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A QUEST FOR Cheaper Heat.

The 1973 Oil Embargo had a big impact on America--and on our home heating system.

I grew up in the tiny hamlet of Fairview, located in Oscoda County about halfway between Grayling and Alpena. My father ran an appliance shop across the driveway of our house, where he mended everything from televisions to water pumps. He also spent his time pursuing an unending dream of finding a cheaper means of heating our house and his shop. He seemed to switch out furnaces as often as most men changed socks. My father was a child of the Great Depression and a mechanical genius, and as a boy in the National Youth Administration, he had learned valuable skills that kept him in a low-income bracket his whole life.

OPEC's (Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Companies) Oil Embargo of 1973 led to soaring energy prices in the United States. Home heating oil nearly doubled in price in two years, rising from 20 cents a gallon in 1973 to 38 cents a gallon by the fall of 1975. Many people around Fairview took to burning wood, and my dad's quest for cheaper heat took on renewed urgency.

He first installed a wood-burning furnace for our hot-water heating system, but cutting and hauling firewood took a huge amount of time and labor. He allied himself with a friend, the town pharmacist, who had a keen knowledge of chemistry and, likewise, sought a less costly option for heating his home and drugstore. The two of them set to work designing a furnace that would burn used motor oil. Old 10-40 Valvoline was thick and filled with sludge, unlike the relatively clean No. 2 fuel oil that was a little thicker than gasoline. To burn used oil in a furnace, my dad and his friend had to devise a way to clean it, thin it, and aerate it. It took several months, but they developed a system that did not just work but also could make Rube Goldberg weep with envy.

Filtering the oil posed no real challenge, for even fuel oil had to run through a filter. But, while one fuel oil filter would last all winter, motor oil clogged a couple of expensive filters every day. My dad found a solution in rolls of toilet paper. Dropped into the filter canister, they worked just fine and cost much less.

The next stage involved thinning the motor oil. My dad's pharmacist friend calculated the temperature necessary to heat the oil so that it would thin out but not carbonize in the lines. A coffee pot made an ideal heater. They coiled up the oil line like a still's condenser tubing, lowered it into a coffee pot filled with water, and plugged in the pot. Voila--hot oil! A little mineral oil poured into the coffee pot formed a protective barrier that kept the water from evaporating.

Figuring out a way to aerate the oil before spraying it into the combustion chamber stumped my dad for a while. He needed a low-cost, reliable air pump. An automobile smog pump--we called them "pollution pumps"--was the answer. The local body shop had a number of them and practically gave them away. Having overcome that last obstacle, my dad turned the contraption on and watched as the cleaned, thinned, and aerated motor oil sprayed into the furnace and ignited. Free heat!

My dad and his friend soon had a system installed to heat the pharmacy and the attached house, and my dad ran pipes under the drive to heat his store. A farm supply dealership stood next to the pharmacy, so they ran pipes underground and heated that building too. They schemed to run more pipes under the state highway to heat the town grocery store and even considered building an electric generating station. However, they eventually abandoned the idea.

Obtaining oil was easy. My dad and his partner paid a local retiree a small stipend to drive around the area collecting motor oil from automobile service stations, whose owners were only too glad to get rid of it. They filled dozens of 55-gallon drums and the back of a small tanker truck with oil. The pharmacist's brother collected oil for them too, and when they could not burn enough of it, he sold the excess to a power plant somewhere.

Still, the oil flowed in faster than they could burn it. They built a larger version of the burner, bought a crucible, and started melting down scrap aluminum. Molten metal ran into iron molds and went off to market as pure aluminum ingots. They bought aluminum cans--this was before the Michigan Beverage Containers Law of 1976 put a dime deposit on beer and pop cans--and all sorts of scrap aluminum by the pound. One couple came around regularly with old engine blocks, house siding, and other jetsam that was fed into the crucible.

After a few successful years, the glorious used motor oil project finally ended in a gusher. My dad filled the oil tank in our basement with a pipe that ran down through my mother's flowerbed. Small oil spills did not do the flowers much good, but my mother tolerated it in the interest of cheap heat. One day, however, my dad overfilled the basement tank and the pressure ruptured a seam. A thick, stinking stream of oil poured onto the floor. My youngest brother ran to the basement and frantically tried to staunch the flow like the Dutch boy with his finger in the dike, but to no avail.

That was too much. My long-suffering mother put her foot down, resigned to paying higher prices for heating oil. My father dismantled his apparatus and reverted to the former system. My parents are both gone now, but my brothers and I can still share a rueful laugh over the Great Fairview Oil Boom.

By Robert Myers

Robert Myers is the director of education at the Historical Society of Michigan.

Caption: Snowbanks in Fairview, c. 1970. (All photos courtesy of the author.)

Caption: The author's mother, Shirley Myers, beside the family home in Fairview, Michigan, c. 1970.

Caption: The family's home in Fairview, 1971.

Caption: The author's parents, Ray and Shirley Myers, with Susanne Loy (center), a foreign exchange student from Germany, who they hosted from 1969 to 1970.

Please Note: Illustration(s) are not available due to copyright restrictions.
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Title Annotation:REMEMBER THE TIME
Author:Myers, Robert
Publication:Michigan History Magazine
Article Type:Personal account
Geographic Code:1U3MI
Date:Mar 1, 2019
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