History of Home Heating in Oregon

Let’s learn a bit about the history of oil heating in homes around the Portland, Oregon area and when they became more common. We will start with how homes were heated before oil heating as we know it existed, then how some homes began to use forced air heating, and how oil became phased out. More photos here.

Portland grew rapidly, outpacing other nearby cities to become the major city of the time and area. With less than 1,000 residents in 1850, then over 90,000 by 1900, and then up to 200,000 people by 1910. Portland can get chilly and these people needed to stay warm in the winter.

Pre-1900 heating

The Portland area is not rich in coal, and coal burning furnaces were not very common in this area. The pacific northwest was, and still is, a major producer of timber from trees. So logging companies were happy to find they could sell one of their major waste products, sawdust.

Wood and sawdust burners operate out of a basement. If there is no basement then a small dugout similar to a root cellar can house the furnace. There were no thermostats and there was no way to set the temperature, just guess or know based on the amount of fuel. One had to put the fuel in before they wanted to be warn (often early in the morning).

picture of rectangular dugout where old oil burning furnace would go in crawlspace
rectangular dugout in crawlspace where old oil burning furnace would go

Signs of wood stoves are common in the Portland area, axe marks visible on the foundation or basement floor show where the homeowners chopped wood.

pic of Axes marks on basement floor by Rush Locates

photo of Axe marks from Rush locates on concrete foudation floor

Many homes had wood stoves or sawdust burners at one point in their history. For larger homes a furnace was more likely.

In multistory houses these were ‘gravity exchange’ systems, a large metal grate in the floor would allow cooler air to go to the basement where the heater was. The result of this was that the cold air became warm and rose through the grate into the upper floors. These ornate grates are often about two feet square and tend to be in living rooms or middle of the home.

Portland has had natural gas since 1880 in some form or another. Early gas went to lighting more often than heating. You can still find signs of old gas heating. Seen as a small concrete hole in a sidewalk or right of way. It can have a cap which may even say ‘Portland Gas & Coke Company’. Also common is a capped pipe sticking through the foundation which is larger than the natural gas lines seen today.

old gas line for low pressure gas

History of Oil Heating in homes

In the early 1920’s, with the invention of electric fans, the idea of a ‘forced air’ furnace became a reality. Diesel fuel was being utilized in engines by 1900. It’s prevalence led to using it as a heat source alongside wood, sawdust, oil, (rarely) coal, and natural gas burners.

photo of oil burning furnaceAn old 'octopus' furnace could have been converted from sawdust to heating oil

From then on Oil Burning Furnaces began to get more popular, however by the 1960s they began quickly tapering off. Cheap hydroelectric power  in the PNW gave way to electric heat being the method of choice for many builders in the 60’s and 70s. Cadet heaters which started in Vancouver in 1957 became a common sight in new homes.. Natural gas and electric heat has become increasingly common. Things like ceiling heat and baseboard heaters were popular in the 60s and 70s. Mini splits and heat pumps are today’s version of efficient electric heating.

The latest we have ever seen oil heat put into a newly built home was in 1979. For this reason we recommend a tank scan in every neighborhood that existed prior to 1980.

If the home was built in a semi rural area (which is now more city like) then a tank could have been put in after it was out of fashion with the urban developers. These homes are also more likely to have an underground storage tank, be it diesel fuel or gasoline. They are also more likely to have a septic tank or cesspool. See this page for more information on finding cesspool and septic tanks.


By 1985 there were almost no oil tanks going in the ground in urban locations. Replacing one tank with another tank or moving from and underground tank to a tank in the basement was still common. The newest underground oil tank we have ever seen was put in the ground in the 90s.

Oil heat today

Many homeowners still use their heating oil tanks in Oregon and Washington. Some like the warm feeling of the oil laden air. Some like the heating oil prices when natural gas prices rise. Oregon oil companies still deliver oil to underground and above around tanks alike.

Now that you know a bit more about how heating oil was used in the PNW, why not have a look at the ‘Signs of Oil Tanks‘ page and see if you see any indication that you may have a buried oil tank at your property.

For these reasons we recommend getting an oil tank search if you’re buying a home that was built before 1985 (or the neighbors were).