K.I. SAWYER - Randall Webber likes grease. In his garage he keeps a barrel full of grease from K.I. Sawyer's Tailwinds Grill and Bar. Connected to the barrel is a hose with a nozzle, similar to a gasoline pump. Webber uses the apparatus to fuel his truck, which runs on waste vegetable oil. "It's what a lot of people term SVO or straight vegetable oil," he said. "It's literally vegetable oil that restaurants use to fry food." It smells like that too when Webber runs his 1997 Ford 350 one-ton crew cab long bed truck. Webber has been converting diesel cars, trucks and vans into "grease" cars for the last six years. It all started when diesel prices hit the $1.50 per gallon mark and Webber decided to make a change. "I wanted to be free of the petroleum industry and utility bills," he said. "I don't have to rely on the refineries, I just have to rely on people eating french fries." Back then, when Webber lived on a farm in Skandia where he used wind and solar energy, he considered using biodiesel (mostly a mix of cooking grease, lye and methanol) for fuel but instead decided against it for safety concerns in regards to his then young children. Webber is a certified installer of vegetable fuel systems kits through greasecar.com and has converted dozens of trucks, vans and cars from diesel to vegetable fueled vehicles. "I started doing it and pretty soon I have had people calling from as far as Kansas City, Missouri, to have their car converted," Webber said. "I got flown down to Florida twice to do installations and I made numerous trips to Chicago, Wisconsin, Minnesota and downstate Michigan." The oldest car he converted was a 1965 Mercedes Benz and the newest a 2005 Volkswagen Passat. Perhaps his most successful conversion involved an Illinois businessman who had Webber convert his delivery van. "Before he spent $1,200 a month on fuel and he dropped it to $200," Webber said. Not only does the business man now save money on fuel, but because he is delivering spices to restaurants, he is able to pick up their grease at the same time. Besides costing less, vegetable fuel is also 75 percent less of an air pollutant than diesel fuel and it's carbon neutral, Webber said. "It's not adding any carbon," he added. "The carbon you do emit is consumed by the plants used to provide your fuel." However, Webber said he does not think vegetable fuel is the solution to any global resource problem. "There is not enough vegetable waste oil there to fuel all the diesel vehicles in the United States, but for private usage the benefits are there," he said. And it is certainly beneficial for Webber - a round trip to Chicago costs him about $9 in fuel.
Randall Webber points to the engine system that allows his 1997 Ford 350 to run on straight vegetable oil. (Journal photo by Miriam Moeller)