“Hey – have you heard about Willie Nelson’s tour bus? It runs on french fry grease from fast-food places! All he has to do is pull up next to a McDonald’s, and they pump it right in.”
Fun story, but not quite accurate. Yes, his tour bus does run on biodiesel, which can be made from recycled cooking oil, among other things. But it’s not as if Nelson’s driver can simply pull up to a drive-through window and say, “Give me two large fries, and could you throw in the oil they were cooked in, too, please? I’m on E.”
What is biodiesel, exactly, and where can I get it?
Biodiesel is a renewable, clean-burning diesel replacement, the first commercial-scale fuel that meets the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s definition as an advanced biofuel. This means the agency has determined that biodiesel reduces greenhouse gas emissions by more than 50 percent when compared with petroleum diesel (also called “petrodiesel.”) And yes — it is indeed created from processing recycled cooking oil, along with soybean and other plant oils, animal fats and soon, algae. The fuel is produced by taking those fats and oils, adding alcohol and a catalyst to them and applying heat to the mixture. This causes a chemical reaction that strips out the glycerin.
Most of what’s called biodiesel is a blend of biodiesel and petrodiesel. The most commonly used blend is B20. The number after the letter stands for the percentage of biodiesel in the blend; B20 is 20 percent biodiesel; B100 is pure biodiesel.
Biodiesel can be purchased in bulk from fuel distributors or at the pump from nearly 2,000 retail locations from New York to California, and nearly every state in between. You can find a stateby-state list of both retail and bulk distributors at www.biodiesel.org. If there are no stations nearby, you may have to order biodiesel and have it delivered to you. Make sure you get it from a reputable dealer and never from someone’s backyard operation.
You may be asking, “Can I just go ahead and pump it into my mower or truck, then?” I asked Kaleb Little, communications director for the National Biodiesel Board, Jefferson City, Missouri, that question. He says yes, you can pump it into just about any diesel mower. “A B20 biodiesel blend is going to perform almost identically to petroleum diesel. You don’t really have to make any modifications.” It’s the same for trucks and other vehicles.
But before you go ahead and start pumping biodiesel into your mower, truck or other machine, check with the manufacturer first. For instance, John Deere’s website states that all its diesel engines can use biodiesel blends, preferably B5 — but blends up to B20 can be used provided they meet the American Society for Testing and Materials’ standard D6751. Deere advises against using blends higher than B20, as it can damage its mowers’ emissions systems.
On its website, Toro cautions: “Biodiesel blends alter combustion and exhaust temperatures and may impact the performance or durability of some new emissions control technologies when used in a Tier 4 engine. Equipment owners are advised to check carefully with their OEMs regarding permitted fuels or fuel blends and their use in Tier 4 equipment.”
Kris Kiser, CEO of the Outdoor Power Equipment Institute, Alexandria, Virginia, says, “This varies by brand, so it’s critically important to use only the fuels that are specified by the original equipment manufacturer. There may be some OEMs that advise against using a certain biodiesel blend. It’s critically important that you read your owner’s manual because with fuel, one size no longer fits all.” If you’re still in doubt after that, check with the tech support department of the company that made your mower.
Before you explore using biodiesel in your own operation, you might want to know what the experience of some very large groundskeeping departments around the country has been.
A cleaner, greener NYC (and its Parks Department)
Reducing emissions is the reason the New York City Parks Department decided to test using biodiesel for its landscaping equipment and vehicles almost two decades ago. “It started as a pilot program back in 2005,” says Gabe Ramos, deputy chief of operations.
“There were a lot of discussions at that time about high pollutants from diesel exhaust,” explains Ramos. “They’d created so much pollution in the city that we thought we ought to explore biodiesel as an option.”
The first test was at Cove Lake on Staten Island. “A couple of vehicles participated in the pilot and it was very successful,” continues Ramos. “Only one of the vehicles had a problem with the biodiesel, and we believe that was only because the fuel had been in the tank for too long a period of time.”
No special modifications to the equipment or vehicles were needed. “NYC Parks has an extremely diverse fleet,” says Paris Apollon, chief of operations for citywide services. “There are more than 46 different types of vehicles that use this product. But we didn’t have to make any changes — no upgrades were required and no warranties were voided. It was a smooth transition from regular diesel to biodiesel.”
Since 2005, when the department began the initial pilot program, over a thousand vehicles run on the alternative fuel. “All of our diesel vehicles now use biodiesel,” says Apollon. “We started with a small number of vehicles. Since then, we’ve transitioned to where 100 percent of our vehicles are using it.”
A less smoky Smoky Mountains National Park
Straddling eastern Tennessee and western North Carolina, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is world-renowned for its natural beauty and the diversity of plant and animal life that can be found there. It’s America’s most-visited national park.
According to an article published by the National Biodiesel Board, the park began using biodiesel blends to power its diesel vehicles and equipment in 2003, with the initiative going parkwide in 2006.
Today, B20 made from used fryer grease and soybean oil powers heavy equipment used to maintain the park such as dump trucks, graders, frontend loaders, a bucket truck and more. Additionally, Bioheat (a trademarked blend of heating oil and biodiesel) is used to heat the park’s headquarters.
As with New York City, the impetus for the changeover was a desire to reduce emissions. “Because the southern Appalachians are downwind of many urban areas, industrial sites and power plants in the eastern U.S., the Smokies’ air resources have been significantly degraded by nitrogen and sulfur air pollutants, impacting human health, visitor enjoyment and ecosystems,” says Jim Renfro, the park’s air quality specialist.
Did it work? Well, numbers don’t lie: In 2016, the park used 43,085 gallons of B20 biodiesel. This resulted in a 15 percent reduction in carbon dioxide, a 12 percent reduction in carbon monoxide, a 20 percent reduction in both hydrocarbon and sulfur dioxide and a 12 percent reduction in particulate matter.
For Harvard, a new emissions policy
In 2004, Harvard University’s Campus Services Department decided it was time to graduate to a greener way of fueling the vehicles and machines that maintain its grounds.
“Back then, everyone was talking about the ‘dynamic triangle,’” says David Harris, director of transit and fleet management. “One side of the triangle was, our country wanted to reduce its dependence on foreign oil; second, we wanted to start producing fuel from a renewable resource; and third, those renewable resources needed to be cleaner-burning, with fewer emissions.”
Harris was charged with finding more sustainable ways to fuel equipment and reduce emissions campus-wide. He soon found that testing biodiesel “put us on the leading edge. When we first started getting biodiesel delivered, we were getting it in 55-gallon drums. That tells you how pioneering we were.”
He says, at the time, truck manufacturers would not warranty the use of biodiesel blends in any of their diesel engines. “So, we used vehicles whose warranties had expired. When we saw how successful these tests were and how we never had any problems with the biodiesel, even in the winter, we built our own biodiesel fueling station. Now we deliver 2,000 gallons of biodiesel per week — 100,000 gallons annually, and every campus vehicle uses it.”
Harvard’s Landscape Services Department is the heaviest user, powering approximately 18 pieces of medium- to heavy-duty equipment with the alternative fuel — skid loaders, a mini excavator, two full-sized loaders and two medium-duty turf tractors. One of those tractors is used for towing aerators or dispensers for liquid fertilizer. The other tractor has a bucket for loading mulch, sand or salt in the winter.
Biodiesel also powers a pair of gang mowers (mowers with multiple cutting reels, capable of cutting 20- to 30-foot swaths in one pass) used to manicure the school’s athletic fields.
The cost factor
At this point, you may be saying, “Sure — big-city parks departments, national parks and elite universities have big budgets to play with. But what about a small- to medium-sized landscape company like mine? Would I see any cost savings by switching?
When diesel fuel was $5 a gallon, biodiesel was a bargain. One contractor in North Carolina made his own, but stopped when used cooking grease, which he used to get for free, became a commodity.
“If you already have diesel equipment, the upfront cost to switch to biodiesel is basically nonexistent,” says Little. “The only change is you might need to heat storage tanks or change some filters early on.”
“But if you know how to drive a diesel truck or fill up a diesel lawn mower, then you know how to fill up a biodiesel-fueled truck or a biodiesel-fueled lawn mower. The B20 blend performs, operates, acts, looks and smells just like diesel fuel.”
Did the change to biodiesel save NYC Parks any money? Not really, says Ramos. “But we didn’t implement this program as a cost-saving measure,” he insists. “It was about being more sustainable, doing the right thing for the environment.” However, the program did benefit from a couple of incentives from the federal government.
You probably won’t save a great deal of money by switching to biodiesel unless the price of petrodiesel skyrockets. If that’s your sole motivation, it’s probably not worth it. On the other hand, if it’s a breakeven deal that helps keep the planet cooler and cleaner, why not try it?
What about maintenance?
Biodiesel isn’t any harder on diesel equipment than regular diesel is, nor it is any harder to work on machinery that’s using it. In fact, Ramos says the greater lubricity of biodiesel has made NYC Parks’ equipment run even better.
Even so, the department’s transition to biodiesel wasn’t 100 percent smooth. “There are always problems when you try something new,” Apollon says. “We discovered that, when the weather is extremely cold, biodiesel becomes a gel.” Both regular diesel and biodiesel will gel up in cold weather, but while petrodiesel generally starts to gel at around 12 degrees Fahrenheit, soy-based biodiesel will start gelling at around 30 degrees F.
“So, in addition to using special chemical additives, which our vendor puts in, we add more on an as-needed basis,” says Ramos. “We also switch to 5 percent biodiesel in the winter months, going back to B20 when the weather turns warmer.”
Another snag was biodiesel’s short shelf life. “You can’t store it for extended periods of time because it degrades,” says Ramos. “With vehicles that get fresh fuel on a regular basis, say, once a week or every other week, you won’t have problems. But if the product sits and overwinters in the fuel tank, say in a mower, that’s problematic.”
Biodiesel also acts as a solvent. “If you have an old vehicle with some debris in the tank, that dissolved stuff can clog the lines in your fuel injectors and create a no-start condition,” adds Ramos. “It’s something that people need to consider when using this product.”
Fuel of the future?
Will biodiesel eventually replace gasoline or regular diesel entirely? “Probably not,” says Little. “That’s not necessarily our goal, but it’s a piece of the puzzle.”
“Energy security as a nation is an important thing,” he continues. “All the nonrenewable fuel sources have an end point, so any little bit that we can sustainably create, year after year, will be that much better for us in the long run.”
Is biodiesel right for you and your business? Only you can determine that. If you’re marketing yourself as an eco-friendly landscaper, then using biodiesel makes sense, along with solar and battery power. Or if you’re a person who simply feels strongly that you should do everything you can to help the planet, then biodiesel just might deserve to get the green light.
Myths vs Facts
MYTH: Biodiesel doesn’t perform as well as diesel. Fact: It has a higher cetane level than U.S. diesel fuel. B20 provides similar fuel economy, horsepower, torque and haulage rates as diesel fuel. It also has superior lubricity and the highest BTU content of any alternative fuel.
MYTH: No objective quality standard exists for it. Fact: Just like gasoline and diesel, biodiesel has fuel-quality specifications.
MYTH: Biodiesel doesn’t work in cold weather. Fact: Properly managed, high-quality biodiesel blends are successful in the coldest of climates. Just like No. 2 diesel, biodiesel will gel in very cold temperatures. Blends of 5 percent and below have virtually no impact on cold weather operability. See www.biodiesel.org for more information.
MYTH: Biodiesel production contributes to rising food prices. Fact: Biodiesel benefits the world’s protein supply. Processing biodiesel from soybeans uses only the oil portion of the soybean, leaving all the protein available to nourish livestock and humans.
MYTH: Biodiesel production increases the amount of greenhouse gases because it causes land to be cleared. Fact: U.S. biodiesel is an advanced biofuel, reducing life cycle carbon emissions by up to 86 percent. New cropland isn’t needed to make biodiesel because it’s produced from the co-products and byproducts of crops already grown for food or materials.
MYTH: Using biodiesel will void your manufacturers’ engine warranty. Fact: Use of biodiesel in and of itself does not void the parts and workmanship warranty of any vehicle or engine manufacturer. Nearly 90 percent of the medium- and heavy-duty truck OEMs support the use of biodiesel blends up to B20, and many of them have done so for over a decade. For specific statements from manufacturers, visit www.biodiesel.org.
(Source: National Biodiesel Board)
The author is senior editor of Irrigation & Green Industry magazine and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.