Right around the time we started the new bed and hauled the cottonwood rounds, I ran across a post I could not refuse during one of my frequent “diesel < 3000″ Craig’s List searches (don’t ask me why, I’m not really shopping for anything particular, but I like to see what’s out there and am still kind of kicking myself for not jumping on the $600 1984 Diesel Ford Escort Wagon I ran across a month ago, but tax time was near and dropping $600 on something I don’t really need at the time didn’t seem wise). Probably far too many of my conversations with Maya start with the phrase “Some in xxxxx has…”, and she is then warned that I am about to share some wacky thing I encountered on Craig’s List. In all fairness to myself, many of Maya’s IMs to me are links to pets, farm animals, and woodland creatures available on Craig’s List for which we do not have the space to raise, but I’ll admit I likely produce more “Someone has” conversations than Maya produces “Cute and fuzzy” instant messages.
Sorry, I wandered a bit there, but what I encounterd a month ago was someone in Tacoma with nearly 200 gallons of used vegetable oil, 5 gallons of methanol, and 55 lbs of lye. Oooo….hmmm…yikes…rrr…what to do, what to do…
Some background is probably in order here.
BEGIN: Saga of the Truck (if you don’t care about the truck and just want to know about the oil you can skip over the next several paragraphs of rambling automotive history)
A couple of years ago I was driving a Saturn Wagon:
And a couple of years before that, shortly after we bought the house, we bought “Billie”, a ’76 F100 that we bought for $300:
“Billie”‘s owner (who named the truck) hated to part with her dear truck, but she had recently purchase a fuel efficient wagon and lived in the swanky Magnolia neighborhood and her neighbors had deemd “Billie” an eyesore and started calling the cops anytime the truck was within 30 ft of a driveway or for any other reason they could or thought they could. In the beginning, no more perfect a match betwixt us and truck could have been discovered. With a waste transfer facility just down the hill for our dump runs and Cedar Grove only about 10 or so miles away for our compost and soil needs, “Billie” fit the bill and met our needs. However, after a couple of years our needs started to get a little more esoteric and drives to get lumber for the fence and the shed ended up being up to 30 or more miles (to score the perfect bulk liquidation or overstock deals I’d find on Craig’s List.
At about 8 MPG with a front tank that we were warned should not be filled above half full due to the potential for leaking, increasingly more difficult starts and steering that seemed altogether too approximate even for my liking, I didn’t feel 100% comfortable taking “Billie” too far from home (or on the Interstate for any distance). Contemporaneously, Maya’s cousin R. had started working for a Biodiesel distributor in Bellingham called Whole Energy. I did a little research, made a decision, and then became obsessed with the mission of conflating our $300 pickup and my wagon into a single enviro-friendly reliable hauler for our basic construction and landscaping needs and the treasures made available to us by the wonders on the internet. The fact that I haven’t had to commute to work for about a decade and we have Maya’s little Civic for other errands also facilitated the decision. Further, I had discovered there were several stations in the region (and one particularly close) that served up B99 (99% Biodiesel, there is a reason it is usually 99% rather than 100% that has to do with tax incentives for carbon reducing additives, but that discussion is far beyond the scope of this already meandering post). So, feasaility studies complete, I started shopping…
Maya’s dad’s F250 was coming up toward 300k miles (which impressed me), I learned that the Ford diesel engine was made by International Harvester (stirring a certain nostalgia factor related to my Dad’s fondness of his beastly and seemingly indestructable Scount and Scout II he had when I was growing up), we had fairly recently gotten Huxley the dog (and there was no way he would be riding in the back of the truck like some second class member of the family, so I knew I needed a super/extended cab to accomodate the whole family and allow for flexibility in packing for potentially rainy Northwest camping trips).
I also didn’t want to go terribly deeply in debt, but had accepted a couple years worth of debt at a specific price point as an acceptable sacrifice for a truck that wouldn’t be in the shop every month (since I am not well versed in auto mechanics, not particularly inclined to become too well versed in it, and lack the tools and garage that would make it a reasonable endeavor to pursue). I liked the fact that the Dodge diesels had a smaller engine (and likely better fuel economy) since I wouldn’t be towing (and people in general seem to rave about their Cummins built diesels engines), but the rarity and seeminly outrageous prices on early to mid 90′s extended cab Dodge diesels withdrew them from the running.
As bizarre as it may sound, I ended up not finding my truck on Craig’s List, but rather ran across it in an exploratory search on Cars.com. The color was not to my liking, but not a show stopper, and since has become the crux of many a jibe from Maya since I like to call it “Copper” where most people see it as “Gold” and Maya likes to call it “Rosé” or “Pink” when the sunlight hits it just so and brings out the red undertones that inspire me to call it “Copper” (I think Ford calls it “Beige” which is right out in left field).
When I ran across the 1995 F250 Powerstroke (turbo) diesel supercab at Cars.com, a bit of disappointment befell me as the vehicle wasn’t a private party sale, but rather a local Ford dealer offerred up the truck at a surprisingly low price when compared to the other mid 90′s trucks I had viewed. I had test drove an ’86 non-turbo that someone had on Craig’s List, but it was painfully clear that despite the appealing debt free price tag that it was not the “reliable” hauler I sought. I also checked out a 2000 F250 Supercab at a nearby used car dealer. That truck had about a billion rough miles on it and clearly had been acquired via the auction of some corporate fleet. Nothing special about it, a nice drive, only the very base features and no tailgate. I’m sure there were reasons that one had a price tag close to what I eventually paid for the ’95.
The fact that I had a pre-approval voucher from my credit union made the ’95 F250 at the Ford dealer considerably more appealing because I knew I could roll the salestax into the loan at the dealer (I still had my Saturn and wasn’t going to sell it until I already had a replacement for it in front of the house, and wanted to be able to take my time and get my price for the wagon). And as much as I would have liked to have completed the purchase through a private sale, I initially found the fact that the dealer had service the vehicle a serious point in favor of the ’95. As it turns out, maybe that wasn’t so much a benefit, but the ’95 had already had a documented engine replacement (a ’96 with fewer miles on it than the 202,601 on the odometer, although who knows how many fewer miles as that part hadn’t been documented), and had already had the transmission rebuilt once.
The truck did have a problem with the left front ball joint, but the dealer arranged to have that replace at cost (at their cost, which wasn’t the greatest savings known to man). When I got the truck home I discovered it still seemed to have the same knocking issue with the driver’s side ball joint, but I figured since it had been replaced it must just be my ignorance misinterpreting the occasional pop during really hard turns. Eventually I had both ball joints replaced because the dealer had replaced the wrong one in the first place and my mechinic gave me a decent deal on servicable ball joints for both sides, unfortunately this discovery came far to late to take it back to the dealer, so I was out about $400 on that deal. I also realized right before a trip to Eugene, OR, why the engine probably had to be replaced in the first place. No where on the service receipts did they mention replacing the thermometer for the coolant, and sure enough, it was dead. A saturday morning at the Midas (where they apparently didn’t realize they needed to drain down the 400 gallons of coolant prior to replacing the thermometer) further convinced me to stick with my mechanic’s shop where they service their own Cummin’s tow truck and have a guy that used to work for International Harvester, but live and learn I suppose (and I really did not want to hit the road for my first long trip in the truck without a temperature gauge).
So, we sold “Billie” (for $225 by the way, net cost excluding fuel and insurance of $75, no better deal ever existed on the planet that wasn’t free), and I sold the Saturn for $3k and have managed to pay off the truck in about 2 years. Note that I kept my $45 lumber rack, and thanks to a little welding help from X.‘s dad (of JnX) was able to continue using it with the new truck (prior to realizing it was a little too wide J. & I jammed it in there and spread my bed a bit, so occasionally I have to squeeze the bed inward to close the tailgate if the truck is full of dirt or something pushing out on the bed walls). Aside for a mistake on my part wherein I still had summer fuel in the tank during a Thanksgiving dip in temperature to the low teens that clogged my fuel filter to the extent that I needed to take it to the shop and they ended up spraying WD-40 in the intake to get it started (keep in mind I fill up about once every 2 months or so), running bio-diesel has been a success. I run B-99 most of the year, but November through February I’ll generally fill one tank with B-50 and the other with an approximately hand blended B-70 or there abouts to prevent gel and cloggage in the coldest of the winter months. The price shot up dramatically when all fuel prices were going up, and apparently the harvest cycle has left it stuck around $4 a gallon while it used to be with 10 to 20 cents of the price of regular diesel when I first got the truck (prompting the vendor nearest me to stop selling B99 in favor of the cheaper B50 blend). Despite all of the drama documented above, I really, really like my truck. And love the fact that most of the year it is running in a carbon nuetral manner and get’s nearly 20mpg on the longer freeway trips. My mileage is smashed by the short trips I take around town for this and that, but such is the trade-off for being able to run out and confidently pick up a yard of dirt, compost, concrete or drywall (and yes, I did the calculations and the drywal for J.‘s addition came out to a cubic yard).
END: Saga of the Truck
So, to get back to where we started, I saw this deal on Craig’s List for nearly 200 gallons of used vegetable oil, 5 gallons of methanol, and 55 lbs of lye. I had little interest in full blown home brewing, but was hoping I could filter most of oil, maybe make a small batch of biodiesel for fun, and then sell off the extra lye (or Maya could use the lye for soap making, or something), and then I could just blend some of the filtered WVO (waster vegetable oil) in with my regular fuel through the hotest of the summer months. Think of the savings? And the pretty French Fry smell of my exhaust (you get a little bit of this from bio-diesel, but not quite the deliscious hunger inducing smell of running SVO (straight vegetable oil) or filtered WVO.
Before I went out to get this stuff I asked the buy to send me a picture so I had some idea of what my loading and storage requirements would be. Well, most of the oil was in 5 gallon “disposable” carboys as it had been delivered to the restaurants from whence it came. Great for loading, less great for storage.
No problem though, you see, J. (of JnX) had recently offered up some portion of his garage for storing lumber should I need it since his property consists as much of a network of storage structures and garages (each of a varying degree of age, quality and stability) as it does anything else. Witness exhibit A, the garages from the air:
So, after asking J. and finding a good corner for the oil, and unsuccessfully trying to convince J. that his network of garages would be the optimal place to start a small bio-diesel processing facility (and that all he had to do is sell his 90′s gas Toyota pickup and buy a similarly priced 80′s diesel Isuzu and he could enjoy the benifits of nearly free carbon nuetral fuel (I continue without luck to convince him of this), I went and picked this stuff up. The problem, as it turns out, is that a good deal of this oil is partially hydrogenated. Adding hydrogen to oil makes it solidify at room temperature and apparently prolongs the shelf life of the stuff. These are benefits for the deep frying industry, but that solid or nearly solid at room temperature thing really blows if you want to use it as fuel (unless you’re the kind of person who gets joy out of periodically disassembling and degunking your entire fuel system). The problem is not without a solution however, and the solution is to turn it into bonafide biodiesel through the miraculous process of transesterification (more than you could probably ever desire to know about this process, and how it compares with SVO/WVO is available at: Journey To Forever. So, looking over my email I see that it was late February when I went to pick up this oil, and to date I have done nothing with it.
My first step is going to be to fashion a heating and filtration system out of a bunch of 5 gallon pails so I can get the stuff cleaned up. Some of it is super gunky (there were even bits of blue tarp in some of it). That way I can get a good quantity of it out of J.’s garages long before the day that some kind of processing setup is ready here. A couple of 30 gallon barrels (one partially full) came with the oil, so I’ll fill those and probably try to get a couple more since I can store those outside and still keep the oil dry and out of Huxley’s mouth. My first few attempts at transfering the oil between containers as-is in its semi-solid state resulted in a great number of nasty oily rags to which Huxley took an instant and undesirable liking.
We don’t have the space around here for a full blown multistep/multitank processing system consiting of an 80 gallon hot water tank and a couple of huge conical tanks for washing and drying the fuel after processing. On top of that those damned conical tanks with stands cost exactly 1 arm and 1 leg each (indicating that following payment for such an aparatus I would be hard pressed to process anything in the resultant limbless state I would be in). I have been scouring Craig’s List for a SMALL water heater hoping I could perhaps make a compact processor for about 15 gallons at a time that would fit comfortably alongside the shed in the back yard. I already have plans to build an attached covered area off of that side of the shed for the chipper/shredder and the soon to be obsolete lawn mower (more on that at a later date), so that seems to be my best option if I am going to do any processing around here. Apparently water heaters under 40 gallons are few and far between. I also need to do some more research to make sure I have a safe setup for handling the methonal and creating/transfering the meth-oxide that is central to the process. The methonal is a lot nastier and more hazardous than seemed to be indicated in my original research and readings. In the ideal, after I go through the small bit I have on hand, I’ll switch to a process using ethonal which is just as flamable, but apparently less toxic than methonal.
Since I only use about 16 gallons a month it makes no sense for me to setup some crazy large processor that is going to sit idle most of the time and force me to procure storage for more fuel than will fit in the truck. So, the challenge I face over the summer is finding a middle ground between the “Soda Bottle” sized batches with which one introduces themselves to the process and the 60-80 gallon batches that most full blown processors produce. I’ll keep you posted as I slowly but surely make headway in this fueling ourselves project (or at least my truck, Maya is vociferously dedicated to driving her Civic into the ground and she is hoping to make it her 30 or 40 year vehicle despite my periodically proding here to sell it now while she can get enough to mostly pay for TDI Jetta or something we can run on the byproducts of some of my favorite foods, being just about anything deep fried).
And thus, in closing I must mention that if you happen to be in the area and have an extra 20 gallon water heater sitting in your garage, drop me a note and I’ll come get it right away…