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more to learn about biodiesel

October 19, 2007

Updated Nov 13/07: It wasn’t the biodiesel’s fault, after all.

I’m going to come right out and admit that I am getting rather disillusioned with biodiesel. At the outset, I was very keen to have a diesel vehicle that could run on biodiesel without any modification, or even waste vegetable oil should I decide to modify the vehicle. Well, that enthusiasm has been pretty much drained, and I’m pretty much ready to put a hold on any further biodiesel use for a while. The most frustrating part of it all is that everything I’ve experienced is avoidable, however due to the fact that biodiesel isn’t mainstream yet, you pretty much have to find this stuff out on your own.

Well, learn from me. Some good has to come of it. If you’re considering biodiesel, please read on…

Allow me to start by reiterating what I’ve already said on the subject of preparation before using biodiesel: buy a new filter, learn how to replace it, and THEN start using biodiesel. That still holds true, but I’ve now learned that there is another way to go about it that is even better.

Apparently it is possible to have a vehicle’s entire fuel system flushed out, which will clean all of the diesel gunk out, and thus largely prevent fuel filter clogging when you switch over to biodiesel (or a biodiesel blend). I have absolutely no idea how much it costs, but I’m willing to bet it’s under $300, which would have paid for itself in my case. To date I’ve spent $200 in dealer service (relating to the fuel filter), over $100 in towing, $60 in alternate transportation, and $100 of spare fuel filters. That doesn’t even begin to account for the time and frustration I’ve had in not being prepared to change my fuel filter. Flushing your fuel system of gunk should be the first thing you do to any vehicle you are considering using biodiesel in.

So, for those following along, here’s the NEW Must-Do list before running your diesel vehicle on biodiesel:

1) Have vehicle’s fuel system (tank and lines) flushed.
2) Purchase spare fuel filters.
3) Learn how to install said fuel filters (anytime, anywhere).
4) Start using biodiesel, and be prepared to use your spare filters.

I would also like to mention that the fuel filter my VW New Beetle uses has no way of telling you if it’s constricted due to clogging… except by way of making my vehicle lose power and stall out. There are many kinds of filters in the world that have built-in constriction indicators – why a fuel filter isn’t one of them, I don’t know. If I knew how to monitor the input and output pressure of my fuel filter, I’d rig up a warning light to tell me when to change the filter. That would be a LOT more convenient than trying to coast to the nearest parking lot to swap a filter out.

If that was the only issue, I’d probably just keep refining my fuel filter replacement technique and keep going. Unforunately, the fact of the matter is that biodiesel isn’t well-suited for year-round use in Canada’s climate, and that can have a direct impact on you.

The B100 I have is high-quality stuff. That is not in doubt (although it could be quite easily, be careful). It has been entirely clear and homogenous ever since I got it. However, when I had to change my fuel filter yesterday, I noticed that the B100 I keep in my trunk to fill new fuel filters got cloudy. When I had poured it in, it was clear, but in the week that it was in a Mason jar in my trunk, it clouded. What happened?

Chances are that cold weather happened. The one drawback to biodiesel is that its gel point (the temperature at which portions of it begin to solidify/gel) is much higher than that of petrodiesel. Gasoline and petrodiesel have been around for over a century, and have constantly been tweaked and improved in that time. Thus, we have fuels that are equally useful in Manitoba in the middle of February as it is in Arizona in the middle of August. Biodiesel doesn’t have as much going for it – yet. There are many, many feedstocks it could be made from. It’s not widely available commercially yet. It simply doesn’t have the century of development behind it that gasoline and petrodiesel do, and it’s compounded by the fact that it can be made from a huge variety of virgin, used, or waste vegetable and/or animal fats.

It would be a simple matter to get around these issues: a heated, insulated fuel tank and heated fuel lines would put biodiesel on pretty much equal footing as petrodiesel in terms of useability across a temperature range. Deal with the petrodiesel gunk issue, and you’ve got a level paying field. Unfortunately, no vehicle I know of comes with an insulated, heated fuel tank (although I have heard that some Mercedes vehicles have heated fuel lines). Retrofit is an expensive proposition, and again because there isn’t the century of experience with biodiesel, finding expertise to do such a retrofit for you isn’t as simple as looking it up in the Yellow Pages.

Where does that leave me? Disillusioned. I was SO gung-ho to use biodiesel, and it’s given me a small dose of bragging rights and a huge amount of frustration. For now I just can’t justify using any more biodiesel, especially with the cold weather slowly creeping in. Biodiesel (in conjuction with my lack of preparation) has now stranded me twice and my wife once, and I’ve only just used 40L of it. Steep learning curve? Maybe… but it’s enough to make me wonder if I want to climb anymore.

Don’t let my experiences dissuade you from running biodiesel in your vehicle. If you are going to do so, however, I STRONGLY urge you to heed my advice such that you may avoid the issues I’ve had to suffer. You learn the most from making mistakes, but I firmly believe that you can still learn from other’s mistakes too. Learn from mine, please!

One Comment leave one →
  1. Pete Beale permalink
    December 5, 2007 1:19 pm

    Thanks for this artical!!
    I’m having clogging issues with brand new chevy. Nice to know that at least Im not allone.

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