Lawrence and Douglas County

Lawrence and Douglas county

Grease guzzlers find a way to save on gasoline - vegetable oil

December 31, 2006


Ty Martin estimates he gets about 100 miles per gallon of diesel out of his old Dodge truck.

And he's not joking.

"I've done some extensive road testing and had great luck," the Lawrence resident said.

Martin is one of a small but growing group of drivers who are skirting rising gas prices and taking what they see as a more environmentally friendly route by fueling their cars with used restaurant grease.

"It's something that's really taken off in the last two years," said Josiah Cuneo, production manager for Greasecar Vegetable Fuel Systems, a Massachusetts-based company that sells the kits to enable diesel engines to run on vegetable oil.

Grease guzzlers

For Martin and his co-worker and fellow grease guzzler Marcos Markoulatos, it's more than just a way to run the car - it's a way of life.

The two, both automotive technicians at Kansas City Auto Sport, started using grease in their vehicles last year. They both drive Dodge trucks built to run on diesel.

Markoulatos bought a $1,000 kit to convert his engine to use vegetable oil.

The process involves essentially adding a second fuel system to the vehicle to accommodate the vegetable oil.

"You keep diesel in the main system, vegetable oil in the added system and then you have a switch where you can switch between the two fuels," Markoulatos said. "It took me a very leisurely weekend to install."

Martin, who converted his engine a bit later, chose to convert his truck from scratch, using a mixture of salvaged parts.

In the winter, Martin will use diesel fuel for the first 10 minutes of his drive until the grease, which thickens in cold weather, warms up along with the engine. Then he'll flip the switch to grease for the remainder of the trip until just before the end, when he switches back to diesel to purge the oil from the engine.

Regardless of whether he drives to Topeka or Denver, he'll use the same amount of diesel to get started and to end his trip. That makes long-distance driving with grease particularly economical, the drivers said.

Fill 'er up

For these drivers, local restaurants take the place of gas stations.

Martin and Markoulatos have built relationships with downtown Lawrence restaurant staff members whom they visit regularly when they pick up leftover oil that was used to fry french fries, onion rings and other foods.

Martin declined to say where he gets the grease because he didn't want to inform others of his resources and lose out on the grease. Not all grease is considered equal and the drivers prefer quality restaurants that use quality oil and change it regularly, he said.

Using grease can be time-consuming, but Martin and Markoulatos say they don't mind.

After gathering the grease, the drivers must take it home, where they let it settle in a large bucket. Then they pass it through a filter and into another bucket where it stays until it's pumped into the trucks.

Markoulatos said he gets about 20 miles per gallon when using grease and about 22 miles per gallon on diesel.

"You lose a little bit of economy and a little bit of power - I'd say less than 10 percent of either," Markoulatos said. "I bought the truck to haul a trailer with my Jeep on it. And I've never had any issues with that. There's never any time when I wish I had more power running on vegetable oil. It seems like an even trade-off."

Clean Air Act

Cuneo, of Greasecar, said the company has sold 3,000 conversion kits since the company started in 2000 and this year has been the busiest so far.

Cuneo attributes rising sales to the spike in fuel costs as well as increased concerns about global warming.

"One of the first questions we always get is 'What is the difference between what we're doing and biodiesel?'" Cuneo said.

Biodiesel is a fuel made from vegetable oil that can run in any unmodified diesel engine.

Cuneo admits that vegetable oil is more time-consuming to process and use than biodiesel, which is available at some gas stations.

But with vegetable oil, "the benefit is you're going to be paying essentially nothing for the fuel that you're using," he said.

While grease users point to the fuel's ecofriendliness, the Environmental Protection Agency sees it differently. Using vegetable oil fuel is a violation of the Clean Air Act, according to the EPA.

"The Clean Air Act requires they use only registered fuels," EPA spokesman John Millett said. "If you're making your own fuel, then it's not a registered fuel."

Millett said drivers that use vegetable oil fuel run a few risks, including creating more pollution than diesel or biodiesel, damaging their engines and the legal risk of using an unregistered fuel.

"There are compounds in vegetable oil that create a soot," Millett said of the pollution concerns.

And, he said, working with fuels in a home or garage can be a fire hazard.

But vegetable oil fuel drivers point out it's a renewable resource and say it's "carbon neutral" because vegetable oil plants absorb more carbon dioxide from the air during their growing cycle than is released when the oil is burned. It also uses a restaurant waste that otherwise would be disposed of.

They also don't mind another unique aspect - the smell.

Sniff the exhaust and you'll likely get a whiff of french fries or onion rings.

"It smells pretty much like Burger King," Martin said of his exhaust. "I don't know what that says about Burger King."


mommy3 11 years, 5 months ago

GREAT job guys, when the government doesn't look out for us, we need to do it. We can't look to them for everything. Down side is the cost of the kit, the average family that could really benefit from the savings would not be able to fork out $1000.00.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 11 years, 5 months ago

There's a relatively small and finite amount of vegetable oil available for use as fuel, so the pollution concerns are also relatively small.

But that also means that it will play only a small part in reducing the amount of petroleum used in vehicles.

ronwell_dobbs 11 years, 5 months ago

Another related approach is the conversion of waste vegetable into biodiesel. Unlike running straight vegetable oil, using biodiesel in a diesel vehicle requires no conversion of the vehicle itself. The vegetable oil is converted into a different chemical called "fatty acid methyl ester" which has the same characteristics as diesel fuel oil.

ronwell_dobbs 11 years, 5 months ago

The biodiesel community is very active and stays current and informed with respect to the EPA regulations and government taxes required for motor fuels. Most biodiesel "home brewers" and all commercial biodiesel producers track the amounts of fuel they produce and remit fuel taxes to the appropriate taxing jurisdictions, although the process to do so can often be a pain (because governments are used to dealing with large corporations, rather than individuals).

Interestingly enough, the EPA spokesperson mentioned "unregulated fuels" are illegal for use. However, the laws are actually written such that running a blend of biodiesel with conventional diesel is not a problem at all (even if it is 99% biodiesel and 1% diesel fuel). This is an issue that fuel alcohol producers face as well, by blending 99% ethanol with 1% gasoline.

Jamesaust 11 years, 5 months ago

"...reducing the amount of petroleum used in vehicles."

Not true.

Lowered demand by the 'veg-oil-eaters' would inherently drive down price and so increase demand by other users, either in increased usage (more 'drives in the country' because its cheap) or less efficient usage (low mileage vehicles).

This is no different than the fools who think they are lowering petroleum usage by driving a Prius.

So ... thanks Martin and Markoulatos! It was starting to get to the point that it was too expensive to start up the Hummer to drive the the end of the driveway to pick up the newspaper. Now, I do that in the morning and again in the afternoon for the mail. If you could get enough people converting, I could afford to keep the Hummer running 24/7.

compmd 11 years, 5 months ago

I burn whatever I dang well please; most of you already know the laundry list of fuels for my Mercedes. During a hot Kansas summer, I can burn straight vegetable oil (SVO) without the use of any modifications. For winter though, I stick with a single fuel system, tank heater, ether injection for cold starts, and a second battery. The greasecar kits are neat, but you have to be careful. You should know what condition your injectors are in, the injector pump, fuel filters, and fuel lines. You should also understand the dangers triglycerides pose to an engine when burning waste vegetable oil (WVO). Burning cold SVO can make the engine hard to start and put excessive wear on the injector pump. Don't even bother unless your engine has a turbo, the car will be a dog. These are just a couple things to keep in mind. These guys sound like they know what they're doing though.

imastinker 11 years, 5 months ago

I have done a lot of looking into this, and helped several operations doing this. The kit can be done much cheaper than a grand. The problem for me is one of reliability and accesibility of fuel. Most of these guys have a very hard time getting this oil, and there are certian problems with the system, like not being able to find a pump that lasts longer than a few months.

Plus, there's nothing worse than having everything you own stinking like used vegetable oil. I'll just pay at the pump and spend my time doing something else.

The interesting thing to me is the epa regulations regaring diesel and lack of interest regarding alternate fuels for these. You can run a diesel on anything. Vegetable oil, motor oil, diesel, and some large engines run on somethign resembling crude oil. They are very versatile engines.

Phillbert 11 years, 5 months ago

I'm sure the VO users are glad that any reduction in fuel prices they cause makes it easier for the Hummer driver to afford his supply of Enzyte.

classclown 11 years, 5 months ago

What does it do for the cholesterol level in the engine? Will your vehicle eventually need to start taking Lipitor?

budwhysir 11 years, 5 months ago

I have seen this type of vehicle prior to this article. I believe anything is possible. Such as, a motor that runs on compressed air, therfor making it actualy free to run and free of polutants.

Think of what this does to our diet. All vegetable oil is used to fry our foods. So, stop off at your favorite fast food restuarant and order a 4 large fry and a super size of veg oil to go

lunacydetector 11 years, 5 months ago

recently, sales of these kits went down dramatically in new york city. :)

Linda Endicott 11 years, 5 months ago

Compressed air! There ya go...if only they would develop an engine that runs on farts (methane gas), and an easy way to collect and store it, there would be an endless supply of fuel.

I don't know how it would smell when you drive down the street, though...

lunacydetector 11 years, 5 months ago

it'd probably smell like that odor that permeates the downtown on hot, humid summer nights - you know when the wind blows south over the kaw.

dodsinv 11 years, 5 months ago

In response to those who are implying that using vegetable oil to run a diesel engine does not reduce overall fossil fuel consumption. WHAT!? There is only a small amount of this kind of vegetable oil available for processing into usable fuel, so although it is a positive step on the way to finding renewable fuels, it is unlikely that everyone will one day power their car this way. Therefore to say that people using VO in their cars will reduce overall demand for Petro-Diesel is nonsence. And, even if that were true, fuels are price inelastic, meaning that price fluctuations do not affect demand to any great extent. Therefore even if the price did fall some miniscule amount the resulting increase in demand would be negligible. The people described in this article are pioneers in this field and they are doing a huge favour to the environment. Anyone who thinks otherwise must be deluded. Eventually every single one of us will have to face up to the fact that fossil fuels will not last forever, and we will need to find an alternative- and this seems like a great one to me. For anyone who knows what they are talking about with regards to this- I'm thinking of running my car on some kind of vegetable oil product, but I don't want the hassle of conversion. What are the dangers to my engine if I start using purified vegetable oil with a white spirit solvent in my car?

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