showed his car to run on peanut oil. In the following years, he continued his research into the use of vegetable oils as a fuel. Following the death of Rudolph, petroleum became widely available and affordable, reducing the interest in biofuels. It only regained attention during World War 2 when there were a shortage and inflated oil prices.

Although in the more modern engines the use of vegetable oils could not be sustained. Differences between biofuel and electricity are that electricity is created by the burning of fossil fuels ( primarily coal) and biofuel produces energy by burning biodegradable products, such as wood or agricultural waste.


So does that mean that Biofuel is the future for all forms of heating equipment?


The answer to that question is not as straightforward to answer. Each application should be assessed. It depends on what the heating system will be used for. How much the individual will use it, and how much biofuel is readily available to them. It can often be the assumption that if you create waste oil that you can run your heater for free, although this is not always the case.


There are many advantages and disadvantages to biofuels, and it’s a decision that most businesses are deliberating over, not only to reduce their carbon footprint but also for the financial benefit.

One of the main reasons that have always made this source of fuel so popular is the fact that the energy is renewable. This is because of how it is made.  They can be both liquid or gas form that can be made by using a wide variety of biodegradable substances such as sugar, starch, vegetable oils or even animal fats.  They can also be of the solid form, for example, sawdust, wood, and grass, domestic waste, charcoal, agricultural waste and even dried manure.


The two most commonly used biofuels are ethanol and biodiesel, although others include, bio-methanol and biobutanol.


How are they made?


Ethanol is an alcohol-based fuel produced by the fermentation of sugars or starches and can be found in your general household goods such as potato skins. This process is quite similar to the fermentation of alcohol.


Biodiesel can be sourced by using algae, cooking grease or vegetable oils.  It is derived through a chemical process called transesterification. This process leaves behind two products which are known as Methyl Ester and Glycerine which are a valuable bi-product.


The future for commercial heating

There are already commercial heaters on the market that are compatible and ready for use with biofuels, and research and development are continuous to support its use and to contribute to a greener future, within the commercial heating sector.