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'Phenomenal grease mileage'

By PAUL SWIDER
Published June 5, 2007


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If a white Mercedes drives by and you begin to crave fried fish, you just might be smelling the future.

A successful experiment of using cooking oil to fuel a car may soon lead to new business opportunities.

"I'm not some closet tree hugger. I'm a normal guy, " said George Lewis, one of the owners of the new Leverock's, who converted a 1981 Mercedes 300D to run on used vegetable oil he gets from the restaurant at 840 S Pasadena Ave. "I just wanted to prove I could do it."

Lewis used a kit from a Massachusetts company called Greasecar. He's been running the car for six weeks now on what the restaurant uses to cook french fries and seafood.

"The car gets phenomenal grease mileage, " Lewis said. "It smells like grouper sandwiches."

Now that Lewis has made the successful transition, he plans to turn the car into a Leverock's advertisement. Inspired by the process, he's toying with other business concepts.

Lewis got the conversion idea a few months back while watching MTV with his sons. He saw a demonstration of a vegetable-oil car and wanted to try it himself.

Lewis bought his 300, 000-mile car for $1, 100 and paid $1, 000 for his Greasecar kit, $650 for a mechanic to install it, and another $1, 000 in body work and a paint job. He said he now saves enough in fuel to be able to cover the entire cost of the car and conversion in about a year.

"I drive it a lot more than I thought I would, " said Lewis, who also sells and develops real estate and travels extensively around the area.

Lewis still uses his Toyota Sequoia when he has clients, but on a recent trip to Sarasota, he ran on grease. The trip was a visit to one of his friends, Tony Phelan, owner of Pinchers Crab Shack, who runs a Dodge truck on grease to deliver fresh fish to his five locations.

Caspers Co., which owns many of the Tampa Bay area's McDonald's franchises, uses spent fryer oil for deliveries. Caspers takes the oil and refines it into biodiesel, which then mixes with regular diesel to power trucks that serve its 51 restaurants.

"Our initial thought was to save money, " said Blake Casper, chief executive of Caspers. "The truth is it's a lot harder and more expensive than what you originally think."

But Lewis uses unrefined vegetable oil, an important distinction, said Josiah Cuneo of Greasecar. Biodiesel runs in regular diesel engines, but the Greasecar converter package heats used grease so it mimics regular diesel.

"It has to be the same viscosity as diesel, " Cuneo said, "but there's less variability in vegetable oil than in diesel."

Greasecar lists testimonials from buyers, some of whom, like Lewis, own restaurants; others just knock on doors to find a business willing to give away their waste products. The company also mentions that Rudolf Diesel, who invented the engine bearing his name, originally had vegetable oil in mind as a fuel.

The conversion kit adds a fuel tank for grease and a set of heaters to raise its temperature to 140 degrees Fahrenheit so it will flow like diesel. Because grease is thicker at room temperature, the kit also switches back to diesel before shutdown to keep fuel lines clean of solidifying grease.

Cuneo said diesel engines run as well on grease as on diesel fuel and the emissions are cleaner. No engine adjustments are required. He said he has sold 3, 500 conversion kits in the past seven years, but sales are doubling every year.

Lewis runs his grease through a filter to remove any food particles, and then stores it in jugs until he's ready to drive.

He said he uses about a quarter of the 50 gallons the restaurant consumes in a week, but he's thinking about ways to exploit the rest.

In researching his conversion, Lewis learned of Bio-Beetle, a company that rents cars that run on biodiesel on Maui and in Los Angeles.

He said he's thinking about a similar arrangement for Florida tourists who want to vacation in an environmentally sound way.

"I think there's a niche market for it, " Lewis said, imagining a fleet of grease cars on the beaches.

He also envisions old Mercedeses like his that could be leased to businesses and individuals.

With a network of friends in the restaurant business and the ready supply of fuel, he talks of a flat-fee lease that includes maintenance and all the grease you need to drive.

Lewis has seen growing interest in his project. While associates at first made jokes about dogs chasing his car, they're now impressed by what he drives and the story he tells. His partners haven't taken him up on his offer to convert cars for them, but he thinks they'll come around.

"When gas goes to $4 a gallon, they'll be calling, " he said.

Paul Swider can be reached at 892-2271 or pswider@sptimes.com or by participating in itsyourtimes.com.

[Last modified June 5, 2007, 00:25:05]


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