We’re Eco-Experts

It’s funny how writing a blog can set you up as an authority figure, and occasionally lead to fame and fortune.  We’ve been doing pretty well in the fame department but could use a little more fortune!

Most recently, I was contacted by a reporter in Canada for the article  “Aunt Jemima no more: Foodies make their own maple syrup” about urban maple tapping.  I was pleased she located a few other urban tappers with a little more experience under their belts since we really only tried it the one time with limited success.  I really do think urban maple syrup is a great idea for folks to pursue; it just hasn’t made it very high on our green list.

A few weeks ago, we got an e-mail from a reference librarian (also in Canada) looking for information on greasecars.  She was hoping we could help a patron who was looking for sources of vegetable oil in Edmonton and I’m afraid I wasn’t very helpful.  (In fact, I had to get out my atlas to locate Edmonton – it’s in Alberta, way north of Missoula, MT and pretty far north of Calgary.)

Still, it’s fun to feel connected with other green folks who are trying to do their little piece.  So keep the questions and interviews and suggestions coming!  (And if you can find some fortune, that would be nice too.)

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Greasecar Questions from the Mail Room

I answered some greasecar questions recently over e-mail and thought other people might enjoy reading the answers…

How has it been working out for you?
Well, I ended up selling my greasecar last year so my husband and I could share one car.  He can’t drive a stickshift and my VW was expensive to maintain so we kept his Mazda.  Generally the car was good but I had trouble finding the time/motivation to collect and filter grease.  My car also had a lot of maintenance issues unrelated to the greasecar part that were expensive (brakes, shocks, etc.).  I also think greasecars really only make sense for long drives and I just don’t take very many long drives.  We decided it was cheapest to keep his car and since it has pretty good mileage and we don’t drive very much, the environmental impact seemed acceptable.

I’ve heard there is a fried food smell.  Does it just come out the tailpipe, or can you smell it inside the car?
The smell just comes out the tailpipe.  If you have the windows down and are stopping a lot you can smell it in the car but I actually kinda liked it.

Is it difficult to find all of the oil you need for free?
Depends a lot on where you are.  I think the tricky part is trying to find relatively high quality oil so if you have some connections in restaurants and can talk a staff member into collecting it for you, that’s the best.  You don’t really want to be getting it out of big greasetraps.  In Bloomington, there was a bit of competition for oil but it also meant I could bum oil from other greasecar folks who had a stockpile.  I also knew a couple people who put together drum systems that restaurants could have out back for collecting oil that made everyone happy – it was clean and easy and the system worked well.

About what percentage of diesel do you end up using?
I used a lot more diesel than oil because I was lazy about getting oil and I did a lot of short drives that weren’t good for oil.  However, I had a friend who biked for short distances and used her car with vegetable oil for long distances and she probably used only 5-10% diesel.

When you filter the used oil, does the remaining junk have to be properly disposed of?
Yes, although I would feel comfortable putting it out with my regular trash.  It’s very gross but not really dangerous beyond being slightly flammable.  I did learn that vegetable oil will eat through rubber and asphalt if left to sit there long enough.  And it also is attractive to raccoons but gives them terrible diarrhea.  Really, filtering was probably my biggest challenge and one I never quite mastered although I think if I had been willing to put either more time or more money into development, I could have had a nice system that was easy to use.

Did you loose trunkspace for the additional tank?
Yes, I basically gave up my trunk because my tank lid did not seal quite right at first and it sprayed the trunk with a fine coat of oil.  If that hadn’t been the case, I still would have lost about a third of the trunk to fit in the tank.  I’ve seen some different systems that used a lot less space and were a lot cleaner.

Would you do it again?

Yeah, I think I would.  Like I said, I think it makes the most sense for people who take long drives (more than 10 minutes) on a regular basis and who are committed to setting up a good oil filtration system.  I know in Louisville there’s a business that does greasecar installations and also that sells filtered used oil to folks; if I had that around, I’d be way more tempted to get back into the greasecar groove.  Right now I’m transitioning into a job where I can work from home or bike to the office and so I’m not that worried about what car I use on the few occasions when I drive.  But if I ever start driving regularly again, I’ll have to reconsider.

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Filtering Used Vegetable Oil (or How I Spent My Saturday)

Maggie filtering veggie oilYa know those projects that you keep putting off for months and months because they sound intimidating and then when you finally get around to it, it ends up being quite easy? Well, that was my experience this weekend when I put together a little filtering system for my greasecar. As you may recall, I love my greasecar but find one of the biggest limitations is filtering the used vegetable oil. Used veggie oil is pretty gross and it’s pretty heavy. There’s also the catch that it’s very bad to get water in your veggie oil fuel so anything that is washed also has to be thoroughly dried. Anyway, I have considered building a really fancy filtration system and have lusted after electrical veggie oil pumps but so far can’t justify the cost, so I have been using cloth filter bags from greasecar.com. They’re pretty cool but it has been challenging figuring out how to get the oil through them with a minimum mess. So after much deliberation, I built myself a little bucket filtration system!

Step one was cutting a hole in a bucket lid to accommodate the filter bag. Plastic buckets (and lids) actually cut pretty easily with a boxcutter although it took me awhile to figure out that it’s most efficient to just score the cut and then snap off the plastic rather than cut all the way through. (It also felt safer, as in less likely to cut off any of my fingers by accident.)

Filter bag in lidMaggie drillingStep two was drilling a hole in the bottom of the filter bag bucket. This is a two-bucket system, with the filter bag taking up the top bucket and the lower bucket storing the filtered oil. My goal was to let the veggie oil flow slowly into the lower storage bucket. I wasn’t sure how big to make the hole. I had brief flashbacks to my engineering hydrology classes at Purdue but decided to go with the trial-and-error method of hole-sizing, which meant starting small (it’s a lot easier to make it bigger).

Step three was cutting a larger hole in the lid of the bottom (storage) bucket. I wanted to make it big enough to let the oil drip cleanly through from the top bucket but small enough that the lid will still be able to support the weight of the top bucket even when it’s full of oil. I was amused to notice the recycling symbol on the bucket lid and realize that I can throw the plastic bits in with my recycling. Yay Bloomington Recycling!

Veggie Oil Close-UpBucket Lid with Recyclable signStep four was putting it together and testing it out. As you may have noticed, my jug of used vegetable oil sprung a leak at the bottom so I decided to “pour” it out of that end. I think the slow release was probably a good thing. The cloth filter bags are very effective but the flow rate is pretty slow, especially when the oil is cold. It was about 50 degrees out, which felt fantastically warm to me, but the oil was still a little thick. I hear that fancier folks have special veggie oil heaters to improve filtration rates. Maybe some day.

In the end, I managed to filter all 5 gallons of veggie oil with only a few minor spills. Then I poured the bucket of clean oil into the storage tank in my trunk, with a few more spills. Bleah. Alas, that one has to be chalked up to user error. I drove out to my aunt’s house last night but my engine never heated up enough to switch to veggie oil. I suspect there may be a problem with my thermostat since it never seems to heat up like it used to but that is another project. For now, I’m pretty happy with my new filtration system. It’s very satisfying to complete a little project and feel that I actually am a handy person. Next up? Figure out a way to decommission my dying water heater in a way that the landlord will HAVE to come fix it…

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How to Travel Sustainably

I have been contemplating a trip to Washington, D.C. to visit a couple of friends but am having trouble figuring out the greenest way to get there. At first I thought maybe I could combine it with a trip to Raleigh for Will’s brother’s wedding but it sounds like that’s not going to work out. (Will and I are planning to drive to Raleigh either in my mom’s Toyota Prius or in my greasecar and from there I would only be driving about five hours on my own.)

The other obvious option is flying, which has remained oddly affordable despite rising fuel prices. My gut feeling is that flying has a really bad environmental impact but I have read very mixed studies about it. Laura forwarded me a great article from Salon about air travel and their conclusion is that it’s probably a better environmental choice than driving but that the bottom line is that the world would be a better place if we traveled less. He did mention that it’s difficult to evaluate the full impact of jet exhaust since it is released very high in the atmosphere and is suspected to have different effects than, say, car exhaust.

He also suggested that train travel is the most efficient option but alas, it is a challenging proposition from Bloomington. The nearest train station is in Indianapolis and pretty much all the trains go to Chicago, except that mostly they have been replaced by buses. (I guess it’s become a pretty common trick for Amtrak but it always shocks me a little when I pull up a train schedule and it says “Bus.”) So I would need to drive to Indianapolis, take the train to Chicago, hang around for a few hours, then take the train overnight to D.C. with a total travel time of about 24 hours and a total cost of over $150 one-way. Not very encouraging.

So I’m continuing to weigh my options. Perhaps it would make sense to fly and purchase some carbon offset credits, or perhaps I could justify the trip by hauling some more of Laura’s furniture to her, or maybe I’ll just make my friends come to me (although that’s really just another way to pass the buck). I do feel pretty blessed that most of my friends and family are within biking distance so I can probably justify the odd plane trip or two a year. And maybe one of these years I’ll get really hardcore and buy myself a horse and buggy. Maybe.

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Greased Lightning – Driving on Vegetable Oil

Frozen GreasecarI don’t want to scare people away with my hardcore environmental tales but I do like to tell people about my greasecar.  It’s a 1997 VW Jetta with a turbo diesel engine that has been adapted to burn straight vegetable oil.  The idea is that I can burn waste vegetable oil (from all those French fry joints) instead of petroleum diesel which will achieve three goals: utilizing a waste product, reducing dependence on petroleum products, and reducing the amount of air pollution generated.  (The third one is debatable but at least it SMELLS a lot better.)  Oh, and I generally get my vegetable oil for free as opposed to paying $3.50/gallon for petroleum diesel.

The idea is simple.  The diesel engine was originally designed to burn vegetable oil so today’s diesels can also burn vegetable oil IF it is preheated to reduce the viscosity (make it thinner).  My car has a special tank in the trunk that I fill with filtered vegetable oil.  I start my car with petroleum diesel from the regular gas tank, use the heat from the engine to heat up the vegetable oil, and when it’s hot I push a button to start pumping from the vegetable oil tank instead.  At the end of my ride I switch back to petroleum diesel to purge all the lines.  This is so when my car cools down, the engine doesn’t gum up with vegetable oil.

Just to clarify, a straight vegetable oil (SVO) system is different than a biodiesel system.   Biodiesel is a product made by combining vegetable oil with lye and methanol to create a fuel that is very similar to petroleum biodiesel.  The cool part is that you can put it in the regular tank of any diesel vehicle and don’t need to modify the vehicle to use it.  (There are a couple of exceptions; biodiesel has a nasty habit of eating through certain types of rubber so there are some older cars that would need to have their gaskets switched out.)  The downside of biodiesel is that you have to make it, which generally involves some kind of processing system, and it generates some nasty byproducts.  This is not surprising since lye (drain cleaner) and methanol (antifreeze) are both pretty nasty to begin with.

I decided to go the straight vegetable oil route because I found biodiesel production to be intimidating.  There are definitely people out there who have awesome setups in their garages but they tend to be the tinkering types.  It’s also possible to buy biodiesel but most of that is made from new vegetable oil rather than waste vegetable oil.  I prefer to see new vegetable oil being used as people food instead of running my car. 

My greasecar has been pretty good but there was definitely a steep learning curve and I really feel like I haven’t done as well as I could have.  There are a few ongoing problems I have chosen not to deal with – for example, the gauge for the vegetable oil tank has never worked and my trunk has a permanent coating of grease from spills.  Filtering the waste oil is a HUGE pain and I still haven’t figured out a good system.  I also can only run on grease when the temperature is above about 50 degrees Fahrenheit.  Diesels don’t like cold weather and veggie oil only makes it worse.  In the end, it has been a little too easy to run on petroleum diesel instead of hassling with veggie oil but overall I’m glad I did the conversion. 

I have a lot more to say on the subject so expect future posts about the nitty gritty details of conversion, turf wars for used vegetable oil, my internal debate about whether or not running my car on grease can really be considered environmentally benign, and my frustration with the biofuels movement.

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