Leslie Rith-Najarian, Bemidji Pioneer
Published Friday, June 20, 2008
To avoid the gas pumps, many people have begun to go to new – and sometimes unusual – lengths.
Dan Houg’s vegetable-oil-powered car is an innovative example of this. Houg, who lives in Bemidji, is the chief engineer at KAXE radio station in Grand Rapids. For the past seven months he has been driving a 1991 Volkswagen Jetta that has been converted to run off of any type of vegetable oil. So far, he has driven about 17,000 miles on waste vegetable oil.This car is not the first of its kind; however, most vegetable-oil-powered cars are used in warmer climates. Because of this difference, Houg had to spend extra time researching how to modify an engine that could function in northern Minnesota's climate.
n order to use this specific fuel method, in addition to the original diesel fuel system, the creation of an entirely separate heated fuel system for the vegetable oil was required. Houg explained that the car starts up on diesel, then after driving six miles, the vegetable oil has warmed up enough to liquefy and he can switch the fuel lines. The car must shut down again on diesel so as not to congeal the fuel lines.
The car can take fuel that comes from vegetable oil discarded from deep fat fryers. Vegetable oil is an attractive alternative for many reasons – it’s renewable, resourceful, low in particulates, and produced domestically. Houg specifically pointed out that waste vegetable oil is distinguished from biodiesel. His fuel is filtered in a four-stage procedure instead of being mixed with chemicals in a more complicated, hazardous process. The mileage achieved with this fuel form is an impressive 45 miles per gallon.
Houg has been getting his oil from ARAMARK food services at Bemidji State University. ARAMARK has been using Frymax Sun Supreme, a non-hydrogenated sunflower oil that was specifically selected for more healthful frying. This selection worked out perfectly for Houg because he believes that it is the non-hydrogenation that has allowed the engine to work in cold temperatures.
“There is a hint of delicious, peppery fried food in the exhaust, but for the most part it smells like burning vegetable oil as you might have when drips fall on the stove,” said Houg.
He said that he has been extremely impressed at how well the engine has held up. There have been no complications to date, and the only maintenance required is switching the vegetable oil filter every 2,500 miles. Also, the car handles cold far better than expected. Houg has driven the vehicle in minus-30-degree weather, and there were only four occasions this winter when he couldn’t use it.
Still, the whole idea isn’t quite unblemished. Essentially he said he’s trading time and labor for money. The fuel filtration process is time consuming; however, in four hours Houg can prepare 50 gallons. Considering the amount of money saved, he calculates his earnings to be about $50 per hour for his labor.
The only other hitch is a specific Department of Revenue excise tax on cars that burn vegetable oil. Regardless, Houg said that the 20-cent-per-gallon fee is incomparable to the amount of money he is saving.
“The best part is beating the fuel prices,” Houg said. “I no longer have to obsess about my mileage. When I hear the diesel prices are up, it no longer affects me.”
It is because of his altered car that Houg has been able to keep his much-loved job. His daily commute is 125 miles, and with gases prices the way they are, paying for that much diesel would not be at all practical.
The engine conversion process can be completed by any person who knows his or her way around a car engine. As Houg put it, “It’s not rocket surgery.”
However, he also said this alternative isn’t for everyone. Since the car must run for a few miles before the vegetable oil is warm enough to use, it’s not overly practical for those living short distances from their destinations. On the other hand, Houg does encourage this fuel option for those who travel long distances often.
For those inspired to attempt an alteration themselves, or simply to learn more, a more detailed explanation of the motor and filtration process can be found at kaxeengineer.blogspot.com.
The positive feedback and thumbs-up that Houg receives on the road have inspired him to take his ideas further. In addition to broadcasting information about his “grease car” to the public, Houg is now getting ready to step into the political arena. He recently received a letter from the Department of Revenue encouraging him to become part of a movement working to change Minnesota’s policy toward alternative fuel users. This initiative interested Houg and he is preparing to meet with politicians and gathering further information on waste vegetable oil usage.
There will be more to come from Houg and updates can be heard on KAXE stations, 91.7 Grand Rapids, 105.3 Bemidji, 89.9 Brainerd, or found on his Web site. For now, he can be seen driving around town in his blue Jetta emblazoned with vegetable oil pride.