I’ve driven a pickup truck for a long time. I love being able to go anywhere anytime and to be able to haul whatever junk I’m collecting at the time. Problem is, when you’re a high-mileage photographer and gas prices soar, the truck starts to hurt a little. Actually, any vehicle that gets under 20 mpg starts to hurt a lot when gas prices rise over $3.
I was in denial for the longest time, refusing to do the math because I needed, wanted my truck. I finally realized I was spending more than $4,000 a year in gas (20,000 miles/year at 17 mpg = 1176 gallons.) Gas prices were in the high $3 range and heading over $4 when I was doing this math. I realized that I wasn’t able to keep up with those fuel bills and my reimbursement rate from the Herald-Leader wasn’t paying my vehicle expenses anymore.
Why the Jetta TDI? It is a diesel engine that gets 35 mpg in the city and well over 40 mpg on the highway. Can’t beat that, despite the higher price of diesel fuel. So now I’ve effectively cut my fuel consumption in half.
But wait – there is another way to beat the price at the pump. Who needs to buy diesel when you can run your car on a common restaurant by-product that you can get for free? It’s known as waste vegetable oil and most diesel engines can use it as a fuel source. Now we’re talking.
All of the sudden, the math turns in my favor. Now, instead of losing money by subsidizing the Herald-Leader with my personal vehicle (grrr), I can make money when I drive. And so far it’s working. My monthly fuel bills have plummeted (I recognize that fuel prices have dropped, but diesel not so much), and my reimbursement dollars from the company more than cover my expenses now.
Here’s the math from a recent trip to Knoxville for the Kentucky/Tennessee game:
300 miles round trip.
150 miles were driven on WVO (I didn’t have enough to take me all the way there and back) and 150 miles on diesel. I figured I spent about $10 on diesel at $2.50/gallon for the whole trip and will receive $112 in reimbursement. Back when my truck was getting 17 mpg on $4 gas, I would have spent $70 in fuel.
But what about the cheap gas we’re enjoying now? Regular unleaded gas can be found for under $1.40 here in Lexington, and I bought some diesel this week for $2.29. So did I move to quickly? My math was based on high fuel prices, right?
Perhaps my conversion was a bit of a gamble, but I have a couple of thoughts on that. For one thing, I can’t imagine that fuel prices will stay so low for very long. Secondly, while burning vegetable oil as a fuel makes economic sense, but it is also a very environmentally friendly thing to do. I know for a fact that I am less dependent on oil, foreign or domestic. I am polluting less. WVO as a fuel is carbon neutral. It reduces emissions and is far less harmful to the environment. So in the end, even if we manage to keep oil prices low, I think the conversion is still a gain.
How it works
There is a bit of a process for converting a diesel car or truck to run on vegetable oil. You need a separate tank to hold the oil and new fuel lines to carry the oil to the engine. So there is some expense to buying the equipment and having it installed. I bought my kit for about $1300 from Greasecar.com and had the kit installed by the Good Oil Boys in Louisville for around $1000. Another good resource is Fryer-to-oil.
And to be clear, WVO is not the same as biodiesel. While biodiesel does use vegetable oils, there is still a refining process and chemicals are involved. What I put in the fuel tank in my trunk comes straight out of a deep fryer at a restaurant down the street. All I have to do is pick it up and run it through a filter in my garage.
Collecting restaurant grease isn’t for everyone. But I think there is a little bit of DIY and MacGyver in most photographers out there. For people who don’t want to collect and filter grease, you can often buy filtered WVO for around $2 a gallon.
My setup consists of a gravity-fed filter bag inside a 16-gallon metal drum. I cut a hole in the top of the drum so I can pour the grease in. At the bottom of the drum I installed a spigot to drain out the filtered oil. I have a container at the back door of the restaurant where they dump their oil once a week when they clean their fryer (they use 100% soy oil to fry falafels). I put it in some 5-gallon plastic cubes that their new oil comes in. I let it settle for a week or two so as much junk as possible goes to the bottom. Then I pour the good stuff off the top and into the filter bag. The oil that comes out of the 5-micron filter can then go directly in the veggie fuel tank in my car or in clean storage containers for use later.
It can be a little messy and care has to be taken not to get oil all over the inside of the car. I also have to remove everything from my trunk whenever I need to refuel the veggie – that actually has a nice byproduct of keeping my trunk clean and organized.
My friends claim they can smell me coming (they can’t), and my wife continues to think I’m a little out there (maybe I am). But as long as I can claim that falafels give me gas without a scowl on my face, I’ll tolerate the grease jokes.