Talking Grease With Todd Tyson of Tunbridge
Todd Tyson, of Tunbridge, is part of the Tunbridge Grease Collective, a co-op that collects and filters used vegetable oil for diesel-powered vehicles. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen)
Todd Tyson, of Tunbridge, talks about driving his Dodge diesel van to Colorado and back, mostly on waste vegetable oil, during his “grease workshop” on Dec. 9. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen)
Tunbridge — What qualifications would be required for a person to pad his resume with the title of “chief grease officer”?
To answer that question, the Valley News recently spent some time getting to know Todd Tyson. An independent painting contractor originally from Pennsylvania, the 56-year-old Tyson is a key figure in the Tunbridge Grease Collective, a loose affiliation of individuals working together to collect, filter and distribute waste vegetable oil to be used as fuel in diesel-powered vehicles.
Below is an edited transcript of a conversation that took place a few days prior to Tyson leading a “grease workshop” at his home in Tunbridge on Dec. 9.
Valley News: How did you get started in the grease business?
Todd Tyson: When I moved back to Vermont in 2005, I was very interested in getting an old Mercedes, because they make old diesels and those engines are very tolerant. They last a really long time and they are fairly easy to convert by a knowledgeable mechanic to run on waste vegetable oil.
I found a 1977 240D with 150,000 miles. I had it converted. At that time, my total investment in making that transition was about $2,000. To have the proper heating elements, fuel line (and) an extra fuel tank. The components and labor to install what would become what they call a parallel fuel system. The car still runs on diesel, but it also will run on waste vegetable oil, once that waste vegetable oil is warmed up to the appropriate temperature so that it will go through the injectors and not foul up the engine.
VN: So you drive a grease-powered car on a regular basis?
TT: Oh, I have three. (Laughs.) They have names. The one I was just telling you about, the first one, the 1977, is named Friedrich. He is actually named after a mechanic in Pennsylvania who first was telling me about grease cars. His name is Fred, but since it’s a Mercedes, the German name for Fred is Friedrich. And if you really want to get into it, it’s ‘fried rich.’
The next vehicle, I was looking around a little bit maybe for a diesel pickup truck, maybe for a van, and I happened to spot one that was on eBay. This was probably three years ago, a Dodge Sprinter van, a 2005.
That car has a sticker on it that says Grease Mountain Transit, not Green Mountain, and the vehicle is used from time to time. I have taken people to a 350.org event at the Statehouse lawn last year. I have taken people to wedding receptions. Last night I took a group of people to the Dark Star Orchestra. So people know that the vehicle is out there. It holds seven passengers, and that’s important as far as carrying people to places on a much cleaner fuel.
I actually had another Mercedes, a newer one, a 1987, which I gave to my daughter. That one also runs always on vegetable oil and that vehicle is currently living in Tucson, Ariz. That car is named Petra, after a German environmentalist, a woman. It’s more of a feminine car.
And there’s another car coming, one that is just beginning its final transition to run on grease. That’s a 1984 car, not available in this country, a Mercedes Benz 300GD. Basically, it’s their sport utility model. I brought that in from Liverpool, England by way of Wales. It was with a small sheep farmer in Wales for a number of years, ended up in Liverpool and now it lives in Tunbridge.
VN: How does the Tunbridge Grease Collective work?
TT: Collective has a couple of different meanings. One, literally, is collecting the waste vegetable oil, going to restaurants, going to the Tunbridge World’s Fair, approaching other places that would have waste vegetable oil and making an agreement to collect it.
(It also means) working with other people. It’s not just me. I have an attorney friend who works in Rutland. He has gotten some accounts over there. He currently is not driving a grease car, but (he has) accounts for waste vegetable oil. I go over there every three weeks or so and pick up oil. There are collections going on by myself and and two and three other people.
I also do the filtration in my shop. It happens there and then it goes back out to a number of end users. They would include a cidery that makes hard cider up in Vershire, a guy who’s a sugar maker in Tunbridge, he runs a Dodge pickup truck on my waste vegetable oil, plus two other private vehicles and one who only uses it in the summer. So he does not have a conversion.
He literally runs the waste vegetable oil through his regular tank, because it’s warm enough in the summertime.
VN: Is the vegetable oil more efficient than gasoline?
TT: The overall efficiency of your vehicle as far as miles per gallon and the amount of power is about the same. There might be a slight decrease in power under a heavy load. But the other thing about diesel engines is that they tend to have a much higher mile-per-gallon rating which, of course, they retain when you’re burning the waste vegetable oil.
Of course, the main point is that the emissions are a lot lower. Obviously there are still emissions, you’re burning a fair amount, but it’s better because at least you’re not using a petrochemical.
VN: And in a warm enough climate, you can run a diesel engine on vegetable oil without making any modifications?
TT: You might want to change a couple of gaskets and O rings, but you do not need to install a separate fuel tank, a parallel bunch of hoses, you probably don’t need to have an auxiliary heater for heating the fuel. But I would emphasize the warm climate. I wouldn’t want anybody reading this to say, “Oh, I can go do that right now.”
VN: What are some of the challenges of collecting grease?
TT: When you’re approaching a restaurant, you need to create a good relationship. First of all, you need to find out if they’re using relatively good oil. There’s all kinds of vegetable oil out there. Without being too nosey, you have to see what their practices are. You don’t want to collect oil that’s gone rancid or that they’re mixing with lard, or they dump water in with it because they’re cleaning out their (fryer).
VN: How do you actually collect the oil?
TT: Typically, a restaurant will empty their (fryer) once a week, and they will empty it into a metal or often a very sturdy, heavy-duty plastic bucket, let it cool off a little bit, and then they will transfer it back into the original jugs, which are lighter five-gallon containers. Then they’ll set it somewhere out of the way knowing that I’m going to come along and pick it up.
VN: Is the filtering process a complicated affair?
TT: Not that complicated. It’s more of a space issue. I have an outbuilding with a corner of it devoted to the grease shop, and I have a 100-gallon stainless steel tank with a heating probe.
So when I bring that oil home from a restaurant, I’m pouring it through a sieve in the top of that 100-gallon container.
Once I get up to 75 or 80 gallons, or even filling it all the way up to the top, I will let that oil sit (because) there is a risk that some condensation, some water, has gotten into the oil. Any water over about two to three days will descend to the bottom of the vessel. So when I open up the line and use a pump without the heater turned on, I can draw off the bottom five or 10 gallons and keep them separate, knowing that if there was moisture it’s in those first gallons.
Then I turn my heater on and usually within 24 to 36 hours, I’ll cycle the oil once to spread the heat around. The oil is typically a little bit above 100 degrees. When the oil is warm enough, I’ve got a filter bag in a stainless steel container. The pump draws it out from the bottom of the tank, it runs through the filter, which is a 1 micron bag filter. They cost me roughly $1 per filter. I will filter all of that oil and basically I can filter 100 gallons of oil for about $3, that I have collected for free. I do not pay for oil.
VN: What are you filtering out of the oil?
TT: There are some fats that are suspended. There might even be some flour from some breading that was used. There might be some scrapings. There might even be a stray french fry or two.
VN: Is grease a safer fuel to use than gasoline?
TT: If there were an accident and your grease tank got ruptured, it would be very slippery and messy, but you would not be having an explosion from an electric wire or something hitting a puddle of grease.
Diane Taylor can be reached at 603-727-3221 or firstname.lastname@example.org.