Marty Hanka and Phil Inman would like to fuel your automobile with vegetable oil
All it took was two pints of Rich O’s house porter for Marty Hanka and Phil Inman to start a business. They decided that Louisvillians are ready for their cars to run on a dirt cheap alternative fuel, one as natural as the wind and as available as a hamburger.
Yes, vegetable oil.
In the true spirit of an independent venture, neither man asked for the advice of financial gurus or research analysts, but acted only on his own intuition — that of a homegrown environmental engineer (Hanka, who’s 44) and a Tazmanian Sea Ray salesman and handy-man (Inman, 45).
Their idea is not new, and interest in it typically lasts only as long as the van ride from Middlebury to Berkeley. But at a time when $2 a gallon is a veritable bargain, it seems the time may be right for an idea like GoodOil LLC, and for people to listen more attentively to the arguments for running automobiles on straight vegetable oil.
Apparently, when Rudolph Diesel displayed his first engine at the Paris World Exhibition in 1900, it was designed to run on peanut oil. Diesel, in fact, may have been the very first proponent of so-called alternative fuel, saying, “the diesel engine can be fed with vegetable oils and would help considerably in the development of agriculture of the countries which use it.” Quite an endorsement.
Without the support of graphs or flowcharts, Inman booms, “This is gonna take over,” his rich Australian accent lending a convincing showmanship to his claim. For now, the GoodOil boys will start small; currently they only have the capacity to install conversion kits in automobiles that run on diesel fuel.
On a warm Saturday morning at their garage at 845 E. Main St., next to Electric Blue Print & Supply, Hanka pops the hood of his silver 2003 VW Passat Wagon to display just how the kit works on his engine, a 1.9L TDI (turbocharged direct injection). He explains that the car is started using diesel fuel, which gives the vegetable oil time to heat up to 150 degrees Fahrenheit. This initial step is essential for the vegetable oil to attain a similar viscosity to that of diesel. Inman nods along in agreement, saying, “Heat is good.”
Once heated, a pump removes all of the diesel fuel from the fuel lines and replaces it with vegetable oil. The high-pressure injectors then push the organic fuel into the engines’ cylinders at 16,000 psi. The rest is combustion and, with any luck, efficient engineering.
On Hanka’s car, clear tubing lets you witness the fuels swapping places. At first the sight seems vulgar, like watching an overindulgent drunk puke up his last eight drinks, but then you remember it was the booze that got him so wasted in the first place. The moment seems purifying.
At this point, the two walk behind the car. Inman points to the tailpipe and asks, “Smells like egg rolls, doesn’t it?” It definitely isn’t the sulfurous scent that’s typical of diesel fuel, but it is a pungent aroma, more interestingly different than anything. Inman explains that the smell of the exhaust usually resembles whatever food was fried in a given batch of oil.
This is one of the more ingenious aspects of the business — not that the exhaust smells good but that the fuel is recycled, and therefore, cheap.
In essence, anyone running a car on vegetable oil need only mine as far as the nearest McDonald’s, but Hanka and Inman prefer independent businesses with more authentic cuisine. Whenever there is a need, the guys hit up one of five “regulars” and take about 10-15 gallons of used vegetable oil in 5-gallon waste pails sitting out back. One of Inman’s favorites is Great Wall on Brownsboro Road because it’s near his home in Crescent Hill.
“It’s amazing,” Great Wall manager Johnny Lin says. “I’d heard of using oil to run cars before, but I didn’t know it was here until asked me for the oil.” Lin adds, “Our oil is always wasted … but if they can use it right, it’s much better.”
From there, the oil is stored in 55-gallon barrels, which are heated to roughly 100 degrees and allowed to sit for a week so the water will separate from the oil. The proximity of the restaurant to Inman’s personal garage is a bonus, because until GoodOil grows and expands, his garage is the official gas station.
Interestingly, this is neither Inman nor Hanka’s first time as “station attendants.” Both of their fathers owned pump stations when they were kids; Inman’s in Hobart, Tazmania, and Hanka’s at the corner of Baxter and Stevens. Fueling automobiles is their shared heritage.
The first client
Stuart Ungar pulls into the GoodOil lot on Main Street in his 1984 Mercedes 300SD and has little time to talk shop before his new purchase starts to undergo the “procedure.” He is far busier dealing with Aaron, 6, and Eden, 3, who explore the spacious interior of the black Benz, something far newer to them than the 175,000 miles on the odometer may indicate.
As an at-home dad, Ungar, 41, is the main picker-upper and dropper-offer for his family, which includes a wife, two kids and a cat named Lillehammer. He’s a former director of Victorian theater in Connecticut, but since moving to Louisville when his wife took a job here, he’s dedicated himself full-time to the upbringing of his kids.
This new career also gives Ungar ample opportunities to find more creative ways to save money. In fact, the impetus for getting the oil conversion, he explains, was that “finding the car coincided with amazingly high gas prices.”
Economics, however, are only part of Ungar’s reasoning. For a man who cuts his lawn with a manual mower, getting the oil conversion is like a dream come true.
“I wanted a hybrid for a really long time, but for a fourth or fifth , I’m driving an alternative fuel vehicle that hardly uses gas at all,” he says.
In addition, Ungar sees it as a chance to educate his kids; he’s proud, he says, to show them ways to better the environment. “I have a unique opportunity to set a good example … to take some action and feel good about my decision. I try to think about the big picture.”
The big picture
Ungar is optimistic about this picture, particularly the movement to increase alternative fuels in America, reciting the mantra that “if enough people do, it’ll make a difference.” Hanka and Inman sure hope so; their enterprise depends on it.
Culturally, however, vegetable oil has played stepchild to its more processed relative, biodiesel. Plugged by major media icons like Bonnie Raitt and Willie Nelson, biodiesel enjoys much wider acclaim and more serious consideration from mainstream culture and business. It also carries a stamp of approval from the Environmental Protection Agency, which must approve all fuels before they can be sold in the United States.
Still, biodiesel is a petroleum-based fuel, only mixed with different proportions of vegetable oils or animal fats, a common blend being B20 — 20 percent biodiesel, 80 percent traditional diesel.
Biodiesel’s competitive advantage over vegetable oil rests with its history as a tested fuel. Though straight vegetable oil could potentially reduce sulfur and carbon monoxide pollutants just as well as, if not better than, biodiesel, it has no clear track record.
Hanka explains that for straight vegetable oil to gain approval, it would have to go through consultants, chemists, environmentalists and a big price tag — he mentioned a $2 million estimate based on a message board post at www.frybrid.com by an Oregon alternative fuel consultant/diesel mechanic named Justin Soares.
“It’s more political rules than technological rules,” Hanka insists.
Fortunately, since GoodOil’s oil is recycled waste, and hence given away, it doesn’t need EPA certification. But if this fuel is ever to get a shot at mainstream acceptability, it must have federal approval.
Michael Kuzmich, director of marketing and planning for the Transit Authority of River City, likes the concept of using nothing but straight vegetable oil in Louisville’s fleet of diesel-run public buses, but can’t find the utility in making the switch now. The technology, he notes, “is on the bleeding edge, not the leading edge … and the issue we have to consider is stability.” For an enterprise that uses 7,000 gallons of diesel fuel per day to run its fleet, scouring the waste tanks of local restaurants defies practicality.
Instead, TARC is moving toward Ultra Low Sulfur Diesel fuel, which the EPA will require in all transit buses starting in 2006. Kuzmich explains that beyond having a steady supply of ULSD fuel, TARC would have difficulty maintaining its warranties and service contracts with its Original Engine Manufacturer, Cummins Inc.
Kuzmich’s last concern speaks volumes about which private sector players maintain a heavy influence over how quickly alternative fuels are adopted.
Currently, all Cummins engines are designed to run on B5 — just 5 percent biodiesel. According to the company’s press materials, “The main barrier to moving beyond B5 is the lack of an industry agreed fuel standard for biodiesel in terms of fuel consistency and stability.” This is a fair argument. Cummins’ is in business and its first responsibility is to shareholders and customers; unless market forces pressure Cummins and other OEMs to accommodate alternative fuels, the only other prodding can come from the government.
As for government, U.S. Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., leads the federal push toward increased use of alternative fuels. On Oct. 25, he introduced the Renewable Diesel Standard Act of 2005 (S. 1920), which calls for U.S. diesel manufacturers to have a supply of 250 million gallons of biodiesel by 2008. Currently, the country only produces 180 million gallons.
This act will mean little for Hanka and Inman, because it still emphasizes the use of petroleum blends; however, it at least indicates alternative fuels are on people’s minds.
But it all leaves GoodOil in vague territory. Their niche in the fuels industry is growing but is still in its infancy. In its first month, www.goodoilonline.com received 3,000 hits. But it’s hard to say what that means.
Inman understands their business may be ahead of its time. “It’s a little unknown how big this market is gonna grow … it’s still untapped,” he acknowledges. Hanka remains upbeat, noting that the aftermarket sector, where the conversion kits are made, is enjoying “explosive growth.”
At their end of the fuel chain, Hanka and Inman let customers choose which conversion kit to install. They recommend Easthampton, Mass.’s Greasecar, the founding father of the conversion industry, which displays several kits on its Web site that range from the $795 deluxe kit to the $1,795 Powerstroke kit, designed for heavy duty trucks. It takes anywhere four to six weeks for the parts to reach Louisville, but Hanka says it only takes another two or three days until the customer “drives away in a veggie.”
Three days after dropping off his car, Ungar returns to the GoodOil lot to pick it up. He totes Aaron and Eden with him, accessories more suitable to his disposition than tinted windows or a heart-thumping bass tube. Hanka is cool, adjusting his sunglasses to the top of his head while Inman contains his excitement, keeping one hand in his pocket while the other scratches his salt and pepper goatee. It is a moment of triumph. Their first customer is taking their first “official” conversion on a its first extended road test.
Hanka rides in the Benz with the Ungar clan, showing Stuart what buttons to push and what gauges to read. Inman follows in his pickup truck, tracking the smell of fried wontons all the way to Ungar’s quaint East End home. Everyone arrives comfortable and safe. By the time the three men get out to talk about how often to fill the separate oil tank and other maintenance particulars, Aaron and Eden have already shifted their attention from the car to the spare tire that has been supplanted by the veggie tank. Ungar looks pleased that his kids find so much enjoyment pushing a tire up and down the driveway.
“It’s renewable energy,” he jokes. The kids didn’t laugh, they just play. They play with their tire, while Hanka, Inman and Ungar play with their car — a fine renewable toy in its own right.
BY JONATHAN FRANK