Sweet Science and Vegetable Oil
By Nate Williams
When one thinks of all the things a band does and might spend its money on while touring, one might not think of the extraordinary amounts of gas that can go into a van full of musicians and gear. But it can be incredibly expensive for a band, especially one that doesn’t have the support of a giant label that can afford buses and airplanes for its acts.
That’s one of the reasons the Tallahassee, Fla., based pop-punk band One Small Step For Landmines is doing with their touring van, which has been converted to run on used vegetable oil.
The idea came from Mewithoutyou, who had been on tour with Sparta using a vegetable oil fueled van, singer Kevin Allen said.
“We all talked about it and decided it was a great idea so we bought a diesel bus and shopped around for the best conversion,” Allen said. “We were shopping for used diesel vehicles which aren’t cheap and aren’t easy to find.”
After finding a used Ford E-350 Conversion van, the band took it to a company that converted the van’s engine so that it could run on the unconventional fuel, Allen said. The modifications set them back $5000.
The trick then was to find places, such as restaurants, to give them the Waste Vegetable Oil (WVO) and then to filter it properly so that it can be used, Allen said.
“At times we have been in situations where we were low on veggie oil and couldn’t find more,” Allen said. “When that happens we just flip a switch and we are able to run on normal diesel fuel. We always have diesel as a back up.”
There was a learning curve to the process of preparing the oil for usage, Allen said.
“The first tour we did using it there were some kinks in the process to iron out, we had to learn as we went and it took some time and was a bit frustrating at moments,” Allen said. “Now we have it down to a sweet science.”
In fact, there isn’t much science to it. Most diesel engines don’t need any conversions to burn vegetable oil, be it Straight Vegetable Oil (SVO) or WVO.
The problem lies in the viscosity of the oil, which is much thicker than diesel or biodiesel. The oil must be heated to keep it flowing through the fuel lines or it will clog them. The common solution is to have a system of two fuel tanks installed. One tank is filled with regular diesel or biodiesel used as the vehicle is started and just before it’s turned off to clean out the oil caught in the fuel lines.
To fill up the van, the band has taken to asking around the restaurants of whatever town they are, Allen said.
“There is a very specific kind of oil you can use and its best to check around and see which places have clean oil,” Allen said. “Sometimes we roll up on a place and check their oil, they give us the go ahead to take it and there is only a small amount we can actually use so we have to go somewhere else.”
Other businesses will deny the band the oil because they do not understand the band’s intention or out of sheer laziness, Allen said. But there are occasions where the business is enthusiastic to give away their oil, which they normally would pay to have removed.
“Often times people are excited to see the process and smile the whole time we are taking their used oil away,” Allen said.
This kind of enthusiasm carries into the band’s live shows, Allen said. At each show, the band at least mentions their unusual van, to help raise a little awareness.
“We don’t preach about what we are doing. I always mention it at some point in the set and give people the option to ask some questions after we play,” Allen said. “I usually end up talking to a few people each night and it’s a cool feeling, knowing that you are sharing a fairly new idea with people.”
Unfortunately, the use of WVO isn’t going to save the planet. Even if 100 percent of all WVO in the US is used as fuel, it would only reduce consumption of fossil fuels by one percent. Also, SVO/WVO doesn’t improve gas mileage and has even been noted to get slightly worse mileage than diesel.
One Small Step For Landmines has noticed no real advantage in performance or gas mileage with their van’s SVO system, Allen said. In fact, the SVO system can cause even more kinks in the vehicle on top of the standard problems that come with an aging automobile.
“We had some issues with the SVO system due to the extreme cold temperatures, our engine was not getting hot enough to warm the veggie oil,” Allen said. “Therefore we couldn’t get the veggie oil hot enough to use in the engine.
To make things even more bizarrely complicated, the use of SVO/WVO burning engines is actually illegal under the Clean Air Act and those who convert to their car engine can be subject to a fine of up to $2750.
Problems aside, One Small Step For Landmines is taking a positive step for the planet.
Even though the band isn’t out on an environmental crusade, Allen said that he believes finding ways of reducing his carbon footprint is a fun and creative activity. He hasn’t owned a car in eight years and he, along with most of his friends, rides a bike while at home in Florida.
The system also pays for itself after enough fills.
“When you think about it…a tank of diesel for the van costs about $100 so within 50 trips to the pump you can see the money start being saved,” Allen said.
Saving $2000 from not buying gas on the band’s last tour was a nice incentive, Allen said.