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What is Heating Oil?

By Jane Harmon
Updated May 16, 2024
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Heating oil is a refined oil made from petroleum, used in furnaces to heat buildings. It is the main source of heat in about 8.1 million American homes. People living in the northeast US are more likely to heat their homes with oil than other parts of the country, consuming more than 80% of the total used every winter. Diesel oil and heating oil are quite similar, and they are refined in a very similar way.

People whose homes rely on oil for heat in the winter are justifiably concerned about its cost. As with every petroleum product, the price goes up and down, depending on the cost of the crude oil from which it is made and other variables such as refinery capacity.

Heating oil is trucked to individual homes and pumped into underground storage tanks. Since it is more expensive in the winter, when demand is high, most people will have their tanks filled in the summer or early fall, when prices are lower. Unfortunately, home tanks are rarely large enough to store enough fuel to last through the winter, so homeowners often must purchase more oil at winter prices.

Weatherproofing a home can help keep heating costs down in the winter. Homeowners can make sure that their windows and doors are close-fitting and install weather stripping around them to keep out drafts. Passive solar systems can also be useful. Homes with north-facing windows can allow the sun in to heat that part of the house during the day, and windows should be covered with insulated curtains as the sun goes down to prevent heat loss.

Some heating oil suppliers will allow their customers to spread the cost of the oil out over the entire year. This lessens the shock of having huge utility bills in the winter months, at the cost of paying a little more during the warmer months. Of course, homeowners can turn down the thermostat when they are out of the house and wear more layers of clothing when they are at home to lower their heating costs more simply.

HomeQuestionsAnswered is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Discussion Comments
By kylee07drg — On Sep 22, 2012

@OeKc05 – I use heating oil in my furnace, and it is very safe. The burner makes the air hot, and this is what circulates.

I never have to smell gassy odors in my home. The air is heated in the furnace, so I never have a burst of oil flaring forth, as you have with gas.

By OeKc05 — On Sep 22, 2012

Is heating oil safer than natural gas? Right now, my home is heated with a gas-powered unit. I don't like the odor that sometimes arises from this, and I get nervous whenever the burners flare up.

By Oceana — On Sep 21, 2012

I live in upstate New York, and we have some pretty brutal winters. A lot of the homes here are very old, and many of them don't have central heat. So, we have to rely on residential heating oil for warmth.

This means that some areas of the house will not be as warm as others. I tend to hang out in the warm rooms whenever possible.

By Perdido — On Sep 20, 2012

My dad used to complain a lot about rising heating oil prices. We used to use it during the winter, but it just became too expensive.

So, we began to rely more on our central heating unit. This raises the electric bill, but I guess it's still not as much as the price of heating oil.

By anon274965 — On Jun 14, 2012

Can heating oil be used in diesel engines?

By anon132879 — On Dec 08, 2010

yes you can use diesel.

By anon22978 — On Dec 13, 2008

Can I use regular diesel fuel from the gas station to put into my heating system???

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