July 13, 2008

Slick Way to Save on Fuel: Father and Son Drive on Used Vegetable Oil to Fight Rising Costs

By Jim Mackinnon, The Akron Beacon Journal, Ohio

Jul. 13--In the near future, when Dan Fister needs to fill up his 1994 GMC Yukon truck, pretty much all the Medina-area resident has to do is drive to a nearby restaurant.

The truck soon will run primarily on vegetable oil that restaurants fried food in and otherwise would need to throw out.

Fister, following in the footsteps of his aircraft mechanic dad, will collect the oil -- either for free or at a nominal cost -- filter it at home, pour it into his truck's tank and drive off to wherever he wants.

It sure beats paying $4.70 or more a gallon for diesel.

Dan and his dad, Tom, are among a small percentage of owners of diesel vehicles who are fighting rising fuel costs with an alternative, cheaper and cleaner-burning fuel. In this case, vegetable oil.

"This has been a work in progress," Dan said as he pointed out where he is making necessary changes to his Yukon, which he bought used in May with the intent of converting it to use vegetable oil.

He figures he has invested about 20 to 25 hours in the Yukon and has another 10 to 15 hours of work to do before the truck is street ready.

The modifications involve adding a second fuel tank to hold the vegetable oil and installing special fuel lines to keep the oil flowing smoothly in cool and cold weather. The truck will run either on new vegetable oil that can be bought in bulk, or with oil collected at restaurants and filtered, he said.

The oil has to be heated so the engine will run properly, he said. The truck will still need to start up and shut down using regular diesel fuel, but will switch over to vegetable oil for most driving.

"It's really for the handyman to have a car like this," Dan said. For one thing, he's doing a lot of the work and fabrication himself.

For the not-so-mechanically inclined who are tempted to own and drive what amounts to a vegetarian motor vehicle, there are businesses that will do the work.

Converting to SVO

Oberlin-based Full Circle Fuels has converted between 150 and 200 vehicles to run on straight vegetable oil.

"We've been in business about three years," said Sam Merrett, owner and founder of the specialty garage who graduated from Oberlin College in 2005 with a degree in environmental studies. "We have a lot of work coming in the doors."

It takes about two days to switch a normal diesel vehicle to run on straight vegetable oil (SVO), Merrett said. He owns and drives two diesel vehicles that run on SVO himself.

Prices vary. Changing over a late-model Ford Excursion diesel -- a mammoth SUV -- will cost $2,408 in parts plus $1,750 in labor, Merrett said. The work involves such things as putting in a 40-gallon tank to hold vegetable oil plus a 20-gallon diesel fuel tank, he said. The typical parts and labor cost for a car is $3,000, going up to $4,000 for a diesel truck or SUV, he said.

"That's it. That's out the door. You're good to go," Merrett said. "Any vehicle that runs properly on diesel can run reliably on vegetable oil."

Using vegetable oil as a fuel allows people to be energy independent, he said. "People like to be self-reliant."

Justin Carven, owner ofGreasecar Vegetable Fuel Systems in Easthampton, Mass., said his business is selling 10 to 15 conversion kits daily -- typically at $1,000 to $3,000 apiece -- and has sold upwards of 5,000 kits nationwide the past three years.

The more people drive on straight vegetable oil, the faster the fuel savings pay for the cost of the conversion, he said. It can take a year or less to reach the cost savings, he said.

But SVO vehicles are not for everyone, he said.

"Most of the customers will be responsible for sourcing and filtering their own fuel," Carven said. That can be a barrier for "everyday people," he said.

Carven said he has seen research that says at most, straight vegetable oil vehicles will be able to displace less than 1 percent of overall transportation fuel demand.

But there are people, including the Fisters, who are willing to be part of that 1 percent or less.

Full Circle Fuel in Oberlin will pump vegetable oil, collected from area restaurants and then filtered, into an SVO vehicle for $3.30 a gallon, or about a 30 percent discount from current diesel fuel prices, he said.

Getting used cooking oil

The fuel cost is much cheaper for vehicle owners who get the oil themselves, Merrett said. The company he purchases parts and kits from to do the conversions also offers a DVD on how to approach restaurant owners and negotiate to get their used cooking oil, Merrett said.

"If you get it from a restaurant, you can save 90 percent," Merrett said. "If you can't get the fuel, you will be frustrated."

There are no such frustrations for the Fisters and their do-it-yourself approach to alternate fuels.

Tom converted an old, yellow Mercedes diesel-powered car to run on straight vegetable oil about three years ago. The USAirways mechanic commutes to Pittsburgh -- something he decided to do since the airline closed its facility six years ago at Cleveland Hopkins International Airport. He was looking for ways to save money because he had two children in college and other family issues to deal with, he said.

Money was going out the door "at an aggressive rate," he said. As he researched ways to cut costs, he came across the concept of vegetable-oil-fueled diesel cars and figured he could do that. He bought a 1984 Mercedes 300D turbodiesel car and fixed it up.

"That one, I've put almost 95,000 miles on," Tom said. "I drive 500 miles a week, sometimes 600, so it's a big savings not to be dumping diesel fuel in it."

The car now has 238,000 miles on it, he said.

He figures he gets about 27 miles per gallon on regular diesel fuel, and perhaps a fraction less on the vegetable oil. "It's to within 1 to 2 percent of fuel economy and horsepower performance. You really can't notice it. I just fill it up. I never check it. I have plenty of oil. I just run it through."

Tom said he figures he has saved as much as $10,000 in fuel costs over the three years.

Tom said he's had only one failure, a solenoid valve that went out. He was able to replace it with about 20 minutes' work.

He said he has seen models of his Mercedes with more than 400,000 miles on them. "They're going to rust out before they wear out," he said. "They're pretty bulletproof."

There's nothing extraordinary in how the engine performs, he said. He started the engine and sounded like an older-type clattering diesel.

Smells like food at fair

But instead of the typical diesel exhaust, what comes out of the tailpipe smells like something you'd get a whiff of standing over a restaurant fryer or at a booth at a county fair.

There are pros and cons to biodiesel fuel and straight vegetable oil, the Fisters said.

It costs probably about $1 a gallon to make biodiesel fuel as opposed to using straight vegetable oil, Tom said. Also, making biodiesel is more complicated and costlier than filtering vegetable oil, Tom said.

The advantage of biodiesel is that it can be dumped straight into a diesel fuel tank without the specialized tank, lines and related gear needed to burn SVO, he said.

"Why spend a dollar a gallon?" Tom asked. "That's a lot of work, and I'm kind of lazy. To me, it's easier to just filter it and dump it in and go."

He gets his oil free from a restaurant.

"I provide them some five-gallon cans," Tom said. "I take care of them, they take care of me. I'm sure at some point in time, it may get to the point where I'm going to be buying it from them."

Dan decided to build an SVO vehicle in part because he's a hobbyist who likes to work with mechanical things.

"I needed something to fill my time," Dan said. He recently graduated from college and is working in the audit department of Cleveland-based KeyCorp.

This month, after he finishes converting the Yukon, Dan and some buddies will take the truck on vacation to Hilton Head, S.C. He'll tow a trailer that will hold his motorcycle and a couple of 55-gallon drums of filtered vegetable oil.

"It will be a real comfortable ride in the Yukon going down. It's a plush truck," he said.

The Fisters have built a home-filtering system that can clean as much as 30 gallons of old restaurant oil in six minutes. The filtering system needs to get rid of solids as well as water that would damage the engine. The system will handle all kinds of vegetable oils.

"It works," Dan said.

The original diesel engine, invented by German engineer Rudolph Diesel, first ran on peanut oil, he noted.

"We took it back to the roots," Dan said. Jim Mackinnon can be reached at 330-996-3544 or [email protected]


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