As mass-scale biofuels come under closer scrutiny in the face of rising food costs, Asheville author Forest Gregg has come out with what’s been called the definitive work on using straight veggie oil as fuel.
“SVO” is both the title of the book and a common acronym for straight veggie oil. The unconventional fuel could be considered the fringe cousin of biodiesel, which uses vegetable oil as a raw ingredient but undergoes a chemical reaction to make it less viscous. Motorists can pump biodiesel into any diesel-powered vehicle at a number of local gas stations, but current prices are running as high as $4.89 per gallon.
SVO, on the other hand, can be considerably cheaper—but it requires tinkering with your vehicle. This is the alternative fuel of do-it-yourselfers who may spend their evenings securing discarded vegetable oil from restaurants, filtering it in the garage, and adjusting their typically vintage vehicles to run smoothly on grease. The main challenge is overcoming the fuel’s thickness, which can impede engine function. This is done through various methods of heating it up, and it usually involves dual fuel systems. The car runs on conventional diesel until engine heat brings the SVO to the proper temperature—at which point the driver switches to the SVO tank.
For his part, Gregg says he learned about SVO via full immersion. Shortly after graduating from college, he and some cohorts started The Runaway Circus, which later evolved into the Hootenanny Circus. Beginning in Tennessee, the travelers set off for the West Coast in a retrofitted diesel vehicle crammed with glittery costumes and juggling pins, keeping an eye out for restaurants that would be willing to part with their used fryer oil. While Gregg retains his friendships and lasting memories from the cross-country tour, he says journeying with an SVO vehicle turned out to be “a total nightmare. We spent so much time working on that thing.”
But the breakdowns and subsequent hours of frustration paid off in the end, inspiring Gregg to master the art of running on grease. Drawn to it for environmental reasons (the tailpipe emissions from an SVO vehicle are much cleaner than from one running on petroleum), he also liked the fuel’s small-scale, DIY nature. “Veggie oil is best suited for a locally distributed, decentralized system,” he says, though he acknowledges that it’s not feasible on a mass scale.
Gregg completed a two-year apprenticeship in Seattle with an outfit called Frybrid, which specializes in converting vehicles to run on straight, filtered vegetable oil. At the same time, he started digging around in the University of Washington library for in-depth information about how the oil interacts with a diesel engine. He hit the jackpot with three disparate sources: Society of Automotive Engineers technical papers, the Journal of American Oil Chemists’ Society, and information produced by the American Society of Agricultural Engineers.
“Half the time I was in the engineering library, and half the time I was at the agriculture library,” he says, but the mixed bodies of research provided a solid basis for SVO: Powering Your Vehicle With Straight Vegetable Oil (New Society Publishers, 2008). The book was edited by Hendersonville resident Richard Freudenberger, the editor of Back Home Magazine and the author of a book about using alcohol as a fuel.
Gregg’s aim from the start was to translate the technical information into a palatable but thorough text, a la John Muir’s classic 1969 car manual, How To Keep Your Volkswagen Alive. “This is the book that I wish I’d had,” says Gregg about his own 240-page how-to guide. Common pitfalls for SVO newbies include not heating the oil adequately and neglecting to filter it properly, which can damage an engine. “What I’m trying to do with the book is let people know about the choices they’re making,” he explains.
Speaking of choices, here’s a fair warning for anyone considering converting to SVO: It’s illegal. To avoid violating the Clean Air Act, you’d need a conversion kit certified by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency—and to date, there aren’t any. But while the EPA has clamped down on the compressed-natural-gas industry by forcing conversion-kit manufacturers into compliance (see “Cleaner, Cheaper Fuel Just Out of Reach,” June 4 Xpress), little has been done to target individuals who’ve made the switch to SVO, says Gregg.
Undeterred? Check out the author’s presentation at Malaprop’s Bookstore/Café in downtown Asheville on Sunday, June 22, starting at 3 p.m.