Walking The Talk: Using Waste Vegetable Oils for Fuel

SPUR Co-Chair Jeff Couillard has been active in the sustainability community for some time.  He recently completed a project that’s helping inspire and inform others about creative ways to protect and preserve our environment, and contribute to a sustainable future.  Jeff’s conversion of his truck to run on waste vegetable oils (WVO) was a great learning experience that will hopefully motivate others.

Jeff recently shared information about his project in the hopes of inspiring other Cochrane residents to do their part toward a sustainable future.

Q;  Why did you decide to do the conversion?

A:  I converted the truck for a variety of reasons. Most notably, I wanted to drive a truck for the practicality and lifestyle it provides (pulling a trailer, hauling wood, etc.). I just couldn’t justify the emissions and poor gas mileage that came with that sort of “lifestyle” purchase. I have a friend who converted an old Volkswagen, so after checking his project out and asking lots of questions, I decided to take the plunge.

Q:  How much research did you have to do before you got started?

A:  I did a great deal of research prior to starting the conversion. First of all, I needed to find the ideal vehicle for my lifestyle that was also suitable for conversion to running on grease. After finding the vehicle, I needed to research the various conversion systems and their costs, pros and cons. I had to decide whether I would try and piece together a “home brewed” version with various parts or order a prefabricated kit. I settled on a prefab kit from a company out of Seattle because their reputation for quality was extremely high, and the system (after installation) was as automated as possible.

Q:  What was your inspiration?

A:  I was sick of talking the talk and not putting my money where my mouth is. And I was tired of relying on petroleum as heavily as we do. I also wanted to save some money on diesel (at $100/tank it adds up awfully quick). Sub-objectives include providing some inspiration for others, developing more awareness and appreciation for biofuels and their benefits and challenges, as well as a fun project for a somewhat mechanically inclined individual.

Q:  How long did the conversion take?

A:  I waited for more than a year for the kit (apparently the company’s reputation for quality products doesn’t equate to timely service!). After getting the kit I probably spent about a month (total of 60-80 hours) installing it on evenings and weekends.

Q:  Did you do all the work yourself?

A:  Yes. A few friends helped out where and when they could.

Q:  What kind of vehicle did you modify?

A:  A 1996 Dodge Ram with a 5.9L Cummins Turbo Diesel. 4X4, extended cab.

Q:  Generally, how did the vehicle have to be modified?

A:  I installed a completely separate fuel system for the grease, starting with a 100L tank in the back of the truck. I installed a supply and return line from this tank to the engine, through a heated fuel filter, then a heat exchanger to a series of valves. The system uses hot coolant from the engine to heat the oil as it travels from the tank to the injection pump, because it’s important to not inject cold oil into the pistons. There is a series of electronically controlled valves that switch automatically from diesel to vegetable oil when the system is hot enough, and a computer controller that is wired to various sensors that will switch the valves accordingly.

Technically I’m running a Waste Vegetable Oil (WVO) system, which is different from biodiesel. Biodiesel takes a feedstock (like WVO) and chemically transforms it to be more like diesel (thinner) so that it can be burned in an ordinary truck without a conversion.

Q:  What kind of difference did it make to how your vehicle operates?

A:  There really is no difference to how the vehicle performs. Gas mileage and power are basically the same — or at least I haven’t noticed a difference.

Q:  How much did the conversion cost?

A:  The kit itself was $2,000, and I’ve spent probably $1,000 on filtering equipment, hoses and pumps to move the grease around.

Q:  Does it cost more or less to run the vehicle now?

A: Running WVO has reduced my diesel costs by 50 to 75 per cent, depending on the length of trip.

Because you start and stop the vehicle on diesel (otherwise the WVO would harden up in the lines, especially in the winter), how much diesel you burn depends on the length of the trip and how long it takes the engine to warm up and switch to grease. So I could use the same amount of diesel driving in and out of Calgary as I would driving straight to Vancouver.  That makes it tough to put a value on cost savings (although the longer the trip the more time spent on WVO and the more diesel you save). Over the last 5,000 km I estimate I’ve saved about $350 on diesel.

Q:  Where do you get the waste vegetable oil?

A:  Coto Japanese Restaurant and Thanh Thy in Cochrane.

Q:  Does your truck smell like french fries?

A:  More like tempura and spring rolls…

Q:  What are the benefits to the environment of using food oils for fuel?

A:  Again, it’s important to distinguish biodiesel from WVO. If biodiesel is made from virgin foodstocks (like canola oil), before it hits the food chain, the environmental, economic and social benefits are suspect. But taking waste vegetable oil — which has already been used by a restaurant and will either end up in the landfill or as a feed additive for beef cattle – has great environmental benefits. The emissions are generally better as well, with many tests showing about a 30 per cent reduction in carbon monoxide and particulate matter, as well as some reductions in NOX and no SOX (nitrous oxides and sulphur oxides).

Q:  If people want to learn more about WVO conversion, where can they start?

A:  They should find someone who’s doing it and go take a look (that’s how I learned and it’s the best way, I think). Follow that up with lots of research on the web, starting with www.frybrid.com/forum.

You can also learn more by watching Jeff’s video about the process.  Just double-click on the video below to launch it: