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Biodiesel Diaries, Part I

David was drinking a Dr. Pepper, and so we cut that up, put it around the hose inside the tank, and clamped it down

By Novella Carpenter

Hey! NPR's All Things Considered just did a short spot on SVO (driving your diesel car on straight vegetable oil). A lot of people on the biodiesel and SVO listserve (www.biodiesel.infopop.cc) were pissed at the story because NPR made it seem like the only people who used SVO drove junkers that couldn't reach a speed over 45 miles per hour, that they use SVO kits sold by Greasel or NeoTeric and that--well, that veggie-oil enthusiasts are weird. The fact of the matter is, quite a number of SVOer folk run relatively new cars on grease, at high speeds, and all of that with a system they built themselves. Whether or not they're weird is still up for grabs.

To illustrate at least two of the principles--speed and homemade kits--take one superhero family: David Modersbach and Mali Blotta and their bambino, Emilio (age 4), who recently drove their SVO-converted 1981 VW Dasher from Northern California to Argentina. Whoa. This feat may confirm the weirdness factor, but I think they're the coolest. Enough so that I'm going to devote three--three!--columns to their amazing story.

I remember the day David started building his own SVO setup because my boyfriend Bill helped design and install the system. Bill noted, "When he first started putting it all together, there were a lot of little parts that were weak and would fail. So we started to get rid of them. David wanted to put the hoses down in the vegetable tank next to the copper, but I was totally against that. I knew that as the vegetable oil slurped around, it would get on the hose, which would crack, and then you'd get coolant in the tank. I strongly advised him not to do it, but he really wanted to. So I said, at least cover the hoses with something. David was drinking a Dr. Pepper, and so we cut that up, put it around the hose inside the tank and clamped it down."

And then, they were off. We got our first email from them five days later: "We're not in Argentina yet. We've traveled a whole lot, probably 1,600 miles. We've been stopping at restaurants and asking them for their used veggie oil. I do a little teaching about how it works, and people are usually pretty impressed. We take the oil and heat it in a big pot over the cook stove, and then pour it through paper-cone filters, and then into supercool sock filters to get it nice and clean to put in the tank. Then we start the car on the biodiesel and run it for about five minutes to get the fuel warm enough and flip a little switch--and voilà! So far, we've burned about 45 gallons of veggie oil and eight gallons of biodiesel and diesel. We had to buy diesel in south Utah for the first time, and it made our starts and stops really stinky.

"We crossed the Sierra Nevada, and then followed Highway 50, the 'loneliest road' across Nevada. Then we headed south through the Escalante Stairs area, where we decided to take a 39-mile 'shortcut' on a decent dirt road through the Escalante wilderness. After a jarring two-hour drive, we reached a spot where the road was too steep for our little Dasher. So under the moon, in a gorgeous yellow red canyon, we unloaded the car, and I prepared to drive it up the hill unladen, but then I backed it into sand, and it got stuck! After digging and then pushing it out, Mali sped up the hill to my and Emilio's cheers. Then we carried our luggage up the hill and were on our way again.

"So now we're in Tucson. I want to find a VW mechanic to look at the car--the engine is making a clinging sound that sounds like lots of diesels but usually not mine, and the alignment is wonky. We'll fill up with good Tucson oil and hit the border with about 600 miles of fuel on board. It's very exciting to be finally crossing into Mexico. This part of the journey seems like a holiday, but heading south is going to be an adventure, there is so much unknown."

Will they make it? Stay tuned next week.


Novella wished she could've gone on the trip; email her at novellacarpenter@yahoo.com.

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From the July 7-14, 2004 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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