Some B.C. residents still rely on oil furnaces to keep warm, but finding someone to fix them is getting harder

Home heating oil tanks, which supply oil furnaces, require specialized knowledge to maintain and repair. (Wayne Vallevand/CBC - image credit)
Home heating oil tanks, which supply oil furnaces, require specialized knowledge to maintain and repair. (Wayne Vallevand/CBC - image credit)

Residents of a small B.C. village are worried about what would happen when there aren't enough people trained to repair and maintain the aging oil furnaces that keep them warm during the winter months.

Most parts of the province rely on natural gas to heat homes, but that option isn't available in Nakusp, a community of about 1,600 located 240 kilometres east of Kelowna in B.C.'s West Kootenay.

And while those who can afford it have switched to electric heat, renters or those on lower incomes living in older buildings still rely on aging oil furnaces — even as the people trained to repair them become increasingly rare.

That's what Judy Dupuis discovered when she tried to find someone to service her furnace earlier this year.

"I wanted to get someone to come in and put in a new filter, change the nozzles and just make sure the furnace was up and running for this coming winter, which we do every year," said the 75-year-old, who has lived in the same home for 57 years.

When she couldn't find anyone to do the work, Dupuis posted a request on social media — which is when she learned she wasn't the only one searching for help before the cold set in, as other residents shared stories of being unable to find someone to fix their furnaces.

Parts, professionals harder to find

In order to service oil furnaces, tradespeople need to be certified as oil heat system technicians. Until recently, one of these technicians owned Kootenay Furnace, about an hour away from Nakusp. But when he retired, he took with him his knowledge of the technology.

In fact, there are no companies in the West Kootenay region that advertise the ability to repair oil furnaces. Instead, residents need to rely on word-of-mouth in order to track down a dwindling pool of aging repair people still willing to do the work.

Among them is 66-year-old Glenn Baynes who lives in Revelstoke, 105 kilometres north of Nakusp, or a two-hour round trip.

Though he prefers not to travel much for work, he was convinced to make the drive this year in order to help out several residents. But, he says, it's unlikely others will take his place.

"It's a natural thing," he said. "As technology progresses, things get dropped by the wayside."

Tyler Milton, who took over Kootenay Furnace, says he tried for a year to recruit a certified oil heat system technician but was unsuccessful. He also looked into getting trained himself, but discovered it would require him to apprentice for four years — a timeline he said he couldn't afford.

Meanwhile, he keeps getting calls from people looking for help.

"I would say about 100 clients [are] still waiting to hear from me," said Milton.

And the odds of finding someone to do the work are increasingly low: The Industry Training Authority, the provincial agency that leads and co-ordinates B.C's skilled trades training system, says it shut down the oil heating technicians apprenticeship program in 2013 "to better reflect the needs and demands of the industry" as oil furnaces disappear.

Government rebates assist with transition from oil

Local governments are trying to help people transition from oil furnaces to gas or electricity.

The energy programs co-ordinator for the City of Nelson, who works with the Regional District of the Central Kootenay, says the process of retrofitting a home to be more energy efficient can be expensive, but there are government rebates and grants that can help with costs.

Avi Silberstien says heat pumps are often the most common choice for people, because they can be used to both heat and cool a home.

Yet even with the grants and rebates, Silberstien says costs can still add up to thousands of dollars, depending on what's done.

'It's heartbreaking'

Milton says he wishes he could help people looking for repairs but for now, "we've basically ceased operations as far as heat and oil is concerned."

"It's heartbreaking," he said. "Especially when the weather turns really cold and these people have no heat."

Meanwhile, Glenn Baynes, at 66, is doing his best to help those in need, but he's not sure how long he'll be able to do so.

"I don't like driving on these roads over the wintertime," he said. "These guys that are retiring, I don't blame them. It's hard to keep up."