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Nathaniel Poole and his grease-mobile. (Peter Cheney/The Globe and Mail)
Nathaniel Poole and his grease-mobile. (Peter Cheney/The Globe and Mail)

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The high cost of driving for free Add to ...

Running a car on kitchen grease is a science lesson on wheels, with some economics thrown in: you learn about mechanics, thermodynamics and molecular chemistry. And you drive for free.

But free driving has a high price.

In photos: The kitchen-grease-powered van

Take it from Nathaniel Poole, who drives a 1991 Mitsubishi Delica van that runs on scavenged oil. Instead of pulling into a gas station, he drives around with an electric pump and lengths of tubing, sucking out the contents of restaurant grease vats and turning it into fuel.

Nathaniel Poole

Heading up the coast of Vancouver Island, Poole talks about his alternative-fuel odyssey. It began in 2013, when he found the Delica on Craigslist for $1,500. Working on his own, Poole cobbled together a set of mechanical adaptations that would allow the van to run on recycled grease: a second fuel tank, heavy-duty pumps and a heating element (called a Veggie-Therm) that wraps around the fuel line to keep the grease from clogging.

“I like figuring things out and coming up with my own solutions,” he says.

Grease car owners – also known as “greasers” – are a unique automotive subset. Although there are no official figures, there are probably only a couple of hundred in all of Canada. (Vancouver Island is a greaser hotbed, with about two dozen on the road.)

Peter Cheney

To make a grease car, you need something with a diesel engine, preferably at least two decades old (late-model diesels use a direct injection system with fine-tipped nozzles that clog up if you run grease through them). Among the favoured greaser machines are vintage diesel VW Golfs, 1980s Mercedes sedans and Mitsubishi Delicas such as Poole’s.

Originally produced for the Japanese market, the Delica has found a niche with greasers thanks to its attributes, which include a diesel motor, four-wheel drive and a body that lends itself to camper conversions. Grease car drivers tend to be self-sufficient – Poole spent several years living on a sailboat with his wife and last year, he drove his Delica from British Columbia to Mexico, sleeping in a pop-up tent he mounted on the roof and topping up his grease supply from fast-food restaurant disposal tanks.

Nathaniel Poole

Running the Delica has turned Poole into a grease connoisseur. Among his insights: the best, cleanest grease usually comes from bakeries that use it to deep-fry doughnuts. “They change the grease a lot, because it has to be fresh to make the doughnuts taste good,” he says.

If he can’t get grease from a bakery, Poole goes to restaurants with table service. When that doesn’t work, he goes to fast-food joints. Their grease is usually a major step down, filled with congealed animal fats and, on occasion, dead rats that met a liquid doom while seeking out a tasty meal of grease.

But the worst grease is often found in the alley disposal vats behind bars. As Poole has learned, many of them use their cooking grease until it turns into putrid black goo: “After a few drinks, the customers don’t notice what the food tastes like.”

Getting under way in a Mitsubishi Delica powered by kitchen grease is a bit like setting off in a Second World War-era submarine. You don’t just turn a key and go: there is extensive plumbing, multiple gauges and systems that must be understood.

Peter Cheney

Driving north along the Saanich Inlet, there’s a heavy, thumping sound coming from somewhere in the Delica’s aft compartment. Poole says that this comes from a heavy-duty pump that moves the grease from its tank.

Because recycled kitchen oil is thicker than diesel fuel, it won’t work until the engine and fuel lines are warmed up. You have to start the car with diesel, switch to kitchen oil once the engine temperature rises, then switch back to diesel for a few minutes before turning off the engine to make sure there’s no grease left in the fuel lines. If you forget, the grease coagulates, creating the automotive equivalent of a coronary – the fuel pipes end up packed with solidified grease, like the arteries of a man who has spent his life eating nothing but poutine.

Poole has made this mistake more than once. The fix is to get under the car with a propane torch and heat the fuel system until the grease in the system melts.

There are two ways to run a car on kitchen grease. The first is to refine it, turning it into bio-diesel that can be used like regular diesel fuel. One of Poole’s friends in Victoria uses this method and it’s anything but easy. The friend’s garage resembles a miniature refinery, packed with filters, tubing and barrels of methanol, a chemical that helps strip out glycerin from the grease.

Unfortunately, the benefits of this method are limited to the good feeling you get from turning waste into something useful: after paying for methanol and equipment, the bio-diesel ends up costing at least as much as diesel you buy at a gas station.

Then there’s the down-and-dirty method, which Poole has opted for: you collect the grease, run it through a couple of filters and put it in your car. The downside is that you have to install a secondary fuel system and go through the ritual of running diesel fuel for starting and stopping,

Invention and resiliency come in handy for the grease car owner. After spilling a container of rancid kitchen grease in his Delica, Poole made a welded steel rack so he could carry the containers outside. He installed large plastic storage barrels in his garage, so he could keep a grease supply on hand. He mounted a filter system on the wall. Then a rat gnawed one of the barrels to get at the grease and 200 litres of fuel disappeared.

“This isn’t the solution for everyone,” Poole says. “It only works for a few people. And I happen to be one of them.”

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