By Jeff Gelman
With fuel prices soaring and Americans increasingly concerned with the nation’s dependence on foreign oil and the effects of car pollution, a Pennsylvania man has a solution, at least for those who drive diesel vehicles: Convert them to run on recycled vegetable oil.
David Rosenstraus learned how to convert his Volkswagen Jetta into a veggiemobile after tinkering with conversion kits he bought on the Internet. Now he can blow past the pumps and perhaps make a living doing the conversions for others.
"It’s the only true environmentally friendly way to drive these days besides hydrogen and hybrids," he said recently. "You’re using a resource that’s renewable and is being thrown out."
The oil in which fast food restaurants fry their food, then pay to have hauled away, can be used to power diesel cars. It's eco-friendly, helps lessen the country's reliance on the Middle East, and perhaps best of all: It serves as free fuel, after alterations.
"And it smells good," Rosenstraus added. That‘s because exhaust fumes take on the scent of egg rolls or French fries or whatever food in which the vegetable oil was cooked. "The drawback," he said, "is it makes you hungry."
Before rushing out to buy a diesel Volkswagen or Ford to transform it into a veggie-mobile, know this: Critics not only wave off the use of waste vegetable oil as an unproven fad that will eventually settle into a niche market, they also warn that it could hike insurance rates, void manufacturers’ warranties and provide inconsistent performance in vehicles.
"We don’t hold a lot of faith in filling up at the hamburger stand," said Allen Schaeffer, executive director of the Diesel Technology Forum, a pro-diesel advocacy group.
That hasn’t stopped several companies from offering conversion kits on the Internet for $500 and up. Nor has it discouraged roughly 3,400 people--as estimated by Charles Anderson, president of Missouri-based Greasel--from altering their vehicles since the idea began to catch on about five years ago.
Sales for Greasel’s kits, which have numbered about 2,500 thus far, have doubled in the last six months, Anderson said. He attributed the recent spike to high fuel costs and the fact that more people are hearing that the option exists.
"The next couple months, we’ll probably double sales figures again." Anderson said by cell phone as he and a co-worker cooked at 60 mph in a veggie-burning Ford Excursion. They were on their way to Little Rock, Ark., to learn more about a fuel injection pump that Anderson said would allow them to build a better conversion system. "We just pass by all the gas stations and keep on smiling," he said.
Drivers of gas-powered engines itching to get in on the action are out of luck. Waste vegetable oil isn’t volatile enough to ignite via the spark plugs found in a gasoline internal combustion engine, according to Greasel.
Although diesel only makes up a fraction of this country’s automotive market, that still accounts for roughly half a million such vehicles on the road, according to the Diesel Technology Forum. Diesel, which has grown cleaner and more efficient in the last decade, also is used to power trucks, buses, locomotives and generators.
In Europe, one in every three cars sold is diesel-powered. That makes for a lot more potential grease cars--and other machinery, too.
Yet most of Greasel’s customers--75 percent--don’t own a diesel vehicle when they first inquire about buying a conversion kit.
"It’s something people get impassioned about," Anderson said. "They get [excited about owning a vehicle that runs on free fuel] and can’t shake it."
And with local diesel prices up nearly 30 cents a gallon from last year--to $1.80, according to the American Automobile Association--driving for free is growing more attractive every day. Especially when the cost of a kit can be made up after less than a year of motoring on vegetable oil.
Installing the system is not for the mechanically clueless, though the 23-year-old Rosenstraus managed to teach himself.
"A year ago, I didn’t know anything about cars besides turning the key," he admitted.
Since then, he has converted four vehicles, including his Jetta--10,000 miles on vegetable oil and still going strong. In fact, Rosenstraus now can make the necessary modifications without buying a kit. For those who want their own, but can’t tell the difference between a carburetor and a radiator, take heart: Rosenstraus’ next project is to start "Fossil Free Fuels," a business that would convert people’s cars to run on vegetable oil.
Rosenstraus said veggie car drivers can expect the same power and fuel economy as when using diesel fuel, which is up to 40 percent better than gasoline, according to the Diesel Technology Forum.
Advocates add that vegetable oil is better for a car because it lubricates the fuel injection system, thus extending the life of the engine. In addition, emissions are reduced because vegetable oil lacks many of the pollutants associated with burning fossil fuels, advocates say.
"Studies we’ve done, across the board, show that vegetable oil is as clean or cleaner than biodiesel and much cleaner than diesel fuel…" said Justin Carven, founder of Greasecar, which sells conversion kits out of Florence, Mass.
Biodiesel is a cleaner burning fuel than diesel and can be made from such renewable energy sources as vegetable oil. Biodiesel can be used in its pure form or blended with diesel, though it costs more than straight diesel.
The Environmental Protection Agency has approved the use of biodiesel, but it hasn’t given the thumbs up to veggie oil. That doesn’t surprise Rich Niesenbaum, a professor of biology and environmental studies at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pa.
"They have to break out of the mindset of fossil fuel and think creatively," he said. "I have yet to see creative energy use promoted by government since [President] Carter."
But the EPA isn’t the only entity critical of burning recycled vegetable oil in automobiles.
Vegetable oil has varying qualities just like gasoline has its various grades. Because of that, what type of oil people power their cars with is a big concern, said Schaeffer of the Diesel Technology Forum.
"For users, it’s kind of a crapshoot," he said. "There’s a big difference between getting [high quality] soybean oil compared to [lower grade] McDonald’s. [Poor quality oil] can cause problems with fuel injectors and performance with the vehicle--affecting pickup and whether it idles correctly."
State Farm Insurance would take modified vehicles on a case by case basis to determine whether alterations would affect insurance rates, said spokeswoman Sue Sampson.
Volkswagen, which produces six diesel models in America, said that converting to and using veggie oil could void the power train warranty--if it hasn‘t already expired, according to David Hathaway, service manager at Faulkner-Ciocca Volkswagen in Allentown.
"The problem is, there’s no way we would know what the long-term effect would be on the pump and equipment," added Tony Viglianti, the dealership’s assistant service manager. "I wouldn’t want to be the guinea pig."
Veggie-modified vehicles require no additional maintenance other than to clean or replace the filter, according to Rosenstraus. All one has to do is find the fuel.
Many restaurants are more than happy to give away their waste vegetable oil. It sure beats the alternative of paying for disposal.
Asian food restaurants and bar and grills tend to use better quality oil--pure canola or soy, which is easier to filter--than fast food restaurants, according to Greasecar. Rosenstraus gets his oil from nearby Hunan Springs.
General Manager Jay Ho said that when a scruffy looking Rosenstraus first approached him asking for 15 gallons of vegetable oil per week, "I thought he was crazy. I thought he was going to use it for a prank."
When Ho realized Rosenstraus’ request was for real, "I thought he was a genius, like a rocket scientist."
Rosenstraus hauls the oil to his basement, where he filters out the noodles and other particles through sacks made of cotton-like material. Then it gets poured into a spare fuel tank stored in the trunk of his Jetta.
Some people who prefer convenience over cost have taken the extra step of forming co-ops to buy the oil, said Greasecar’s Carven, who sells used oil in his area for 90 cents a gallon. Others have formed companies that collect waste oil in bulk and then sell it.
Some models show that in 20 years, there won’t be enough fossil fuel to meet the world’s consumption needs, said Niesenbaum, the Muhlenberg College biology professor.
"The solutions are out there," said Niesenbaum, who also is a member of the Lehigh Valley Planning Commission. "We can either bury our heads in the sand, so that fuel prices will go up and we'll go to war more for it--along with creating more global warming, acid rain and air pollution. Or we can think about alternative technology and then change our habits."
One car at a time.
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