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Grease Girl

Spreading like an alternative-fuels wildfire, straight vegetable oil (SVO) finally caught me in its flames, and I'm loving it

By Novella Carpenter

AFTER SO MUCH TIME, I finally must cop to something: I'm strictly a grease user now. Spreading like an alternative-fuels wildfire, straight vegetable oil (SVO) finally caught me in its flames, and I'm loving it. I had been skeptical, but supportive, writing articles about friends of mine who drove to far-flung places on grease, but I never ventured there myself.

These days, I'm allowing myself to believe in the unbelievable, to soak up everything life presents, to celebrate all the world's miracles. Plus, my Bill was kind enough to spend his entire day (and night) installing (and troubleshooting) the kit that would allow our diesel Benz to feed on veggie oil.

We've been using biodiesel for years now, and just as a grassy meadow eventually progresses into a forest, we felt the need to progress to SVO. First of all, it's just easier. You collect oil just as you would to homebrew biodiesel, but instead of filtering it, refining it into biodiesel and washing the soaps out, you just pour it into the tank.

Well, pour it in only after modifying the car to run on SVO. With biodiesel, you don't have to do the modification; you can put it into any diesel car. With SVO you, need to install a kit that heats up the oil and makes it less viscous as it enters the engine. You start the car on biodiesel or diesel, wait until the SVO tank's oil is warm enough and switch over. Before turning the car off, you must switch back to biodiesel so the oil doesn't clog the lines.

There are a variety of kits out there; here are the biggies:

(1) www.Greasel.com. This site offers a variety of tanks and setups. It will send a manual customized for your vehicle or do the installation. Also sells filters, triple-bypass hose, and other SVO gadgetry. A standard kit is about $850 with shipping.

(2) Elsbett, www.elsbett.de/engl/. This is for people who want a one-tank system. It's convenient if you want to have more trunk space, but some people don't think this setup is good for newer diesel engines, which absolutely need 150-degree oil going into the engine. According to the website, you can buy them for 500 Euros, which is about $750, but with taxes and shipping, it'll be more like $900.

(3) www.Greasecar.com. A great website. People like the kits because the tanks are metal, there's a quick flush system and they make something called the "automated controller" that switches the car over to SVO when it's warm enough. Costs $800.

(4) Neoteric, www.plantdrive.com. Full disclosure: This guy's my friend and he also employees a friend of mine. But, anyway, he has great SVO kits, customized for your vehicle. He also sells weird stuff like oil-seed presses. A kit runs $800.

Being a total scrounger, Bill made his own kit. He first tried to use a 55-gallon drum, cut into a third and welded by his friend, as the tank, but it had a few small holes so I used it as a pot for a grapefruit tree instead. Bill put aside his spendthrift tendencies and bought a brand-new plastic marine tank online for around $100. He also bought a bunch of aluminum and copper tubing, a reel of viton tubing, a lift pump, a solenoid with a switch, some plumbing, a heat exchanger, wiring and a fuel filter. In the end, he spent a total of $500, and made about 17 trips to various hardware stores.

We switched over around midnight, roaring down the highway at 60 per. It is a strange, dreamlike sensation, to imagine the hot oil sputtering into an engine so used to nonfood-grade fuel, like running on air. Is it working? We wondered, waiting for the screech and clang of a seriously messed up engine. The car didn't die, though, and so we had to believe.

Now Bill or I pick up fuel from a Buddhist temple that holds a popular weekend brunch. The monks walk around, sweeping up in their robes, I duck in, wave and take off with 10 gallons of their spent canola oil, soon to be reincarnated into fuel.

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From the October 19-25, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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