By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
“A veggie system is not that complicated,” Joel explained as we stood among the various garages and sheds in the work area behind his house. Joel is about 6-foot-2. His red and rugged skin, sandy blond hair and freckled hands suggest a lot of time spent in the sun. In addition to starting his small oil-distribution network, Joel is the closest thing to an official Greasel installer on the West Coast. You order the parts, and for an extra fee he’ll install them, along with some of his own custom additions, and do maintenance if necessary.
Around the yard were all manner of veggie-power engineering: filtering socks dripping oil into buckets; 52-gallon drums storing the finished product; a 1992 Power Ram 250 Cummins Turbo that became Joel’s first veggie vehicle; and a down-and-out Suzuki Samurai that, when repainted and outfitted with a Volkswagen 1.9-liter “vegged out” diesel, will surely be the sharpest biomass-burning teen-market leisure jeep in history.
But the real mechanical monument to Joel’s faith in straight veg is his recently acquired 2003 Dodge Ram Crew Cab short-bed 4X4 with a 24-valve Cummins diesel fuel-rail system. He voided the warranty on the $38,000 powerhouse to install his Greasel components, which he proudly exhibited after opening the hood. There were two fuel lines coming into the engine, one connected to the standard diesel tank, and the other to a steel box that he’d welded in back behind the cab. He’d also added his own transparent filter, which indicates the status of the tank filter further up the line and detects whether there’s vegetable oil or diesel in the system. “You have to start the engine on diesel, and that heats the oil,” he explained. “And you have to cycle the vegetable oil out when you turn it off, so there’s none in there when it’s cold.” Switching back and forth is easier than it sounds, Joel said. “Here, I’ll show you.”
We took the “’03” for a spin. Five minutes out, Joel flipped a tiny switch hanging from the dash. “Now, we’re veg.” The engine’s clang and grind smoothed out slightly, and the aromatic bite of the diesel fuel was replaced by a sweeter, balmier perfume of chilaquiles. Or maybe it was al pastor. “If you get your grease from a donut shop, she smells like donuts,” Joel exclaimed. “If it’s a Thai place, the whiff is pad Thai. Today, as you can tell, I’m running Mexican.”
Joel claims that the Greasel gets better performance than diesel; that veggie power amps the low-end torque, which he can feel when ascending the Dennison Grade coming back from the coast, and the gas pedal still has a little lift, even when towing. And according to Charlie, dyno tests, a widely used automotive-performance measuring system, have confirmed that oil has more horsepower than diesel. Some oils, he says, provide a bigger kick than others, with the best coming from Japanese restaurants: “A good tempura place will make your Greasel run smooth, and it burns real clean.”
How clean? No one has tested the tempura thesis specifically, but both biodiesel and straight-veg fuels have been shown to significantly diminish the particulate matter and extremely toxic emissions that are a known problem with petroleum diesel. They also cut down on greenhouse gases. Robert McCormick, a scientist at the Department of Energy’s National Renewal Energy Lab (NREL), explained how the life cycle of carbon dioxide released by vegetable-based fuel is closed. Carbon dioxide is metabolized by plants through photosynthesis, so the “carbon released by burning this year’s soybeans can be reabsorbed into next year’s soybeans.” But fossil carbon, locked away for millions of years, becomes a net surplus when it’s burned; once free, it cannot be re-circulated.”
Among most straight-veg enthusiasts, however, the main appeal is the price of fuel, which is zero. Take J.P. Jenkins, an 82-year-old RV trekker who answered the phone one day at the Greasel headquarters while Charlie and Perry were still in Puerto Rico. Jenkins pulls his 35-foot Mountaineer — “top of the line, including three slide-outs” — with a three-quarter-ton Dodge that he converted to veg last spring. Since then, J.P. has been an oil-collecting blur on the interstate, in constant transit between his home in Port Orchard, Washington, and family destinations in Illinois and Las Vegas, heating his found grease to the right temperature using a turkey thermometer, filtering it and pouring it into his 200-gallon tank.
I asked if that wasn’t a pain in the ass, especially for a retiree.
“Not unless you call ‘free,’ as in F-R-E-E, a pain in the ass.”
Besides, he was there to get Greasel’s new NOMAD tank, which will do all the heating and filtering automatically.
Is that worth the thousand bucks it’ll cost?
“Abso-tittle pot-a-loo-loo! Worth every penny. I’ll make that back in a few months.”
This is the same sentiment (if worded differently) that John Lin expresses about his Greasel works, which he takes a step further through vertical integration. John owns his own Jack in the Box, making him both user and supplier, with a personal reserve of 10 gallons of waste vegetable oil a day. A couple of years ago he bought a 20-year-old Mercedes 300SD, called Charlie Anderson, and started filling up out back. His family thought he was crazy, he explained as we stood at the work site of his second Jack in the Box, in Irvine, across the street from the University of California campus. His wife, Pranee, smiled and nodded in agreement. She still thinks he’s a little crazy. They were grilling a special lunch for the 20 or so workers who were building John’s “American dream,” which was still a frame of posts and chipboard and dust and hardhats. The Mercedes ran well, and ran cheap, and so John decided to upgrade.
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