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Eco Friendly Cars For The Cheapskate

Sometimes I think it would be nice to buy a brand-new shiny car, but then I think about all the downsides. Car payments. Being at the mercy of what the manufacturers are willing to create. The off-gassing that we call "new car smell." Credit checks. Learning how to negotiate with car dealers. Let me tell you what I've done instead....


Finding a Reliable Used Car

When I last started shopping around for a "new" car, I got very excited about things like hybrids and natural gas vehicles. I dropped the dream of owning a hybrid when I saw the gas mileage; somehow, seeing exactly what mileage they got awakened me to the fact that they're still using gas. I noticed that I had been thinking of a hybrid car as a kind of free ticket out of pollution; instead, it is just polluting about half as much as a regular car. I turned to the Honda GX, my natural gas dream car, and began reading all about it on the Honda site and researching gas stations on the Department of Energy's site, only to discover that the company was making so few GXs that no dealership could offer to sell me one - a classic case of "greenwashing."


I was deeply disappointed, but I realized I still had one opportunity left: biodiesel. From what I had read, it polluted little, could go straight into any diesel car without any modifications, and might even remove pollutants from the air. (I later learned that if it is made from waste vegetable oil it also removes all that clogging oil from the landfills, and that these newfangled cars with the fuel injection pumps don't run well with straight biodiesel.) Plus, there was a local biodiesel collective which bought it in bulk and shared the fuel amongst its members.


I cracked open Craigslist and began searching. Soon I had a $2000 cream-colored 1982 Mercedes-Benz 300D Turbo, restored by a young car buff and approved by a mechanic I trusted. Everyone warned me that the parts would be prohibitively expensive, but I found that it was easy to find rebuilt parts, that a trustworthy mechanic would do everything he could to keep the cost down, and that the old Mercedes seldom needed repairs anyway - at least in comparison with the old Chevy I had owned before.


I can't recommend used diesels running biodiesel enough to the cost-conscious eco-consumer. Diesel cars are built to run forever; mine is going to hit 300,000 miles in the next week or two and will probably run for another 300,000 after that. With proper maintenance, anyway. I replaced the engine a few years ago due to neglect on my own part; I took it to my girlfriend's mechanic (who is not used to diesels) to get a second opinion, and he told me that I should get rid of the car because the engine would cost more than a 1982 Mercedes was worth. I posted on Craigslist to say that I was thinking of selling it, and someone actually called me to explain to me for forty-five minutes that while he would buy it in a second if I really wanted to sell it, I absolutely should not sell it because if I did replace the engine and take care of the car it would run for the rest of my life. People love these cars, some to a nearly irrational degree.


Finding Reliable Green Fuel

Of course, once you have a car, you still have to find fuel. Diesel may emit less carbon dioxide than regular gas, but it's still high on other emissions and it's still made from petroleum.  Biodiesel, however, is becoming increasingly widespread. Four years ago, when I bought this car, in order to fill my tank in a green way I had to:

  1. search for and connect with the biodiesel collective by email;
  2. be able to predict how much fuel I would need;
  3. commit to and pay for that amount every month or every two weeks;
  4. go to someone's house to get it in carboy form;
  5. and then pour it in my gas tank myself.


Honestly, I never did. I did not have the energy to get over that learning curve. Fortunately, they opened a biodiesel station near me; now it's open seven days a week, preparing to move to a four-pump solar-powered location nearby, and joined by other stations all over the state.


The above-mentioned Department of Energy site is a great place to start looking for biodiesel stations: although it's not terrifically well-updated, it still lists seven stations within 75 miles of me. However, I live in California; it only lists one public station in Louisiana, and none at all in Connecticut, so your mileage may vary - literally. But don't stop there: check Google and Craigslist for any information on biodiesel in your area and you may find formal biodiesel collectives, individuals who make it for themselves and are willing to share, or even stations in your area that the DoE simply doesn't know about yet.


But there's still the matter of price. Both diesel and biodiesel, these days, are reliably quite a bit costlier than regular gas. Many people are willing and able to pay the higher price in exchange for not polluting; we can cut down on how much we drive, get tune-ups and inflate tires to keep mileage high, or invite others to carpool with us and share the cost. But lately, the price of both has been skyrocketing: as gas prices go up, diesel prices go up. As diesel prices go up, more people use biodiesel. As more people use biodiesel, suppliers raise the prices. In the Bay Area, as I write this in April 2008, the price of biodiesel has gone up from $3.99 a gallon to $4.54 a gallon over the past month because large companies are switching their fleets over to biodiesel and the suppliers are raising the prices for everyone.


And that has brought me to what I think is the final frontier:


Finding Free Green Fuel

The wonderful thing about diesels is that they can easily be converted to run on vegetable oil. There are cheap "single-tank systems," which are so cheap because they make very few modifications to the car. Usually they involve placing a special heating element either within the fuel tank or between the fuel tank and the engine, so that the vegetable oil heats up and thins out before it hits the engine. The problem with this is that when you also run diesel or biodiesel in that one tank, (for example, in colder weather), those fuels can get too thinned out to be of any use.


Two-tank systems are more expensive but easy to find. They involve running the car on diesel or biodiesel to start it up when the engine is cold, and switching to vegetable oil for the majority of your driving. They range in price from as low as about $450 to as high as $2400. The more expensive ones tend to be more complicated and often use better-quality parts. One particular way in which systems can differ is in what they do with the second tank. Some install it under the trunk, using the space dedicated to a spare tire; some place it along the right-hand side of the car. The tanks come in all sizes; larger ones are, of course, more expensive, and so are ones which are made of the sturdiest materials or custom-made. Some come with fascinating extras, like buzzers and lights letting you know it is okay to switch over from diesel to vegetable oil, and mechanisms that switch back and forth automatically.


My current favorite, by PlantDrive, costs about $615 and comes with an especially high-quality filter. The beauty of this system is that the same company produces a device that lets you collect your own waste vegetable oil (WVO) from restaurants (in a watertight PlantDrive container), leave it to settle for a few weeks, and then filter it straight into your car. Normally, the process of getting vegetable oil fuel involves either paying retail for straight vegetable oil (SVO) or buying a big expensive machine that will let you filter food particles out of the restaurant grease and remove any water that has collected in their inexpert outside containers. Or paying someone else to do all that for you.


Locally, I've heard accounts of people selling car-ready WVO for between seventy cents and $2.50, which isn't bad. But finding a friendly restaurant that will collect some for me, and putting it straight into my car, makes it FREE. FREE FUEL!


The best part is that the system pays for itself. Once I have saved up $615 for the kit, and $400-$500 for my biofuel-savvy mechanic, David Pham, to install it, I will be able to pay myself back at the rate of some $24 a week in what I am saving on biodiesel costs - maybe even more. Once I've saved up another $600 or so, I can get the special filtering device and hook up with a local restaurant for free fuel - and then my entire gas budget will be able to go toward paying myself back that savings. And once that is paid back, I can save up the $2000 that the car cost in the first place. After that, the sky is the limit!

Comments (1)

Interesting case study of opting for a bio-diesel Mercedes, which is undoubtedly a classy choice yet economic at the same time. Although the option is certainly unorthodox in nature, it is a viable choice for those who strictly want to go green and place their faith in a strict 'pollution reduction policy'.
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