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Ben Ciccati

Greasel Mechanics

The Hows and Whys of Fueling Up with Vegetable Oil


I’m addicted to oil. Strung out on the stuff. It’s the viscous lifeblood that powers my long road trips and endless errands. Oil: heated, injected, compressed, and combusted under the hood of my truck.

But I’m not talking about black gold or Texas tea or that 70-bones-per-barrel imported fossil fuel that’s apparently worth warring over. I’m talking about vegetable oil. From soybeans and corn. Grown in the American Midwest. Used by restaurants for deep-frying, then dumped into a grease barrel out back. That’s where you’ll find me — out back, lifting the lid off that grimy barrel, grinning at the grease inside. Drooling like a junkie, I scoop the discarded frying oil into big plastic jugs. Then haul it home for some minor filtering before pouring it into the fuel tank of my pickup.

My truck’s really not too extraordinary. Yes, it runs great — with no loss of power or efficiency — on vegetable oil, but it’s not some one-off green machine fabricated by a team of well-funded scientists. It’s just a 22-year-old Ford diesel.

More than a century ago, inventor Rudolf Diesel originally built his motor to run on plant oils, and in 1912 he said, “The use of vegetable oils for engine fuels may seem insignificant today. But such oils may become in the course of time as important as … petroleum products.”

For me, that time came two summers ago, one late night in a bar. I overheard somebody mumble an unfamiliar word — “greasel” — then mumble more about how diesel engines could run on nothing but used vegetable oil. Sure, I had heard of cars running on biodiesel (in fact, the City of Santa Barbara fuels its diesel work truck fleet with a biodiesel blend that’s 80 percent ultra-low sulfur Chevron diesel and 20 percent virgin soybean oil from an Iowa farm co-op), but 100 percent waste vegetable oil? I started doing some research. Turns out, greasel’s a go. And if you’re thinking about going grease, here’s some advice.

Find a fuel source:

If asked politely, many restaurateurs will happily give away their waste oil. So load up without making a mess and say thanks on the way out. Avoid shortening and hydrogenated oil. If you’d rather not saturate your hands and clothes with tossed-out grease, you can buy new oil at Costco or Smart & Final. It’s about $13.50 for roughly 4.5 gallons. That’s not free, but it’s still less expensive than conventional diesel.

Buy a diesel car or truck:

Mercedeses and Fords are the most popular. Reagan-era Mercedeses are favored over newer models, and the Ford Powerstroke is known to draw incredible horsepower from the nastiest waste grease. After scouring the Web (craigslist.org, autotrader.com, recycler.com, tradeexpress.com, etc.) every night for a few months, I found a good deal on a 1985 Ford F-250 with twin fuel tanks. Though a Mercedes can “cold start” from a single tank of straight vegetable oil, most veggie fuel systems rely on a two-tank setup. I have one tank holding conventional diesel to start and warm the motor, then I switch to the vegetable oil tank with a flip of the dashboard toggle. At day’s end or whenever I’m about to park for several hours, I switch back to the diesel tank to purge vegetable oil from the fuel system to ease the next startup.

Convert your car or truck:

Vegetable oil is thick. But with enough heat, vegetable oil thins and can flow through the fuel system. Conversion specialists (greasecar.com, greasel.com, frybrid.com, vegpoweredsystems.com, and lovecraftbiofuels.com, among others) sell kits that harness heat from electricity and engine coolant. If you’re able, you can install these kits yourself. Or you can pay a pro to do it. Depending on the kit, expect to drop $700-$3,000. (Then run your road miles, fuel mileage, and average pump price through a calculator to see how long it will take for the conversion to pay for itself.)

Set up your personal fueling station:

Working with waste oil takes patience and a small workspace. Ideally, you should let waste oil sit undisturbed for two weeks, allowing gunk to settle out. Then siphon it (except the bottom gunk) through a rated filter. I send settled oil through an inexpensive five-micron sock filter from McMaster-Carr (mcmaster.com). Once properly settled and filtered, it’s ready for the fuel tank.

But is it worth it? Consider my time: I hit the Thai restaurant down the street from my house, but the grease barrel’s empty. Consider my sweat: I head back early a few mornings later to find the barrel full. I spend the next 30 minutes scooping 40 gallons of grease into five-gallon jugs, load them into my truck, and unload them at home. Consider more of my time and sweat: I empty the jugs into a 55-gallon drum, let the batch settle for a fortnight before sending it through a filter and then through a funnel into my truck’s fuel tank. Consider my money: I spent $2,500 on my truck and $1,500 to convert it, plus I ran a few tanks of store-bought vegetable oil, during a precautionary break-in period.

That’s a lot of work and upfront expense. Still, I have to answer, yes, it’s worth it. But not because I have the time and energy, and could afford a used truck and the cost to have it converted. Sure, I still laugh out loud sometimes as I’m driving around on free grease. But I like to think of myself as more of a reasonable idealist than a determined tightwad.

Consider my pollution: Combusted vegetable oil contains none of the cancer-causing toxins of conventional diesel fumes. Yes, burnt vegetable oil adds carbon to the atmosphere (which can raise the temperature of our already simmering planet), but next season’s crop soaks up that carbon. Can you say that about an oil well? Consider my fuel source: It’s renewable and domestic, straight from American farmers. Anybody disillusioned with our addiction to foreign oil can find some comfort in securing an additional homeland fuel supply. Consider my truck: It gets crappy mileage and its veggie emissions aren’t as clean as a hybrid’s, but I’ve given new, cleaner life to an old beater instead of draining raw resources by buying new.

Above all, I like to think I’m trying to make a point. I’m one guy. I had a few thousand dollars to work with. I did some reading, made a decision, bought the truck, got it converted, and reduced my consumption of conventional automotive fuel by about 90 percent. That’s just me, one guy with very little time and money. Imagine a whole team of guys and gals (with brains much bigger and better-trained than mine) with very deep pockets and lots of time to read — and discuss and argue and collaborate and experiment and invent.

You can bet they’ll be coming up with something much better than tweaking old Fords to run on deep-fryer grease.

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Conversion kits are available online at elsbett.com and plantdrive.com. To have your kit installed, contact Diesel Oil Conversions, based in Santa Maria, at 720-5057 or dieseloilconversions.com.

Keith Hamm, a former news reporter for The Independent and the author of Scarred for Life: Eleven Stories about Skateboarders.

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