Article fromThe Journal News, Monday, October 25, 2004

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Smooth Operator
Converter kit allows restaurateur to run his diesel truck on his ready supply of used vegetable oil

by Joy Victory

Cruising in his turbocharged Ford F-250 pickup truck, Jonathan Pratt chuckles to himself as he drives past a gas station with ever-increasing diesel prices. Pay more than $2.50 a gallon for diesel gasoline? Not a chance, he says, and heads to his own free fuel source: Umami Cafe in Croton.

A kitchen worker appears, carrying a giant jug of vegetable oil once used for frying that's ironically labeled, "Do not reuse." Pratt hooks up the jug to a hose that filters out any loose food particles floating in the oil.

Then, unbelievably, he pours the oil right into the fuel tank.

Fifteen gallons later, Pratt's truck tank is full of French-fried fuel.

Pratt is one of an estimated 5,000 owners in the United States who have converted their diesel cars or trucks to run on used vegetable oil. He purchased a kit from Greasecar Vegetable Fuel Systems, a four-year-old company based in Florence, Mass. Its main competitor is Greasel Conversions, Inc., based in Drury, Mo.

Rising fuel costs and concern over air pollution have spurred a cottage industry focused on developing alternative automotive fuels. And, as preposterous as it sounds, these companies are discovering that one of the easiest ways to do this is to use waste vegetable oil as fuel.

Greasel and Greasecar both sell kits online that convert diesel engines to run on pure or waste vegetable oil, which is usually obtained for free from restaurant managers who are grateful to get rid of the oily mess.

Pratt's truck has been running off fryer oil for six weeks. His truck has been problem-free, and he says that he will save hundreds of dollars this year by sidestepping the gas station. Plus, vegetable oil is a renewable energy source (mostly soybean crops), and emits fewer fumes than diesel or petroleum - not that Pratt is concerned about environmental issues.

"I'm not a hippie at all. It's strictly for economic reasons," says Pratt, a chef who co-owns three restaurants in Westchester and Dutchess counties. "I'm laughing all the way to the bank."

Diesel still needed

Gasoline engines can't be similarly converted, because they require starting the engine through spark plugs. A diesel engine gets its combustion from extreme compression, making it more versatile, especially with fuels with similar chemical structures, such as peanut, canola or soybean oils. In fact, this was the original intention of inventor Rudolf Diesel, who patented the engine in 1892.

Today, there are two ways a diesel vehicle owner can run the engine on vegetable oil: By converting it using a kit - what Pratt did - or by purchasing biodiesel, a blend of soybean oil and diesel fuel that is more expensive than diesel.

Using biodiesel is an attractive option because it doesn't require any modifications to the engine. But a kit system is the only way to run an engine on free used vegetable oil, so it remains the more affordable option among individual car owners.

Restaurant owners are more than happy to give away their used oil, Carven says.

"Most of (my customers) do get oil from the restaurants. The waste vegetable oil from deep frying is a pretty abundant waste product, especially in this country," Carven says. "Some restaurants produce 50 gallons a day. Because it's a waste product and it can't be thrown in landfills, restaurants have to pay special contracted companies to collect and dispose of the oil."

Still, a conversion kit, which typically costs between $400 and $1,000, doesn't completely erase the need for diesel. A miniscule amount of diesel fuel is needed to start the car - cold vegetable oil is too viscous to run smoothly .

The kit heats up the vegetable oil to the proper viscosity, and allows the driver to switch from diesel to vegetable oil by literally flipping a switch on the dashboard.

The car can't be started on vegetable oil, so it has to be switched back to diesel at the end of a drive, to purge veggie oil from the car's fuel lines.

The kit also comes with a separate fuel tank for the vegetable oil, which can be kept in a truck bed or below the trunk, where the flat tire usually rests.

Pratt says the diesel fuel gauge hasn't moved since he filled the that tank six weeks ago. But he fills up his veggie tank once every two to three weeks, depending on how much driving he does between his Fishkill, Peekskill and Croton restaurants. He estimates his truck travels 20 miles on one gallon of vegetable oil.

Skeptical, at first

The most popular cars to convert are those that are already widely available in diesel format - Volkswagen and Mercedes-Benz, Carven says.

For other vehicles, it can require a lengthy installation, and may need some modification, says Wally Smart, Pratt's mechanic.

For example, because Pratt's truck is so big, Smart had to modify the kit by extending the fuel lines and moving the truck's flat-tire jack out of the engine area.

At first, Smart was skeptical that it would work, although he liked the concept - he warms his repair shop in the winter with used motor oils.

"I thought he was nuts," says Smart, who owns Wally's Super Service in Mahopac. He now plans to buy a diesel vehicle and convert it to run off waste vegetable oil.

"To see how well it worked after we did the installation, it's a great thing," Smart says. "I wonder what the school system would save us in taxes if they did this?"

Greasel Conversions founder Charlie Anderson says interest also is growing among independent tractor-trailer truck drivers who use enormous quantities of diesel to transport goods. He's also been contacted by people in Central America, where palm oil is a cheap and widely available fuel source. But using palm oil as car fuel is controversial because some rainforest habitat has been destroyed to plant palm trees.

Here in the U.S., Anderson says business is so good that he can barely keep up with demand.

"Some think it's too good to be true: that it's `not going to ruin my engine and it's going to save me money,' " Anderson says. "But people look into it and see they do get a benefit."

Pratt, who has been driving his truck daily for six weeks, says he gets the same response from people who notice the stickers on his truck that say "Powered by vegetable oil."

"You're at the stop light and people look at the car," Pratt says. "They look over, do a double-take. They ask me, `Is that a joke? Is that real?' "

Reach Joy Victory at jvictory@thejournalnews.com or 914-694-5049.

For more information

Visit these Web sites for additional information about cars that run on vegetable oil:

Greasecar Vegetable Fuel Systems: www.greasecar.com

Greasel Conversions, Inc.: www.greasel.com.

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Correction
Wally Little was the mechanic in a Monday article on recycled kitchen oil. He was misidentified in the Page 1E report.

Correction
Justin Carven is the owner of Greasecar Vegetable Fuel Systems. His first name and title were omitted Monday in a Page 1E article.

 

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