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Grease is the Word

Slugline Grease is the word
Publication Daily_Messenger
Date February 27, 2006
Section(s) Local News

Who needs gasoline when restaurants are throwing out perfectly good vegetable-based oil that diesel engines can run on?

By MORGAN WESSON / Messenger Post Staff

CONESUS - The French brothers don't agree on cars: "We fight!" laughed Steve French. He and brother Bryan both drive economy cars, but Steve's is the one that sometimes smells like french fries.

Steve teases Bryan about the 26,000 Prius hybrid he drives. Bryan teases Steve about burning recycled vegetable oil in his 21,000 diesel Jetta wagon.

Although 190,000 Americans now drive hybrid cars, the rage in fuel-efficient transportation, another grassroots army is growing out here in the automotive hinterlands: diesel car owners. They worship inventor Rudolph Diesel, whose first internal combustion engines ran on vegetable oil, not fossil fuels.

So there is a sub sect of purists among the dieselers who follow suit. They hang out at restaurants and diners, out back between the kitchen door and the dumpster. They salvage, filter and then burn discarded restaurant vegetable oil for nothing in their cars' converted diesel engines.

Sure, this fuel is free, sniff hybrid owners, but don't the veggie burners have a life? "Basically, to have to go someplace, get the oil, filter it, it's a hassle," said Bryan French.

The first to jury-rig a modern diesel for recycled vegetable oil was counterculture hero Josh Tickell, whose latest book, "Biodiesel America," hits the stands this spring. In 1999, Tickell ran his converted van across America on recycled vegetable oil and got written up in Mother Earth News.

"He was the first one," said Mark Wienand, a music major at Ithaca College who, soon after hearing about Tickell's odyssey, converted his VW diesel to vegetable oil and drove it to the Great Divide.

Flash forward to 2006. Wienand, to supplement his career as a saxophonist, has so far converted 35 cars and trucks to vegetable oil, including Steve French's diesel Jetta, plus other VWs, Mercedes, and light diesel trucks sold by Dodge, Chevy and Ford.

New companies selling after-market kits are sprouting up to supply guys like Wienand - Veg Powered Systems, Greasecar.Com, and Frybrid to name just three. Wienand uses Greasecar's kit.

Cruising on Crisco

In addition to Toyota, Ford/Mercury and Honda also sell fuel-sipping hybrids. Honda has America's highest-mileage car, the two-seat Insight, but is covering all fronts with a diesel Accord wagon awaiting a 2008 release.

The French brothers cars both get great mileage: 44 mpg for Steve's VW Jetta diesel wagon and 47 mpg for Bryan's Prius hybrid hatchback. The Toyota hybrid uses batteries and electric motors to assist its gas engine, pollutes much less, and gets better gas mileage than Toyota's conventional cars.

Bryan is an adjunct professor who teaches JAVA programming at the Rochester Institute of Technology; Steve is a youth counselor. Bryan typically pays 20 cents a gallon less for regular gas than Steve pays for conventional diesel.

Steve drives 30,000 miles a year and, before the conversion, was running a fuel tab over 1,800 annually with diesel fuel at 2.69 a gallon.

Last fall. Steve's Greasecar conversion kit was installed by Mark Wienand, parts and labor, for 2,000. The kit consists of heated fuel lines and filters, a fuel tank that fits where his spare tire used to be, switching and monitoring gear plus fuel-filtering equipment.

Wienand will sell Steve filtered vegetable oil for 1.25 a gallon. But Steve gets used vegetable oil at Top Shelf Pizza in Honeoye instead.

There is a problem with Steve French's veggie oil car, though Frybrid's more expensive kit claims to solve it: If French forgets to switch back to conventional diesel fuel close to home, and his car cools with vegetable oil in the engine, things can come to a sputtering halt. Anyone who cooks with oil and leaves it overnight on the stove knows what happens to really cold vegetable oil.

Volkswagen of America doesn't not cover straight vegetable oil yet in engines under warranty. Most veggie-oil burners are older cars off warranty already. The compa-ny allows its diesel cars, no longer sold new in New York State due to emissions laws, to run B5 (5% vegetable oil) biodiesel. B5 will run fine without a conversion, "but we must stress that vehicle damage that results from misfueling or from usage of a substandard or unapproved fuels cannot be covered under our vehicle warranties," wrote VW late in 2005.

Meanwhile, last week's issue of the trade journal Automotive News, Volkswagen AG chief Wolfgang Bernhard jumped on the ethanol bandwagon, talking up a new kind of engine to run ethanol fuel. A new ethanol developed by Shell and Iogen, a Canadian biotech firm, along with VW could come from surplus wood products and grasses to the tune of 50 billion gallons annually. Americans consume 140 billion gallons of gas are each year.

Getting one

Hybrid buyers this year can get tax write-offs between 250 and 3,150, with the largest subsidies going to the highest mileage cars. Resale value is average so far for hybrids, despite the cost of replacement batteries. Buyers face delays and price bumps to get the popular cars, though Honda dealers report few backlogs for hybrids.

Used diesels are allowed into New York State. But they are also pricey. At Dorschel Automotive Group in Henrietta - a VW and Toyota/Lexus hybrid dealer - Used Car Sales Manager Stephen Matthews says customers ask about vegetable-oil conversions, but "we've only had one customer actually convert that I know of."

A used VW Golf TDI at Dorschel costs 14,995 for a car that cost 16,575 when it was new in 2000: "That's incredible on a six-year-old car," said Matthews.

"TDI diesels are 3,000 to 5.000 over book all day long," confirmed Joel Osserman, who owns Geneva car lot Select Transportation. Select had five used VW diesel cars for sale last week and has sold about 1,500 used diesels since going into business 26 years ago.

Osserman says only one of his customers has converted a VW to vegetable oil so far.

Meanwhile, the French brothers have plenty to argue about. How environmentally friendly are their respective cars? Bryan French rightly claims his hybrid pollutes less than diesel-fueled cars. Steve French and Mark Wienand counter that when refinery emissions and oil exploration troubles are considered, gas-burning cars are worse than veggie oil-burning diesels.

Vegetable oil has an emissions edge over sulfur-laden conventional diesel, though cleaner fossil-based diesel fuel is coming to America and a Corning-built diesel catalytic converter will be available soon.

As for reliability, Stephen Matthews at Dorschel, which sells both used diesels and hybrids, says the jury is out on hybrids: "This new technology, how long is it going to last? The diesel is proven reliable technology," said Matthews.

"It's kind of fun to be different," says Steve French of his economy-car adventure. He enjoys driving by gas stations on free fuel. Two weeks ago, a round-trip, cross-state trek from his Conesus home round trip to Saratoga Springs cost him 5 in fuel costs.

If Steve's Jetta runs on vegetable oil for a year, he gets his investment in Greasecar equipment back.

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