Call the owner of Ojai’s Veg Powered Systems a veggie-oil fanatic, but don’t call him a hippie
By Kit Stolz 08/14/2008
The idea of driving a vehicle powered by vegetable oil reeks of the hippie lifestyle: It’s a homegrown technology, seemingly far out of the mainstream, and requires a continuing commitment to the often messy process of filtering waste vegetable oil, usually begged from restaurants. The fact that the exhaust from a “vegged” vehicle can smell like donuts or French fries or Mexican food only adds to the overall hippie image. But though the leading purveyor of “veg-powered” vehicles in Ventura County sometimes jokes about “running Mex,” he also makes it clear that he doesn’t wear tie-dye, doesn’t eat granola and just plain doesn’t like hippies.
“Not even a little bit,” declares Joel Woolf. He mentions that he let one group of self-declared hippies stay over at his place in Upper Ojai one night a couple of years ago while he was converting their bus to vegetable oil fuel, only to discover they were “abusing his property.” He threw them out.
Woolf is a big man, over 6 feet tall and broad-shouldered, with a weathered squint worthy of Clint Eastwood and the hard hands and bruised knuckles that come with engine work. But despite his somewhat intimidating physicality, he laughs easily, and mostly it seems he doesn’t like hippies because he thinks their inattention to detail can give the “veg-powered” systems he sells a bad name.
“I’m a mechanic. I expect my vehicles to perform. Any time a vegged car fails due to corrupt practices, that’s a knock against all vegged vehicles,” he growls.
For years, Woolf made a living as an independent mechanic, specializing in diesel engines. Then in 2002, he was asked by the auto shop teacher at Oxnard High School to give a presentation to his students on what it was like to own your own business. Woolf went to the library to bone up on the history of diesel engines and was startled to learn the inventor of the engines, Rudolph Diesel, designed them to run on peanut oil.
“I kept reading, looking for some kind of modification, something that would explain why a diesel engine today couldn’t run on peanut oil,” says Woolf in an interview at a picnic bench outside the single store in rural Upper Ojai where he has lived for years. “I couldn’t find anything. Well, I had an old marine diesel engine out in the yard that needed work anyhow. I asked my wife if we had any peanut oil, and she yelled back that she thought we had some Wesson by the sink. So I ran a line to the engine, and put a Y-connector on it, with one line going to the diesel tank, one to the Wesson. I started it up on diesel, and then clamped off the diesel and ran it on vegetable oil. It worked perfectly, and it smelled a hell of a lot better!”
Woolf had rediscovered what Rudolph Diesel found out back in 1892: A “rational thermal engine” with fuel ignited by a compression stroke can burn vegetable fuels easily and efficiently, and vegetable oil has numerous advantages over petroleum-based diesel as a fuel. Just as the lead added to gas decades ago to discourage piston knocking in gasoline engines turned out to be harmful to humans, so, too, have we found out that diesel engines powered by vegetable oil are not only cleaner burning than conventional diesel, but the fuel is safer, and often can be had for free.
But there’s a catch: Vegetable oil is thicker than petroleum-based diesel fuel. It gels quickly at cold temperatures and, if handled incorrectly, can easily foul the quarter-inch line that some “converters” use in systems to pipe fuel to a diesel engine.
Two solutions to this problem have been found.
One is called “biodiesel,” which involves a basic form of refining – mixing vegetable oil with methanol and lye. Numerous commercial fleets, such as Channel Islands National Park, use this fuel, but Woolf considers this chemical method of stabilizing the fuel far too dangerous for homeowners. He says seven people nationwide have been “blown up” making biodiesel since veg systems became popular a few years ago, and points out that even after the process is complete, the user is left with wood alcohol, a toxic waste product.
The other method to ensure reliable delivery of fuel to the engine is to warm the fuel first. Woolf starts his engines on conventional diesel, and after a few minutes flips a toggle switch on his dash and draws on vegetable fuel from a second tank installed in the trunk. The system also includes a filter in a transparent housing, so the vehicle owner can monitor his fuel quality at a glance.
From his Web site, Woolf sells kits to allow diesel owners who are competent mechanically to install their own veg-powered systems in their vehicles. He says he has sold 12,000 of these kits worldwide, many to buyers in the UK. His standard system costs about $2,200, plus another $1,200 if you want him or his wife, Rebecca — also a certified diesel mechanic — to install it. Woolf also sells vehicles from his Web site, Veg Powered Systems, including a slick black VW turbo diesel Bug that has been on display at the Peterson Auto Museum in Los Angeles. And he promises to teach local customers “how to fish” — how to find a good source for used vegetable oil from a local restaurant.
“I’m the best fisherman around,” he jokes.
Woolf admits he’s more of an idealist and a mechanic than a businessman.
“If I was dishonest, I’d be filthy rich by now,” he says. “I didn’t get into this business to get famous, but I’ve been featured on Huell Howser, the Sundance Channel, the Discovery Channel, and now Spanish TV. I’m doing fine, but if I let it, this business will run me ragged.”
At the same time, he expresses some frustration that his systems haven’t been accepted more readily. Although cheaper and arguably more “environmental” than hybrid cars, “vegged” diesel cars are still considered exotic. It’s well-known that vegetable fuels do not add to the overall percentage of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and thus do not contribute to global warming, unlike vehicles powered by fossil fuels, but the cost of scientifically testing vegetable fuel in diesel engines for energy production, emissions and particulates is substantial — an estimated $150,000.
Woolf says veg diesel systems tend to produce fewer particulates and more NOX (nitrous oxides) that conventional diesel. Woolf thinks the systems could be further tweaked to reduce this smog-producing tendency, maybe by using electricity to heat the veg, but that research will require time and money. And he points out that gas hybrid cars have their own toxic waste problem: an enormous battery.
Meanwhile, as demand for conventional diesel fuel has soared world wide, straining refinery capacity, and as the U.S. and the European Union have instituted new standards to lower sulphur emissions and the carcinogenic particulates associated with conventional diesel, petroleum-based diesel has become substantially more expensive than gasoline, and is expected to stay that way.
At the same time, the nation’s stock of used diesel cars is diminishing, both in numbers and in quality.
“A lot of people like the idea of converting an old Mercedes to veg, but if an old Mercedes smokes like a chimney on conventional diesel — which it does — that doesn’t mean it’s going to be smoke-free on veg. If it’s a beat-up pile of crap and you veg it, it’s still going to be a beat-up pile of crap.”
Ideally, Woolf likes to help a customer from the start.
“A kid came to us a couple of years ago. He was a surfer with not a lot of money, but he wanted to go down to Mexico on a regular basis. We found him a decent ’84 Ford van which he bought for $2,500, and we gave him a veg system and a filtration system. He’s been to Mexico and back 15 times, I think, 1,400 hundred-mile journeys — for free. He found a good source for used veg, puts it in cans on the roof of the van. If it gets a little warm up there, that’s fine, makes it toasty for the engine.”
Woolf grins. Despite the ups and downs, the man takes pride in what he’s doing, and obviously revels in outsmarting the big guys on the road.
“If we wait for ‘them’ — big oil, big government, big auto companies — to make a change, it’ll never happen,” he says. “If you really want to see change happen, you have to make a change yourself.”
For more information on Joel Woolf’s Veg Powered Systems, visit www.vegpoweredsystems.com.