Wednesday, July 30th, 2008
Welcome to the new Circle A Cycles project blog. I know what you’re thinking. Projects? Like, clean the kitchen? Arrange the receipts alphabetically? Finally return that hat to the mall?
We may fall back on such prosaic tasks, but our hope is to become involved in more community activities, to widen the definition of “frame shop,” and to ever-increase the number of people we are privileged to call neighbors, friends, and comrades. Because it’s never just been about bikes, or at least never just about selling bikes. It’s about getting folks riding, but also walking, talking, working together. Because the things that keep us on bikes – concerns about health and the environment, trying to live simply and consciously, efforts to limit our supersized consumption – they don’t stop when we go home. So in these pages you’ll get to see some of the other things we’re up to.
And we start with a fun one: GREASE CAR CONVERSION.
Probably most of you are familiar with grease cars. I had been peripherally for a while; I knew a few folks who had converted their diesel cars to run on used veggie oil, and a few who brewed biodiesel or sought out commercially available biodiesel at the pump.
Very briefly for the uninitiated: Any diesel car or truck can run unmodified on biodiesel, which is diesel fuel made from veggie oil, methanol, and lye; diesels can also be modified to run on straight veggie oil (svo), which basically involves installing a parallel, heated fuel system – the grease has to be hot to work properly. This is what we embarked upon last weekend.
Also, in terms of general coolness and potential for doing neat stuff: diesel is pretty much exactly the same as home heating oil, so most of the things you can do with cars can apply to heating houses too. More on that later.
Greasecars are not for everyone. It’s not the sole solution to our energy problems, and the last thing we need are more excuses to drive. However, driving a greasecar, or making your own biodiesel, handily provides it’s own disincentives for using a car for the kind of small jaunts that account for 90% of American’s car use – trips under 5 miles, that would often be perfectly served by a bike. It’s messy, it’s a hassle, and it only works when the car is well heated up – so for trips less than 1/2 an hour, there’s really no point. Of course if you’re like me and think that an over-abundance of convenience is the worst thing about modern cars (and computers, can openers, microwaves, phonographs, indoor plumbing, and belts) then this is another reason to recommend it.
So it all began when we fell in with the fellow ne’er-do-wells at the Green Grease Monkeys in Boston. These folks are pretty rad, and are all about sharing the skills, getting more people involved, and generally mixing it up. For example, they’re working on fleet conversions of school buses and delivery trucks – the very vehicles that spend all day idling in traffic and spewing fumes down the lungs of our nations’ children, whom I am told are the future. Burning SVO is about half as polluting as burning regular petroleum diesel, and the carbon it releases was very recently pulled out of the air by the corn or soy that the oil was made from – unlike burning petroleum, which is releasing long hidden carbon.
The Monkeys occasionally do these workshops where they take a donor car and convert it to run on grease, while showing folks how it’s done and generally demystifying the process and serving as sage counsel. On saturday Circle A hosted such a workshop; we hauled some benches out the way to make room for that most rare of beasts, Automovilius Horribilus. Or more specifically, a Jetta wagon, recently donated by my mom to be Circle A’s occasional workhorse.
Here’s Patrick giving his opening motivational speech:
I’m happy to say that most of the participants where Recycle A Bike luminaries, including Brendan, Warren, Tom, and Adam (also of Monster Bike fame), in addition to Patrick and Lindsey of the Grease Monkeys and Garrett who shares our space and keeps us in high-octane espresso.
Here Jamie of the Monkeys demonstrates a system to use veggie oil in a conventional oil burner to heat your home.
Here’s the auxiliary grease tank that lives in the spare tire compartment. You don’t have to worry about getting a flat cuz you’re running on such good karma.
This is the heated veggie oil filter that makes sure the grease is clean and hot enough for the engine:
These are all of our butts:
In terms of the nuts and bolts of conversions, here are some good links:
As for my experience so far – we did the conversion in about 8 hours, including a good lunch break. Using an off-the-shelf kit as we did certainly speeds it up, but there’s no reason not to do it full DIY style as long as you get or make the appropriate heated filter and solenoids. I’m also going to be putting in a vacuum gauge to keep tabs on my fuel pressure, and a thermostat to watch the heat of the grease. I’ll report on those experiences in future.
In general I would say, if you are only using a car for short trips, you’d do just as well brewing or buying biodiesel. The key to longevity with grease cars appears to be making sure it’s good and warm before you switch to grease, and giving it plenty of time to purge before you shut down.
However, for long trips (or multiple short trips that don’t really let the engine cool down), burning straight grease is by far the cheapest, least polluting way to go. Unless you compare it to the real champ of efficient transportation. You know what I’m talking about. Patrick was kind enough to nod in our direction during his intro – the only really sustainable transportation was hanging on the walls of Circle A. Now go for a ride and get yourself some fried food! But say bye to the crew first!