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Drivers switch off gasoline at Yorktown expo

(Original Publication: May 1, 2006)


People usually venture up the woodsy, winding roads to Peter Pratt’s Inn for the fine cuisine and bucolic atmosphere, not to talk about fuel economy or carbon emissions.

But when gas prices soar past $3 a gallon, people do funny things — like become environmentalists.

"We did it to save money," owner Jonathan Pratt said of his decision in 2004 to convert his Ford F-250 pickup to run on the vegetable oil he used to pay to have carted away. "All this other stuff I learned about after the fact."

Pratt, who also owns Umami Cafe in Croton, invited others who share his enthusiasm for vegetable oil-powered cars to meet at his Croton Heights Road restaurant for the second straight year yesterday.

The event, dubbed Grease-stock 2006, saw 50 or more people drive up in Mercedes-Benzes, Volkswagens and various trucks. They discussed the mechanics, economics and political impact of this latest trend in beating the high cost of getting around.

And they may just have helped save the environment in the process.

Robin Kanick of Mahopac wanted to see what he could learn as he converts his Chevrolet Suburban to run on fryer grease. His motivation is pretty much split between his desire to save money and his belief that it is the right thing to do.

Kanick is also building a new house, and his commitment to saving energy will affect his construction and the kind of materials he uses.

"People who are into this stuff, it should be a way of life," Kanick said.

Charley Ewen of Scarsdale appeared to listen closely as he got a few tips from the master, Mahopac mechanic and "greasecar" pioneer Wally Little (www.wallyssuperservice.com). Ewen had the idea to switch from gas to vegetable oil for a while. On Friday, Ewen got his 1998 GMC truck converted. He bought the car on eBay for just that purpose because the $5,000 his family spent on gas last year was just too much to bear.

Little didn’t invent the process, but he seems intent on perfecting it, having performed more than 150 conversions since Pratt first came to him with the idea and a conversion kit two years ago.

Every time gas prices spike, as they are now and did in 2005, he is inundated with calls and business picks up.

There’s still a learning curve to the process — he knows more now about properly heating and filtering the oil. And he acknowledges there’s a bit of work for owners to do. But he’s convinced the environmental benefit is worth it.

"I’ve become more and more green, to my surprise," Little said. "As (Pratt) put it, I’m not growing my own clothes, but I do care about the environment."

Pratt’s truck bears stickers that read "Powered by vegetable oil." He purchased his kit from Greasecar Vegetable Fuel Systems in Florence, Mass. Little said conversion costs roughly $2,000 for a car and closer to $5,000 for a truck.

Only diesel engines can be converted to run on vegetable oil, which is usually provided free by restaurants that otherwise would have to pay to dispose of it. The savings from burning free oil versus costly gasoline makes the investment pay for itself in about a year.

The car kit heats up the vegetable oil to the proper viscosity. From there, the driver can throw a switch at will that makes the car run on either diesel or vegetable oil. A separate fuel tank for the vegetable oil must be kept in the car trunk or the truck bed.

The idea isn’t so radical. After all, it’s just what inventor Rudolf Diesel, who patented the diesel engine in 1892, had in mind. The design was originally meant to let the engine run on peanut oil.

"My family is kind of tired of me talking about it," said John Bernz, a friend of Pratt’s who had his Ford truck changed over last year. "But I’m converted. I’ve seen the light, and I’ve seen the grease."

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