High prices crimping budgets? It’s biodiesel to the rescue

Feuling creativity

Posted: Sunday, May 07, 2006


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  Paul Axtmann is pictured with two 500-gallon fuel tanks in the basement of his Kasilof home as he talks about how he has cut his heating bill dramatically by using biodiesel he manufactures from used cooking oil. "I know if I can continue collecting vegetable oil through the summer I can be back to 2004 prices to heat my house next winter," he said. Photo by M. Scott Moon

Mike Arnold uses a series of filters and collection buckets to purify used vegetable oil for use in his diesel car. "If youve got more time than money then this is something you can do," he said. "I dont expect this to catch on like wildfire, but that may change when the price of gas gets to $5 a gallon."

Photo by M. Scott Moon

The furor over high fuel prices has led to pains at the pump and political posturing.

President Bush joined the fray near the end of last month, calling for Americans to conserve more and consume less and calling on Congress to rollback the $2 billion in tax breaks in last year’s energy bill. Those talking points are only the beginning, though.

“All I’ve outlined here today are interim strategies, short-term and interim strategies. The truth is, the long-term strategy is to power our automobiles with something other than oil,” Bush told assembled members of the Renewable Fuels Association on April 25.


Arnold pours used vegetable oil into a tank in his 1981 Volkswagen Rabbit diesel. His car's exhaust has a unique odor. "It smells like french fries," he said. "Guys where I work say they want to get out of the parking lot before I do because (smelling my car) makes them hungry."

Photo by M. Scott Moon

President Bush is two years behind Mike Arnold.

Arnold, a Sterling resident who drives about 60 miles round trip to Wildwood Pretrial Facility in Kenai each workday, has made that trip in his 1981 Volkswagen Rabbit for two years with something other than diesel. Well, mostly something other than diesel.

“I’m getting 400 miles to a gallon of diesel. The rest is grease,” Arnold explained during a drive around Kenai in his vegetable oil-powered automobile.


Aside from a small tank and filter in the back and an extra set of fuel lines, Arnold's car runs like any other diesel. He said he gets about 40 miles to the gallon using diesel or vegetable oil.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

Arnold warms up his engine, during warmer months, for about five minutes a day using regular diesel fuel. After that, he flips a switch just underneath the radio. The switch closes the valve pumping diesel and opens the valve pumping vegetable oil from a red five-gallon jug in his car’s trunk into the engine.

“When this light’s on green, that means I’m on grease,” he said, pointing to a tiny light next to the switch.

It may seem odd to power an automobile with vegetable oil. It may seem expensive, too, as vegetable oil still costs more per gallon than diesel fuel. It may sound like a Frankencar, assembled by a peculiarly mechanical mind using space-age technology.

To hear Arnold tell it, nothing could be further from the truth. The first diesel engine, as introduced by inventor Rudolph Diesel at the 1900 World’s Fair, ran on pure peanut oil. Arnold’s oil is free: it’s used fryer grease from the Short Stop gas station on Kalifornsky Beach Road. The station was taking it to the Soldotna dump before Arnold came along. Arnold pours it once through a filter that looks like an enormous sock before dumping into his “gas tank.”

And the mechanical magic? Just smoke and mirrors.


Paul Axtmann is pictured with two 500-gallon fuel tanks in the basement of his Kasilof home as he talks about how he has cut his heating bill dramatically by using biodiesel he manufactures from used cooking oil. "I know if I can continue collecting vegetable oil through the summer I can be back to 2004 prices to heat my house next winter," he said.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

“I wouldn’t say anyone can do it, but I would say anybody that can use a drill and screwdriver could,” Arnold said. A few moments later, he saw a 2004 Volkswagen Jetta, the same make and model his wife Debbie drives, pull out of the Kenai Airport parking lot. “That’s a (diesel) there. See, they could hook that one right up, just like this.”

Basically, the process of switching a diesel engine over involves installing a few pumps and a couple of switches. Usually, diesel is pumped from the tank to the engine and back again in a loop. The switch installed in Arnold’s car closes the line carrying fuel back into the diesel tank and opens the line carrying the grease. The grease line just loops the vegetable oil right through the engine and around again right under the hood in one continuous motion.

“Really that is the only change you make,” Arnold said.

Arnold plans to switch Debbie’s Jetta over to vegetable oil this summer (when the lease runs out) in a process he says will take about three hours.

Vegetable oil burns in a diesel engine at the same rate diesel does. Arnold’s Rabbit gets 45 miles per gallon, which means savings of a little over a gallon for each workday’s round trip. A diesel-fueled pickup truck, converted to vegetable oil, would mean a more significant savings.

“If I had a truck that got 16 miles per gallon with diesel, it would get 16 miles per gallon with grease,” he said. “It’s the same.”

The car doesn’t lose any horsepower running on grease, he said, the grease keeps the engine well-lubricated more efficiently than diesel and emissions are about a third of what they are for regular diesel. But it wasn’t mechanical curiosity or environmental activism that drove his decision to start turning garbage into gasoline. Saving $2,000 a year did.

When asked what he’s done with the money he’s saved over the past two years with his vegetable oil auto, Arnold doesn’t talk about buying snazzy fishing gear for extravagant boat trips or eating filet mignon a few times a week.

“I can put braces on my kid’s teeth now. The reason I do stuff like this is not because I want to save money, it’s because I have to. That’s why I originally started doing this — I needed to cut back somewhere.”

Paul Axtmann has the same concerns. The Kasilof resident and chef at the Duck Inn on Kalifornsky Beach still fills his car with regular to make the trip to work. He has, however, found another use for the restaurant’s used fryer oil.


Biodiesel, at left, is darker in color than regular diesel, at right. Axtmann says it burns cleaner in his boiler. The alternative fuel is manufactured from vegetable oil, kerosene and two additives.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

Since January he’s heated his 7,500 square-foot house using a biodiesel fuel made from the Duck’s grease. Axtmann’s machine, assembled from a kit purchased online for about $300, filters the grease, removes the glycerine and leaves him with a fuel that can be used in cars or in furnaces.

Unlike Arnold, who’s spent two years perfecting his method of vegetable oil fueling, Axtmann is still in the trial-and-error phase. The early signs, though, are promising. Once the first batch was complete, he said, he put it in the oldest of his three furnaces — the one used to heat his garage — to test it.

“With the regular diesel, when it would fire up, it would just puff and smoke every time. We put that biodiesel, it just cleaned itself out or something. The fuel started running, the pump started running and you could just smell a sweet smell,” he said.

He’s also experimenting with cold-weather biodiesel concoctions. In below-zero temperatures he mixes it with regular diesel, 50-50 diesel to biodiesel for outdoor use and 30-70 for indoor use, as grease congeals at such temperatures. Even so, since starting to use the fuel for his house, he says,

“I’ve almost cut my cost in half. So far this year, from about January to the time we speak, I’m at about $350 a month.”

Axtmann’s home heating bills are especially high, as he rents out 10 rooms to long-term renters and summertime visitors. Near the end of 2005, he was spending about $635 a month — on a plan that averages out yearly cost for fuel — paying for diesel. Essentially, those savings are profits.

And businesses benefit, as well. Axtmann’s boss is happy to let him take the grease away. Gary Jackson, who manages the Short Stop and stockpiles his used grease for Arnold, said Arnold’s grease-gathering saves him from carrying the 35-pound tubs of spent grease onto his truck and off to the Soldotna dump.

“I like it,” Jackson said. “We don’t even have to mess with it and haul them — they’re heavy.”

And messy, which is the biggest concern for vegetable oil fuel-users. Once during the winter, Axtmann was moving his gear from the garage to the house to keep the grease from congealing and knocked a spigot off. His garage floor is covered with cardboard in the event of an oil slick, but the linoleum floor of his entryway was wide open.

“The dog was going crazy, licking it up and tracking it all over. Everyone’s walking in it. Then we got it outside on the concrete and across the driveway and up the steps to the house.”

Still, Axtmann said, he’d rather spill vegetable oil than diesel.

Arnold said he doesn’t even notice the smell of fryer oil in his car anymore. It has made him fans at work, though.

“I have guys at work that tell me they want to get out of the parking lot and follow me down the road because it smells like Burger King and it makes them hungry,” he said.

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