Volume 14, Issue 46 ~ November 16 - November 22, 2006

Breaking the Fossil Fuel Habit

The Stanbro brothers found their alternative, and it’s free

story and photos by Jim Lodico

With gas prices bouncing up and down, most commuters do little more than grit their teeth, tighten their belts and pay the price. Not Mike and John Stanbro. When they need a fill up, the two brothers drive to a local burger joint, strain out a few french fries and top off the tank. The Stanbros have converted their cars to run on used vegetable oil.

“I’m saving more than $400 a month over my old Ford Explorer,” said John, who commutes from Annapolis to Baltimore daily and often travels to D.C. He says that he likes the environmental advantages of vegetable fuel, but most of all he likes its cost. It’s free.

Mike got the idea of converting a diesel car to run on vegetable oil as an engineering student in college. “I had a friend that had converted a Jetta and thought it might make a good senior project,” he said.

Three Mercedes later, he’s part of the bio-fuel movement.

Making Converts

For Mike, converting a diesel car to run on veggie oil isn’t difficult. A diesel engine can run on vegetable oil without any modifications. The engine Rudolf Diesel introduced in 1898 ran on peanut oil. Adaptations consist of adding a second tank to hold the oil, running supply lines between the tank and engine, installing a diesel filter and wiring a switching system to switch from regular diesel fuel to vegetable oil. An optional heating element can also be added.

“You can convert a car for about $300 to $500,” Mike said. “John found a marine diesel filter, and that saved him some money.”

Of course you need a diesel car to convert. Mike and John have opted for older model Mercedes Benzes. So far they have converted a 1982 240D with 190,000 miles, a 1984 300SD with 200,000 miles and a 1975 240D with too many miles to count.

“You can get a car for about $3,000 if you don’t mind driving an old car,” said John.

You don’t have to have an old car. Mike has a new Volkswagen Golf that he plans to convert as soon as the manufacturer’s warranty expires.

As for wear on the engine, Mike thinks the cars run better on veggie oil.

“There is less of that knock-and-ping sound you get with a diesel, and vegetable oil is more lubricating than diesel fuel. It seems to run smoother.”

Do-It-Yourself Refining

Getting the vegetable oil ready for the car takes a bit of work. Mike and John made an agreement with the Five Guys Famous Burgers and Fries restaurant on Forest Drive. About once a week, they collect the waste oil that comes from the fryers. They let the oil sit for about a day for sediment to settle. Next they strain the oil, first through wire mesh, then through a T-shirt into a trashcan. From there, it’s just a matter of pumping the oil into the car.

The quality of the oil counts. McDonald’s oil won’t work because the animal fats in hydrogenated oil and oil used to fry meat won’t burn well in the car.

It still took a little convincing to find a restaurant willing to contribute its oil. “Before the Five Guys hook up, I went to at least 10 restaurants and couldn’t get the oil,” John said. “Most didn’t understand what I was trying to do.”

Five Guys got it. The Stanbros save them paying a hauler to remove their waste oil.

On the Road

On the road, if the vegetable oil tank runs dry, they can switch to diesel.

Switching tanks is part of everyday driving. The engine must warm up before it can run on the vegetable oil. So the cars start on diesel, switching to veggie oil when the temperature gauge reaches 190 degrees. Flipping a dashboard switch does the trick. Likewise, before the engine is shut off, the car needs to be switched back to diesel to run the vegetable oil out of the engine. As vegetable oil cools, it can coagulate and clog the engine. Forgetting to make that switch has so far caused no catastrophe, John said. The cars ran well last winter, despite the chill.

The Stanbros haven’t yet collected data on emissions or environmental advantages of their cars. The engineer, Mike, plans to test the car at a Maryland emissions station, running first on diesel then on vegetable oil, although Maryland does not require emission testing of diesel-powered cars.

And yes, sitting next to a veggie-fuel car at an intersection may make you hungry, as there is an unmistakable smell of fries in the air.

Jim Lodico, of Annapolis, teaches at Southern High School, where he is the student newspaper advisor. This is his first story for Bay Weekly.

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