ST. CLAIRSVILLE, Ohio – You can smell Kirke Porterfield coming before his old Mercedes even makes it up the drive.
Sort of like french fries or tater tots.
But, really, it’s the smell of saved money.
With summer gas prices hovering around $2.40 a gallon for diesel fuel, many farmers doubt there’s much they can do to relieve the pinch.
Porterfield says he’s figured out the solution, and it’s in his tank for about 56 cents a gallon.
Customers used to stop at Porterfield’s feed store in Belmont County and talk about the weather. But lately, their mouths are set in a tighter line and they bring up the price of fuel even more than whether they need rain.
Last fall, though, one customer came through who wasn’t complaining at all. After getting a load of spelt seed, he said his semi was running on cooking oil.
It was cheap and easy and his rig had 100,000 miles and was running as good as ever, the man said.
Porterfield’s inner entrepreneur sprang to life.
He did some research, ran some figures, talked with a mechanic and finally got a book at the library called From the Fryer to the Fuel Tank.
It didn’t take long before he had a company on the phone that sold the FuelMeister, a personal biodiesel production system by Biodiesel Solutions.
Porterfield agreed to sell them at his store, but not before he ordered a kit for himself and took it home to his own beef farm.
Sitting in his garage, the white plastic drums and interconnecting tubes look more like something from a mad scientist cartoon than what makes the fuel for Porterfield’s Duramax and Power Stroke engines and his International tractors.
But the setup, which takes up less than 6 square feet, churns out 40 gallons each day – all with about as much effort as it would take Porterfield to drive into town and fill his tanks … and at a much lower price.
The key is to connect with area restaurants, churches, grocery stores, Elks clubs, or anyone else who deep fries, Porterfield said.
Once a week he stops by these places and picks up anywhere between 12 gallons and 150 gallons of french fry, chicken tender and onion ring grease.
He takes the used vegetable oil home, puts 40 gallons into his fuel-making kit, heats it to 120 degrees and pumps the oil into the system. A pH test helps him decide how much lye to add, and he also puts in 8 gallons of methane.
The system works its magic over the next eight hours and the glycerin, or trash as Porterfield calls it, settles to the bottom.
Mist it with water, give it another 12 hours, drain the trash and what’s left is cheap, clean-burning fuel that meets government specs, Porterfield said.
Most of the steps are done within the system and Porterfield said he has to be around for only 15-20 minutes.
Sound too good to be true? No, Porterfield said, there are downsides, too.
The biodiesel flushes the fuel pump, which is good, he said, but it also cleans the gas tank. This means equipment will go through filters quicker than normal.
In addition, the little methanol that’s left in the biodiesel will eat old rubber hoses, making them gummy and more prone to seeping, he said.
Plus, people need agreements with restaurants before they start so there’s a constant source of oil. In fact, Porterfield said he won’t sell the kits unless the customer already has vegetable oil agreements lined up. This includes having a $25 rendering license, which is required to take used oil from restaurants, he said.
After the license is paid for and the initial $3,000-$4,000 is invested in the kit, Porterfield said costs and inputs are minimal. Methanol, lye, used oil and a gallon of distilled water for the pH test are it, he said.
With gas prices the way they are now, Porterfield expects to save about $7,000 this year in fuel costs.
A little time, a little effort, he says. “But it’s worth it.”
(Reporter Kristy Hebert welcomes feedback by phone at 800-837-3419, ext. 23 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.)