Ask Eartha Steward: Tales from the grease highway |

Ask Eartha Steward: Tales from the grease highway

High Country Conservation Center
High Country Conservation Center

A couple of my great eco-friends just returned from a trip to the Oregon coast, but this wasn’t just another summer road trip. Traveling in an old school bus fueled by vegetable oil, they spent only a couple hundred dollars on diesel fuel and traveled over 2,000 miles.

Due to the underground nature of their adventures, their names have been changed to protect their identity. “Sally” and “Joe” have gypsy souls and have dreamed of driving around the country in a bus for many years. But gas prices seemed to be crushing this dream year after year. Who could afford, monetarily or consciously, to travel long distances in a big bus that gets only 8-10 miles per gallon?

But a solution popped up on the internet a few years ago. Joe read about people running diesel vehicles on vegetable oil and researched the topic for hours on end each night. It turns out that there are a lot of people running old school buses on vegetable oil these days.

Running an engine on vegetable oil sounds a little wacky, but there’s actually science behind it. Rudolph Diesel originally designed the diesel engine to run on peanut oil ” the change to a petroleum based engine was an afterthought. In today’s diesel engines, at the right temperature (170 degrees) vegetable oil reaches the right viscosity to power the diesel engine.

So a new dream was hatched and Joe set out to find a solid school bus with a diesel engine. Craigslist provided the answer and Joe found an old Keystone shuttle bus down in Longmont for sale. The bus had already been converted to an RV (meaning that the seats were removed, and a sink and other livable amenities were installed) and had a great engine (a DT466) for the conversion to veggie oil.

Big bus parked in their back yard all winter, Joe began researching the systems that would allow them to run the bus on vegetable oil. Golden Fuel Systems from Missouri seemed to have the most complete and tested systems for the price, so Joe and Sally purchased a 60-gallon heated tank for the veggie oil that used the coolant lines from the engine to circulate heat to the oil.

The tank has a heated fuel pick-up and a heated filter to keep the veggie oil hot. The veggie fuel lines are also wrapped with the coolant lines to ensure that it’s the right temperature before it reaches the engine. A simple port switch allows them to start the bus on diesel and drive just enough to warm up the engine and the veggie oil, switch to veggie for the bulk of travels, and then switch back to diesel to turn off the engine.

System in place and tested, they hit the road. The first big fill up of veggie oil in Summit County was relatively easy since they dine at (and have periodically worked at) many of our local dining establishments and knew who to ask and where to find good, clean waste vegetable oil.

Figuring that resort communities bring both fine tourists and fine restaurants, they headed over to Steamboat to top off the tank and fill up some reserves before they headed north. Scoping out some grease they ran into a problem ” much of it was spoken for, with people’s names and numbers on the drums. The veggie oil word was out!

Just as they were about to call one of the numbers to inquire about spare oil, the smell of French fries and the sound of a diesel engine pulled up. A fellow greaser pulled up, knowing right away that there’s only one reason to be examining grease bins behind a restaurant.

After a few moments of gleeful chat about engines and the American diet, the fellow greaser offered to sell Sally and Joe some pre-filtered oil for $1/gallon. They filled up and hit the road, feeling part of a bigger (and underground) movement.

Sally and Joe ran that old school bus on veggie oil all the way through Flaming Gorge, and up to Jackson, Wyo. During that stretch, Sally worried that while camping at night, the vegetable oil reserves may attract unwanted visitors to the bus. Sure enough, one night Sally heard some little critter rummaging around (and apparently licking) the veggie oil off the spare containers. Aside from that, all was quiet.

Sally and Joe stopped in Jackson, Wyo., (another resort community) to fill up. A sushi place and a high-end bistro provided the fuel to get them all the way through Teton and Yellowstone National Parks. Again, they met a fellow greaser while pumping and filtering oil behind the bistro. This time, the fellow greaser was part of a co-op that was collecting the oil to turn into biodiesel (a process which turns the vegetable oil into a fuel that can be poured directly into diesel tanks without any engine modification).

Chuckling all the way through Yellowstone, they imagined bears emerging from the woods to follow the scent of tempura and tourists suddenly craving some fried food and heading in for lunch. But it was smooth sailing.

Sticking to their plan of hitting resort communities, they headed through Big Sky, Mont., and all the way to Hood River, Ore. finally to reach the coast ” almost the whole way on vegetable oil. The only mishaps were a few gag reflexes that Joe experienced after opening some less than desirable grease bins (especially potent in the hot sun and after an evening of imbibing beer with old friends) and minor spill on the wood floors of the bus.

Sally says she needs a full set of coveralls to protect her clothes from grease stains for the next trip and Joe is already working on Version 2.0 of the bus (to be renamed to Grease Lightning) that will have more storage for veggie oil for longer distance travel.

Eartha Steward is written by Carly Wier, Jennifer Kirkpatrick and Heather Dodd Christie, consultants on all things eco and chic at the High Country Conservation Center, a nonprofit 501(c)3 organization dedicated to waste reduction and resource conservation in our mountain community. Eartha believes that you can walk gently on our planet, even if you’re wearing stylie shoes.

Submit questions to Eartha at or to High Country Conservation Center, PO Box 4506, Frisco, CO 80443.

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