Grease me up

The Jetta
Me and my diesel Jetta

“My car doesn’t use gas, it runs on vegetable oil,” I said to the chirpy woman on the phone. She had called to tell me that I was lucky –she was giving me gift certificates for gasoline with the purchase of a subscription to the Calgary Herald! Unfazed by my response, she suggested that I could give away the toxic certificates as Christmas gifts. “Sorry lady, but I don’t celebrate Christmas and I don’t read the Herald.”

Maybe I was a tad rude she was right, after all. But I had started working toward converting my car to run on vegetable oil a long time ago. I didn’t do it by accident; I heard about it, thought about it, and looked for others who had done it before.

My 1992 Jetta can burn vegetable oil as well as regular diesel fuel; its engine is based on a design first put in motion by Rudolph Diesel and shown in Paris in 1905. That design has been slightly modified to run on a petroleum product we call diesel, rather than the peanut oil his engine originally used. Modern engines can, however, still operate on vegetable oil, a potentially free, renewable, and environmentally friendly fuel (despite the acres needed to grow the raw material).

In order to be successful, either the fuel or the vehicle must be modified to be able to thin the vegetable oil, which is thicker than diesel especially in cold weather. After seeing both methods in action, I preferred to modify my car and I have since driven about twenty thousand kilometres in my 1992 Volkswagen Jetta turbo Diesel.

VW Jetta/Cabriolet 1990-98 (Chilton’s Total Car Care Repair Manual) – buy it from Amazon

I started my adventures with vegetable oil in Edmonton, where my friend Conrad had built a Biodiesel processor in his garage. Four simple components are needed for a successful Biodiesel processor: a tank, a mixer, a heater, and a pump. Conrad used a propane burner under an old steel drum, an electric motor to turn mixing blades, and a manual pump. To make the Biodiesel, we heated the oil, then mixed in a measured solution of methanol and lye. The glycerine settled out overnight and we pumped the Biodiesel off the top of the barrel, ran it through a filter, and put it into the tank of my car.

On that tank of Biodiesel I drove to Calgary and, a few weeks, later made a trip to my yearly retreat at the Boiled Frog Trading Cooperative (BFTC). There, I met others who were interested in using vegetable oil for fuel, especially straight vegetable oil by means of specially designed vehicle conversion kits. There were commercially available vegetable oil conversion kits, but their price was out of our range, so we started thinking about where to find good salvage parts to build our own kits.

Beware of faulty plumbing

A vegetable oil conversion kit has three main parts: an auxiliary heated tank, a switch to change between the two tanks, and hoses and wires that connect the tanks and switches to the car. Because vegetable oil gets thick when it’s cold, the conversion kit is designed to allow you to start and stop using the main tank of the car, which is filled with good old diesel fuel. Once the engine is warm and has heated up the radiator fluid, which in turn heats the vegetable oil, you can switch the engine to run on straight vegetable oil.

Using the basic concepts from the commercial kits, we improvised a different design for each car we converted based on the parts we could find. One kit used an old camping cooler for a tank and a salvaged radiator for the heater; mine: a jerry can roped into the trunk for a tank and some copper tubes welded in the shape of a U for the heater. All of our designs had the basics in common, and all of them leaked at one point or another.

Leaks were among the biggest problems I encountered while converting my car. The best solution I found was to use lots of silicon leak sealer and tighten everything four times. Buying a conversion kit, for which somebody else had had to think about sealing the leaks, often seemed like a good idea too.

A second problem associated with using waste vegetable oil is that of how to clean or strain the oil before putting it into the engine. The cheapest way is to pour the vegetable oil through cheesecloth or some other such filter. This is inconvenient and can get messy because vegetable oil does not come out of clothes and leaves a certain cloying odour that can be hard to eliminate. Waste vegetable oil also has a tendency to destroy pumps and to clog filters, which makes the simple solution of attaching a filter to a pump very expensive; sometimes this can equal the cost of the rest of the kit.

After much searching, I found a relatively inexpensive electric pump that didn’t seem to clog and a filter that would withstand at least a few fill ups. Rather optimistically, I tested the pump and filter combination on a weekend trip to British Columbia, where it worked perfectly. Unfortunately, a month later, when I set off for Ontario, it failed on our first fill up, though I admit this was in part my own fault.

The first rule of using waste vegetable oil should be this: never fill up at night from a waste bin you’ve never used before. My traveling companion and I set off from Calgary in the middle of the night, reasoning that we’d be able to travel faster, but we neglected to take quite enough oil to get us to Winnipeg. When we stopped in Medicine Hat to fill up, I mistakenly thought that a nice restaurant was bound to have good oil, and we went in to ask if they would mind our taking some.

Would you like a bucket of used oil with that?

Most of the restaurants I approached on my trip were more that happy to oblige us with some of their old vegetable oil. Many of them normally paid a private company to take it away, so we were actually saving them money! Some were a little skeptical, and just had to come out to see that I wasn’t just kidding.

The nice restaurant in Medicine Hat turned out to have awful oil; it ran through the pump and filter but would not burn in the engine. The engine stalled many times outside of Medicine Hat and we eventually had to spend the night sleeping by the roadside until it was light enough to be able to get more oil. It is difficult to see the color of the contents of a restaurant’s waste vats at night, and in the morning we realized that what we thought was vegetable oil looked and smelled more like fish oil.

I have not yet found a good way to test used oil other than to run it through the engine or to ask the restaurant owner about what kind of oil it is and how often it was changed before being discarded. The most successful way to get good quality oil is, predictably, to use the same reliable source repeatedly. In Calgary, the BFTC arranged to pick up used oil from a taco chip company, which is about as ideal a fuel oil producer as there is.

On the road, consistency is much more difficult achieve; until the very end of the journey we were waylaid by batches of not-so-good oil in restaurant tanks, or by clogged filters that prevented us from getting more oil. I started buying filters by the case and tried to fill up at taco restaurants, which produce great quantities of good used oil.

My trips from Alberta to Vancouver, Montreal, and to points in between were often slower than I had planned, almost always because of difficulties with finding good oil and with having to repair small problems with the conversion. But the experience of traveling on a renewable fuel and getting it for free was unforgettable, especially because of the people I encountered along the way and their reactions to my car.

Not surprisingly, the most enthusiastic supporters were in Saskatchewan, where people in nearly every car, both coming and going, waved and cheered us on. The most skeptical responses, also unsurprisingly, were in Toronto, where everyone thought I was pulling their leg. Some remained unconvinced even after smelling my French-fry scented exhaust. The most pleasant surprise was in Montreal, where folks were unfazed, likely because mine was not the only bright car that was powered by vegetable oil. Its only notoriety there seemed to draw from the encouragement painted on the back: DRIVE VEGETARIAN.

Links for further reading:

Veggie Van:www.veggievan.org

Journey to Forever:www.journeytoforever.org

Grease Car;www.greasecar.com


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