Adler converted a Blue Bird Wanderlodge motorhome to run on waste vegetable oil, or as he put it, “live off the fat of the country.” The vegetable oil was free and diesel fuel was selling for $3.60 a gallon during his cross-country trip last summer, so it was a money-saving move.
Adler, a 40-year-old computer consultant who lives in Providence, Rhode Island, had already modified his Mercedes 350 SDL last year to run on waste vegetable oil so doing the same thing with an RV was the next logical step.
To do that, he needed a diesel motorhome with a big basement storage area and the strength to carry a heavy load. He found what he was looking for on eBay at an RV dealership in Junction City, Oregon. He flew to Oregon with his wife and three young children in July, paid $103,000 for a well-equipped 1997 Wanderlodge that he figures is worth about $150,000, and drove it to Seattle to be retrofitted by Christopher Goodwin, a mechanic who has developed a fuel conversion system he calls Frybrid.
The concept of using vegetable oil as fuel goes all the way back to the inventor of the diesel engine, Rudolph Diesel. The Frybrid Web site carries this 1911 quote from Diesel: “The use of vegetable oils for engine fuels may seem insignificant today. But such oils may become in the course of time as important as petroleum and the coal tar products of the present time.”
Adler was unaware of the technology until a friend mentioned a few years ago that cars could run on used cooking oil. “I thought it was the funniest thing I ever heard,” Adler said. When gas prices started going up, he researched the concept, acquired a Mercedes, bought and installed Frybrid components, and made a deal with two Chinese restaurants for a free supply of used vegetable oil.
Then, he decided to pioneer the technology in an RV. He said some Dartmouth students had already driven across the country in a “hippie bus” fueled by vegetable oil, but he wanted to be the first to do it in a luxurious motorhome.
He figured it would take about a week to get the components installed at the Frybrid shop in Seattle, but it proved to be a much lengthier and more complicated task than expected.
You can’t put vegetable oil in a diesel engine without modifications. You have to have a system to filter and heat the vegetable oil before it can be used, and the engine has to be warmed up with regular diesel fuel before it kicks over to vegetable oil. In other words, you have to have two fuel systems. And before you shut off the engine, you have to purge the vegetable oil from it, switching back to regular diesel fuel.
For the Wanderlodge, the additions included a 140-gallon tank to store waste vegetable oil, a filtration system that holds 58 gallons, and a 50-foot retractable hose to suck the oil out of waste bins. Adler said he paid about $5,000 for the system, which he figures he got at a bargain rate because it was a pioneering effort.
While the Wanderlodge was being converted into a veggie-mobile, Adler, his wife, Anke, and their three children had plenty of time to explore Seattle. Arriving in mid-July, they didn’t leave for home until Sept. 4. Once they began their cross-country return home, everything went well. They would drive a few miles on regular diesel and then the system would automatically switch to waste vegetable oil without a discernable difference. They took a jaunt up to British Columbia and then drove back through Montana, on to Chicago and finally arrived home in Providence on Sept. 28.
Along the way, Adler said, he had no trouble finding fuel. Used cooking oil can be found in waste containers in the back of every McDonald’s, Burger King and Wendy’s, Adler said, and since restaurants have to pay to dispose of it, they are happy to give it away. No one refused his request for it, Adler added.
There are variations in the quality of used cooking oil for fuel, with non-hydrogenated oil the best, according to Adler. Popular fast-food chains aren’t so good; Chinese buffets are the gold standard.
Adler figures he got no more than 5 to 7 miles per gallon on the road and less in the city, but who cares if the fuel is free?
He had no fear that using vegetable oil would damage his engine. “I don’t have so much money that I would take a risk with a $150,000 RV,” he said.
The main difference in burning vegetable oil, Adler added, is the aroma. “It smells like French fries. It makes you hungry.”
Adler does not expect a big rush to RVs powered by vegetable oil. The more practical approach, he said, is biodiesel, which converts natural oils to usable fuel for diesel engines without requiring the sort of modifications needed by raw vegetable oil. He said converting his RV to run on vegetable oil was essentially “an art project.”
Nevertheless, Adler is going forward with more vegetable oil conversions. He is working on an RV generator fueled by vegetable oil, and has installed a 1,500-pound generator in his garage that could use vegetable oil to heat and power his house. “I’ve been in a vegetable oil frenzy,” he said.
To learn more about vehicles that run on waste vegetable oil, visit www.frybrid.com or see Steve Adler’s projects at www.steveadler.com.
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