“During the really cold nights, below 35 degrees, I’m even nervous [using biodiesel in my car] about [getting] stuck somewhere, because the biodiesel has jellified,” she says. “However, in San Diego I don’t really have to worry about that most of the year. You run the same risk with the vegetable oil, except it would solidify at an even higher temperature. That’s why people who use straight vegetable oil usually add heaters to their car to keep the oil less viscous than it is at room temperature. So it really depends.”
The Biofuel Action and Awareness Network is an on-campus group devoted to both educating the community about alternative fuels and implementing their use on campus, starting with university transportation vehicles. The network is currently working on a reactor that will allow them to make batches of biodiesel themselves.
Back in La Mesa, Paul turns on another of his veggie vehicles, a cherry-red Mercedes. Though not nearly as loud as the Unimog, it’s still a noisy car, engine jolting as it roars to life. A jet of smoke explodes from the exhaust pipe. It smells like a deep fryer.
“There’s Thai oil in there,” Patrzalek explains, smiling proudly.
Patrzalek’s business, named Greasel My Diesel, evolved shortly after he went veggie, when friends and friends of friends began to approach him about doing conversions of their cars. So far, he estimates he’s done 10–15 conversions. His clients, he says, are mostly environmentally minded people who want to go the extra mile to help minimize the effects of fuel emissions.
“They’re either going to be…very environmentally aware, into mountain biking or cycling, surfing,” Patrzalek says of his clients. “[They’re] just environmentally conscious people. [People] that would probably be eating organic food, aware of the environment. It’s usually not a cost thing. I mean, granted, it’s enticing, but mainly it’s people who are just concerned about the environment.”
With a vegetable oil car, fuel cost is not an issue; the harvesting of oil, however, is. Restaurants are the prime sources of waste vegetable oil and must pay to have it removed from their facilities. Many, according to Patrzalek, are happy to give it up and hand it off to him in the same five-gallon jugs they purchased it in. He can harvest, he says, 5–15 gallons per restaurant; two or three restaurants are enough to fuel his fleet of three — soon to be four — veggie oil vehicles.
Connor gets his oil primarily from Asian restaurants.
“Local places support it,” he writes. “The big nationwide chains couldn’t care less. Chili’s, however, has been great to me.”
“I enjoy it,” says Patrzalek, speaking of harvesting oil. “I enjoy picking it up. I go hunt it down. I enjoy the whole thing of it.”
Others, however, may not. The process is, as Patrzalek describes it, “gross,” not to mention laborious. First, one must locate oil sources and figure out how and when to pick it up. Also, before the oil can be used, it must be filtered to ensure it is free of food debris and other contaminants. For this process, Patrzalek uses a large plastic drum with a special kind of nylon filter attached to it that catches whatever gunk should not be in his fuel. This “home-fueling station” is kept in a shed in Patrzalek ‘s backyard, along with extra steel cans of filtered oil.
Every new oil source Patrzalek finds, he screens.
“If I find a resource and they agree to let me have it, I’ll take home a gallon, and I’ll watch it and I’ll see if water settles on it, how much fat is in it, or anything like that,” he says. “I’ve been at places where I actually won’t use the oil, it’s too dirty or it’s got too much fat [or] too much water in it.” Patrzalek says he disposes of the unacceptable grease in the restaurant’s grease traps, though having gotten his filtration and harvesting system down to a science, this happens less often than it used to.
But there are other drawbacks, which Connor outlines.
“Grease is like glue,” he writes. “It sticks to everything. [Also] grease smells [and] you have to keep things clean. You [also] can’t drive up to your local Shell station and buy grease; it takes time to find a source and then time to ensure you have good, filtrated grease.”
Difficult or not, grease car drivers persist and, for the moment, restaurant vegetable oil is relatively plentiful. There are, however, others out there that have found a use for the same product. Biofuel companies like San Diego upstart New Leaf Biodiesel, a corporation that is currently working on producing biodiesel for wholesale purposes, are installing locked boxes on restaurant premises for oil collection. New Leaf’s website boasts a laundry list of restaurants that have provided them with oil, well over 100 in all.
“Basically, we want to help clean up San Diego’s air quality by providing biodiesel and recycling a local product into local fuel,” says David Richards, co-founder of New Leaf. “We want to help transform the way fleets are using fuel by providing them with a cleaner alternative energy such as biodiesel.”
New Leaf is constructing its facility in Barrio Logan and plans to officially open in late April or early May.
Patrzalek, who still has his stock of oil sources, has mixed feelings on the subject.
“I mean, it’s great that they want to collect it and filter it and sell it, but I think there’s also a point where I kind of like the idea of still getting it for free,” he says. “I think it should totally be accessible. If people are willing to go through all the trouble of collecting it themselves and using it, I think it’s fantastic. I mean, I understand capitalism and whatnot, but it’s kind of rad that you can do that. If there’s no free vegetable oil available, that would totally suck.”
“I think it’s great,” says Richards enthusiastically, speaking of grease car drivers. “I think that what they’re doing is awesome. They have the same intentions as [we do], using alternative renewable fuels, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it. I think it’s great that they’re running an alternative or renewable fuel in their vehicles.”