The Wild West of Waste Vegetable Oil

Our car is jerked by the wind as we drive highway I-84 toward Goldendale, Washington. Awaiting us there is Dave Johnson, who’s created a custom waste-oil-fuel-tank for my husband’s Mercedes 190 Diesel sedan. While we talk of which local restaurants may have spare waste oil for the new tank, I watch The Dalles Dam to our left. Water gushes through the gates churning out power.

Continuing around the bend of the river, we make our way across the bridge to Washington. Looming wind turbines spin–harvesting the relentless wind for electricity. Cresting the hill to Goldendale we see a newly built farmhouse, its roof lined with solar panels shining in the sun. Compared to these energy giants biofuels seem wild and primitive.

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Dave Johnson with his biofuel collection system. It allows him to get oil from anywhere, run it through a small filter connected to a bigger tank in the truck’s bed.

Dave Johnson meets us outside of his home in downtown Goldendale. It’s obvious he has a ‘chrome thumb’, so to speak. Car parts, tools and in-progress projects fill a majority of his lot. I have a feeling Mad Max would envy his mechanical menagerie. After 15 years mastering waste vegetable oil (WVO) conversions, Johnson has plenty to show us. Starting his “daily driver” – a Ford F-150 truck with a converted Mercedes diesel engine – he idles, letting the engine warm up before switching over to the waste oil tank. The engine purrs and a smell of fry oil fills the air. Johnson has installed custom gauges and switches in the cab and beautifully welded a 100-gallon fuel tank in the bed.

“There’s no loss of power and I can get in the high 20s for fuel economy,” says Johnson. “I can’t tell the difference between veggie and regular diesel.” One of the differences: accessibility.

The catch with waste oil is getting the oil. As Johnson explains, having a good source for oil is key. “When I lived in Seattle I could bring home 50 gallons a week easily,” says Johnson, “Here, I get oil from local stores and restaurants. You have to create good relationships.” But these sources are only able to provide him 15 gallons at the most when he comes to collect. Luckily that amount lasts him 4-5 months.

If you’ve ever seen a waste oil bin behind a restaurant, you know the contents aren’t what anyone would call ‘pure’. Most waste oil has food scraps, dirt, water and other contaminants. Johnson says waste grease can be problematic if it contains water; that can destroy the engine. Most of this comes out by settling and filtering the oil. The more pure the oil, the better the engine runs.

Johnson’s filtering process? Custom as you may expect. He has a 2000-gallon tank on his property in which he lets the oil settle. The oil’s only filtering is a run through re-purposed thrift store bed sheets. “The beauty of oil is you just let it sit and it processes itself,” says Johnson. After the oil settles he can use the waste oil in his fuel tank – simple. The best oil for fuel? Canola oil, Johnson claims. “It filters well and heats up quickly.” Heat is essential to a well running WVO engine.

Diesel is a lower-grade, less-refined product of petroleum. Crude diesel engines can run on almost any hydrocarbon fuel—hence the popularity of WVO conversions. While a standard diesel engine can run on WVO it still needs some regular diesel to start the car when the engine is cold. That being said, once the engine is warm, waste oil can fuel the vehicle until the next time you turn off the engine.

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Johnson recalls a cross-country trip to Chicago using less than a quarter tank of diesel. This may seem unbelievable, but he was able to collect waste oil along the way. “I would give a big tip to restaurants that gave me grease,” he said. He spoke fondly of the people he met: restaurant owners and those that had oil to spare. Johnson says those relationships are the real value. “I have lots of friends that also do this work. Some have other ideas or skills, but we all work together to bounce ideas off each other.”

That sense of community and helping others is what connected my husband to him in the first place. For Johnson, his generosity in teaching others from his experience comes from within. “The real reward is when you help people and do the right thing. It makes you happy.”

Among his talents, Johnson also makes excellent goat cheese (which we sampled), kefir and rye whiskey. These he gives to friends or trades. “I try to trade as much as I can – cheese, anything.” Originally from Indiana, Johnson says the do-it-yourself, re-purpose and salvage mentality started early on. “It’s taking something that isn’t, and making something out of it.” Johnson’s life style is all about salvage: his home is built from recycled materials and his green house from re-purposed well pipes.

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Add a fuel tank and a standard diesel car becomes one that runs on biofuels.

Johnson shows us the waste vegetable oil tank he has built for our Mercedes. It’s welded with fittings that link up with the Mercedes’ design and fits in the trunk of the car perfectly. We thank him for his help and kindness, purchase the tank, and then begin our journey back home.

So why don’t more people run biofuels or convert their vehicles to run WVO? Unfortunately, there are complications. In the gorge, the only place you can buy any type of biofuel is at The Dalles Safeway. They offer B-20, which is a mix of regular diesel and 20 percent processed biodiesel. The next closest locations are in the Portland area. Biofuel mixes are similarly priced to regular diesel, but locations that offer Biofuel and diesel mixes are few and far between.

WVO conversion kits are available, but are expensive and take mechanical skill to install and operate. If you are able to create a DIY system and maintain the WVO conversion, there is still the matter of finding a waste oil source. This will only get more difficult as the popularity of bio-fuels and WVO conversions continue. Companies like Rogue Biofuels pay restaurants for their waste oil. Competition for oil is already beginning and individuals may not have access to free waste oil in the future.

Even with these factors weighing against the progress of biofuels, people like Dave Johnson are urging it forward. By teaching and inspiring others, biofuels become less of a mystery, and more of a revelation. Who knows, in time, biofuel use may grow to be the dominant renewable power on our drives down I-84.

About the Author:

Kelsey Alsheimer, raised in Anchorage, Alaska, she graduated from Washington State University with a Bachelor in Communication and a Minor in Fine Arts. While at school, she met her husband to be, Taylor, and they now live in The Dalles, OR. With full time work and play, Kelsey also finds time to chip away at her children’s book, volunteer at the Columbia Gorge Arts Center and contribute to envirogorge.

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