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Fuel alternatives save money

While the rest of the world cries at the gas pump, Jonathan Pratt, a restaurant owner in Westchester County, New York, is singing the praises of a cheap new alternative fuel: "It saves me money, it improves the lifespan of the motor, its lubricity is better than diesel's, it doesn't pollute—and it smells good." Good, that is, if you like the smell of fried food, because Pratt is fueling his vehicle on spent vegetable oil. And he's not the only one. Operators are finding alternative fuel in an unlikely place.

While the rest of the world cries at the gas pump, Jonathan Pratt, a restaurant owner in Westchester County, New York, is singing the praises of a cheap new alternative fuel: "It saves me money, it improves the lifespan of the motor, its lubricity is better than diesel's, it doesn't pollute—and it smells good."{mosimage}

Good, that is, if you like the smell of fried food, because Pratt is fueling his vehicle on spent vegetable oil.

And he's not the only one. In Wisconsin, the Glass Nickel Pizza Co. chain runs its delivery cars on used fryer oil; a Culver's franchisee, wallpapered his Frybrid-motored Volkswagen Beetle with pictures of burgers and fries, creating a moving, French fry-scented billboard. Then there is The Great Lakes Brewing Company in Cleveland, Ohio, which uses vegetable oil to fuel a shuttle bus to local ballgames.

Though the technology has been tinkered with for decades, it wasn't until the late 1990s that the current vegetable oil-running engines hit the road. They're not all that expensive either. Pratt spent $700 retrofitting his diesel engine with a package from the Massachusetts-based company Greasecar. "The difference between diesel and vegetable oil is primarily the viscosity and thickness," explains Greasecar spokesperson Lee Brainte. "Our system is designed to heat vegetable oil to the same viscosity as diesel fuel once [the car is started on diesel]. The oil then has the same performance and energy content as diesel."

Five-year-old Greasecar has sold retrofits for around 2,000 cars. "We're getting about 20 people a day now buying our engines," says Brainte. At least two other companies, Greasel in Missouri and Frybrid in Washington, are producing similar systems.

The appeal for restaurant owners is obvious.

Pratt, who serves American eclectic from his 150-seat restaurant Peter Pratt's Inn in Yorktown, New York, and Pacific rim cuisine at his two nearby Umami Cafés, first converted to vegetable oil when he opened his second Umami last year. By fueling his car with the filtered excess fryer oil used to make the Umami's homemade potato chips he's saving $800 a month on fuel costs plus another $200 a month on grease removal costs. His restaurants are providing enough oil to fuel the cars of his six neighbors who are now vegetable oil converts, too. "I really only have enough to fuel three cars at a time," he says. "So to fill the gap, my neighbors take turns getting free oil from a local deli and a Chinese restaurant."

If there's no access to used oil, the cars can run completely off diesel or virgin vegetable oil, which gallon for gallon costs about as much as diesel.

"It's a win-win situation," says Douglas Fuss, owner of Portland, Maine's Bull Feeney's, a 272-seat Irish steak and seafood restaurant. He had a Greasecar retrofit put in his used '99 Volkswagen Beetle last March. "I believe that reducing dependence on foreign oil is a national security issue at this point, and vegetable oil is a renewable resource. That aside, I don't see why a food distributor wouldn't consider this option from a cost standpoint alone."

On the not so serious side, the novelty can also be great public relations. "It takes me 45 minutes to get from my car and into the restaurant," says Randy Bailey, general manager of the 450-seat TJ Rockwell's American Grill and Tavern in Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania, "because so many people read the sticker that says 'Powered By Vegetable Oil' on the side of the car and then they're full of questions." Pratt, however, says that for a long time, the only people that approached him simply wanted to crack wise.

"I got a lot of bad 'car-lesterol' jokes," he says. "But ever since the price of gas has gone up, everyone's coming up to me and saying, 'Huh, you had the right idea.' So who's laughing now?"

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