Alternative Fuels
The Sweet Smell of Success
OOIDA member turns truck into a one-man alternative fuel experiment – with a distinct bouquet

By Mark H. Reddig
Associate Editor

It happened to Ray Hudson again not too long ago when he was bobtailing up to a Home Depot in Illinois.

Hudson had to get the manager out because the trailer he was scheduled to pick up had a kingpin lock. As soon as the manager got outside, the smell of deep fried potatoes and beef hit his nose.

“He walked out and said, ‘Hmmm, smells like somebody’s barbecuing,’” Hudson said. “I said ‘no, that’s just my truck.” 

That’s happened to Hudson a lot since he converted his ’99 Mack to burn vegetable oil.

The project started back in May of 2003 as a way for Hudson, an OOIDA member from Casey, IL, to save some money. While listening to a Chicago radio station, he heard about a local resident who converted his Mercedes car to burn vegetable oil.

“They were coming home and stopping at restaurants – Chinese restaurants – to get fuel to get home on,” Hudson said. “I thought, ‘well, that sounds interesting.’”

So Hudson contacted the Missouri company that did the conversion on the car, Greasel. A little time and $2,500 later, Hudson had a veggie-powered 1999 big dog. At the time, his truck had about 610,000 miles on it. Now, he’s up to 786,000 miles and still running strong.

Supply for your demand
Hudson’s first challenge was getting oil to run his rig. His first stop: The QQ Buffet, a Chinese restaurant in nearby Charleston, IL. 

“They were interested, and said I could put out a barrel there, so that’s what I did,” he said. 

Hudson would then drop by, pick up the 55-gallon barrel, take it home and strain it.

“When I started, I was quite naïve; you know, you’re really supposed to let the stuff sit a while and settle,” he said. “I just took it home and poured it through a filter and took off with it the next day.”

Soon, Hudson became aware of which restaurants in his area had the best – and the least desirable – oil for his truck. The best: Earl’s Supper Club. 

“It’s not really advertised, but everybody in the community for miles around knows about it,” he said, laughing. “They have the best catfish, and the best oil.”

Lower down his list is the local Dairy Queen. The local ice cream shop uses more solid shortening than other places, so it solidifies easily. Hudson had to keep his building heated up to about 90 degrees to make the oil liquid enough to filter. 

Most of the oil Hudson collects is soybean, but he has discovered that canola oil is better for his diesel. How well it works in the diesel depends, he said, “how long they use it, how much debris is in it.”

Much of the work of filtering can be done if the oil is allowed to sit for a long time – a month is optimal, although Hudson can rarely afford to let it sit more than a week. If left in a tank – preferably a black-colored tank in the summer heat – the oil will warm up and settle out very effectively.

Very little of the oil is left unused. After each batch is filtered, Hudson takes what’s left and puts it in a black tank out back. When the tank gets about 300 gallons in it, he lets it sit for a month or so to settle. Usually, after that settling, he can get another 120 to 180 gallons of usable oil.

“It allows the flours and other stuff to settle out,” he said.

Brew your own go juice
The next step for Hudson was a way to gather the oil, and a place to strain and store it.

He bought a diesel-powered pickup truck, put a tank in the back, and hired a local man to drive to the restaurants each week and gather up the oil.

Just outside his home, he built a 15-by-16 heated, insulated garage. Inside are three tanks, a series of  filters and pumps. Hudson says he allows the oil to settle, and then puts it in the smallest tank. From there, he runs the oil through a 200 micron filter – “that gets most of the big stuff out” – into one of the larger tanks. Then he moves the oil back and forth between the two larger tanks, each time through a smaller filter – 50 micron, 20 micron, 10 micron, then 5 and finally a 1-micron filter. 

“If we had the time to let it sit longer, we could probably cut out a lot of that (filtering),” he said. 

The equipment in the building hasn’t been cheap – Hudson estimates that he spent between $14,000 and $15,000 on it. He doesn’t have to pay to fuel the pickup – it’s a veggie-powered diesel as well. But he does pay the man who gathers the oil – about $300 a week. 

Between the two men, they are able to produce about 300 gallons of fuel every week. Hudson’s only regular weekly expense is the $300 he pays the pickup driver. As he saves money week to week on the cost of diesel, he slowly pays off the cost of the equipment.

Making a Veggie Mack
Hudson’s truck carries a number of modifications either to accommodate or to take advantage of his home fuel operation. The most obvious are the fuel tanks themselves. 

The ’99 Mack came with two 135-gallon fuel tanks. Hudson has added a 100-gallon tank on the passenger side and a 60-gallon tank on the driver’s side, both behind the stock tanks.

Only the 60-gallon tank holds regular diesel fuel. That is needed when the truck starts, mainly to warm the engine and fuel to the 160-degree temperature necessary to use the thicker, more easily gelled vegetable oil.

The veggie oil tanks are heated using hot water from the engine run through an oil cooler unit. Tubes carry hot water from the system into the oil cooler unit, which sits at the bottom of the fuel tank encased in a rubber shield. The extra heat keeps the oil thin enough to run. 

From the tank, the already heavily filtered fuel is filtered again, first through a 10-micron filter and then a 2-micron filter. But contaminants are still a problem. 

Hudson has to change the filters on the Veggie Mack frequently – the first filter on the truck has to be changed every 700 to 1,100 miles, compared with regular fuel filters, which last 15,000 to 16,000 miles. 

“That’s primarily because I’m using it too soon,” he said. “If I had a chance to let it settle out, it probably wouldn’t. Even though it’s going down through fine filters, there’s stuff getting through.”

However, the oil also offers a few maintenance advantages – one of those being its higher lubricity. A number of vegetable oil proponents have said that vegetable oils have a lubricity closer to older, traditional diesel fuels, as compared with the modern, lower-sulfur diesels.

Warranties have been a concern for some truckers who have considered veggie power – some truck manufacturers will not honor the warranty on a veggie-converted truck. But Hudson says it hasn’t been an issue for him.

“I didn’t do it till I had 610,000 (miles) on the truck, and the warranty runs out at 500,000,” he said. 

He hasn’t had any problems on warranties on parts. He installed new injectors on the engine after the conversion. Three of the valves were malfunctioning later, and the shop replaced them, “so that warranty didn’t have any problem.”

The mileage with veggie oil is slightly less – about 5.5 mpg, vs. the 6 mpg Hudson’s rig gets with regular diesel. 

“But I’ve noticed my manifold pressure, if I’m really stepping on it with diesel, if I’m pulling up a hill, it will go up to about 29 pounds per square inch,” he said. “And if I’m on vegetable oil, it will only come up about 2 pounds less than that.

“I haven’t had it on a dyno to see if that matches in loss of power or not; I really can’t tell. I also want to check the emissions.”

Hudson said that when he pushes while using diesel, he can get a little smoke out of his stack, but on vegetable oil, it never happens. But there is an emissions issue: smell.

You want fries with that?
When the Veggie Mack revs up, or even just sits idling, the scent of food is unmistakable.

“If I happen to have a load of oil that comes from Earl’s, it smells a little fishy,” he said. “I’ve had people come up and say, ‘I’m getting hungry.’ I can walk out of the truck stop if I’ve left my truck running and tell my truck is there.”

But not all of Hudson’s oil is recycled or carries the smell of a good meal. Some’s straight from the box.

“I haul a lot of soybean oil,” he said, chuckling so hard at the irony he was almost unable to speak. “In fact, the company I run for is called McLeod, out of Decatur, IL, we haul a lot of ADM.

“Once in a while, they’ll have a pallet, you get a leaker in it, and then there’s four or five cases that go bad, you know, they just won’t accept them. So at that point, I call up the company and say ‘Hey, I’ve got these, may I dump ’em in the tank?’ I tell them what I’m doing, and then I pay them a dollar a gallon for any of the stuff that was damaged. They’re happy to sell it to me at that.

“I put in the clean stuff. I don’t have to filter that.”

In the future, Hudson hopes to turn the veggie oil into a business, supplying some of the local truckers in his area with the recycled fuel. The man who gathers fuel for him is hoping to buy into the operation as a partner. 

The entire process has not been easy – “there’s a lot of work involved,” he said. But to Hudson, it has been worth it.

“I’m not saying I’ve saved a bundle of money on it,” he said. “But it’s been interesting, and I just sort of enjoy the fact that I’ve burned over 15,000 gallons of this stuff. That means that’s 15,000 gallons of diesel that I haven’t used.”