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May 3, 2006

Fill It Up, Please, and Check for Clogged Arteries


YORKTOWN, N.Y. — About midway through the event billed as Greasestock, a voice boomed out, "Steve is going to demonstrate his vegetable-oil-sucking device."

This might not be guaranteed to draw a crowd everywhere, but when you have a bunch of people with cars, trucks and S.U.V.’s that run mostly on leftover grease from Chinese or Italian restaurants, it is no minor event.

And sure enough, everyone was soon looking on attentively as Steve Leung flipped a switch and a viscous stream of yellow soybean oil was slurped from a 36-gallon tank into a 5-gallon container you could use to pour vegetable oil into your gas tank.

"I don’t know if it was a vision from God, but when someone told me you could run a car on vegetable oil, I knew I had to do it," said Dave Kandell of Huntington, on Long Island, whose 1985 Mercedes 300TD has lettering reading "Veggie-Powered" on the back and "Refueled at Rosa’s Pizza" on a side window. "It began as a statement
about oil companies and greed, but I also like saving money."

Grease Nation, which turned out about 60 people in 20 veggie-powered cars at Peter Pratt’s Inn in Westchester on Sunday, remains a niche within a niche within a niche. But with gas prices spiraling toward $4 a gallon, it’s not a bad niche to be in.

So they came from near and far — Jesse Goldin, 23, from Brewster, in his first car, a 1985 Mercedes he bought from Mr. Kandell; Tod Backe from Stowe, Vt., in an oversize 1982 Volkswagen Westfalia camper; Tom Lee from South Kent, Conn., in a shiny Chevrolet Tahoe S.U.V. refitted with a Mercedes diesel engine.

It’s not as odd as it might seem. After all, when the German inventor Rudolph Diesel came up with his highcompression engine in the 1890’s, one of his thoughts was to run it on vegetable oil. And commercial biodiesel, a popular alternative fuel, contains vegetable oil.

The grease cars, as they’re known, have diesel engines and are fitted with two tanks, one for diesel, one for vegetable oil. They heat the oil to keep it from clogging.

So the process is more reliable in hot weather than cold, but the cars run all year. Drivers start a car on diesel and then switch over to vegetable oil, which can come from local restaurants or from oversize containers from discount stores like Costco.

"I’ve found that Italian places tend to have the best grease, and Chinese places are real hit or miss," said Don Wilson, who drove up from Philadelphia. "I’ve seen Chinese places with real good grease, and I’ve seen places whose grease makes me rethink whether I’d want to eat there."

There are two routes to grease-dom, but both of them tend to run through Internet sites where people buy kits to convert diesel engines to operate on vegetable oil.
Some people, like Mr. Kandell, buy the kit and install it themselves. Others hire someone like Wally Little of Wally’s Super Service in Mahopac, who has converted about 150 engines for vegetable use.

"I’ve had people in their 20’s, people in their 80’s, doctors, tree huggers — there’s no particular stereotype," he said. "It gets busy whenever oil prices come up. Normally, I get maybe 10 inquiries a week. Last week I had 50 or 60." It costs about $2,000 to convert a car, and most people make that up in a year with what they save on gas, he

But it’s not for everyone. You usually get the oil free, but you have to store it in vats and filter it yourself. So Mr. Lee, for example, has 1,200 gallons of the stuff lying around at home. It can spill or get messy, and unless you’re really conscientious about your filtering, you can face a clogged engine or a stalled car periodically.

Still, the fuel costs almost nothing, it’s much less polluting, and the geopolitics is right — you get your energy from the local pizza parlor, not some Middle Eastern oil colossus.
Jonathan Pratt, who owns the inn where the gathering was held, as well as two other restaurants, uses grease from all three to run his Ford pickup and figures he’s saved $6,000 in gas over the past year. He was the first customer for Mr. Little’s conversion.

"We didn’t know if it was working," he said. "So I looked in the owner’s manual and it said to confirm your vehicle is working properly on vegetable oil, go to the back of the car and smell the exhaust. If you smell the sweet smell of French fries, it’s working. And I went back there, took a sniff, and rode around all day with a big smile on my face."

Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company

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