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Introducing the Humongous EcoTruck

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What is the conservation-conscious Texas Republican supposed to do when looking for transportation? On the one hand, he’d like to have something economical and ecologically responsible. On the other hand he’s in Texas and has to do a lot of driving and needs a big, comfortable vehicle that can seat the whole family. And, of course, it helps a lot if it’s a pickup truck in order to fit in with the neighbors. The answer? Why a BigAss EcoTruck, of course.

After much research I determined that the best solution for the BigAss EcoTruck was a Dodge Ram 2500 Diesel pickup with a four-door Crew Cab. Other options presented themselves but didn’t hold up. The best was the Dodge Contractor’s Special, which is basically the same truck but with a hybrid diesel engine.

The clueless marketers at Daimler-Chrysler haven’t realized how marketable a hybrid pickup would be in Texas, so they’re only available for fleet purchase in California, which means you have to buy 30 or more and transport them to Texas yourself, and I didn’t feel like opening my own car dealership just to buy one truck. The only other hybrid pickups are from General Motors, who prove with every stupid decision why they deserve to go out of business. In the case of their hybrid pickups, their idiocy is displayed by having used the hybrid features of the engine to improve towing capacity rather than gas mileage, totally defeating the purpose of hybridization.

Ford has a nice hybrid engine suitable for a pickup, but it’s only going to be available in SUVs for at least another year. Another option might have been a truck which would run on E85 Ethanol fuel, and they do exist, but no one in the state of Texas currently sells E85, though that’s bound to change since about half the gas-powered vehicles on the market can actually use it. Still not an immediate solution.

Since hybrids weren’t a realistic option, the best way to go was with an alternative fuel vehicle, and the Dodge Ram 2500 qualifies on all counts. It’s a serious truck with a three-quarter ton carrying capacity, plus it has the most comfortable backseat for the kids of any of the extended cabs I’ve looked at. It has a gigantic 5.9L Cummins Diesel engine, and while most of us are familiar with stinky commercial trucks running on PetroDiesel, the fact is that Diesel engines are able to run clean-burning BioDiesel with no modifications.

Rudolph Diesel invented his engine back in 1892 to run on biofuel. His first working model displayed at the 1898 exposition in Paris ran on pure peanut oil. The Diesel engine, by its very nature, is designed to run on low-volatility, high-viscosity fuel. It works by heating the relatively stable fuel to a more combustible temperature where it burns much more efficiently than fuels like gasoline.

Modern Diesel engines, as developed by Clessie Cummins, are modified to use fuel injection to work with lighter weight fuels like PetroDiesel (still much more viscous than gasoline), but they can still run on biofuels which have either been processed to be lighter weight or are actively heated in the engine to reduce viscosity. Diesel engines also have a great deal of tolerance for variations in the fuel, so under the right conditions you can run on a variety of different fuel mixes from straight vegetable oil to small amounts of BioDiesel used as an additive to improve the performance of standard PetroDiesel.

The Cummins Diesel engine in the Dodge Ram comes well prepared to run BioDiesel. It can run processed, fuel-quality BioDiesel just like regular PetroDiesel, despite the fact that it may have double the viscosity. It also comes with an engine heater which can be used to heat the fuel to reduce viscosity, which can make it feasible to run on much heavier weight oils and also makes it possible to run on various Diesel fuels in cold temperatures where they might gel and become useless — a problem even with PetroDiesel, though admittedly not much of an issue in the sweltering hell that is Texas.

The engine heater even comes with an external power cord which you can run out of the hood and plug into house current to heat the fuel before starting the engine in extreme cold (below 0 degrees Fahrenheit). It has to be noted that neither Dodge nor Cummins will officially endorse the use of anything higher than B20 in these engines, but extensive private testing has been done and is well documented on BioDiesel discussion forums with very few problems reported. Using BioDiesel also doesn’t void the engine warranty unless it can be proven to have damaged the engine. Since it generally leaves fewer deposits and burns cleaner than regular Diesel, this shouldn’t be a concern.

The one frequently noted issue is that on older engines the detergent properties of the BioDiesel may clear sludge deposited by past use of PetroDiesel out of the engine and deposit it in the fuel filter, which may have to be replaced. The most telling endorsement of BioDiesel is that the Cummins racing team uses B100 BioDiesel in all their racing engines, which are the same basic engine as in the Dodge diesel trucks.

One of the key reasons I chose a truck which could run BioDiesel was fuel availability. I had given up on finding Ethanol in the Austin area, but two different companies are providing various different blends of Biodiesel — Willie Nelson’s BioWillie and Austin Biofuels, with a total of five stations between them and more on the way.

The way I figured it, there was no point in getting an alternative fuel vehicle unless I could be confident of finding fuel for it. The other advantage of BioDiesel is that, potentially, the price will remain lower than that of gasoline. The raw material cost of BioDiesel from waste oil is about $1.10 a gallon. The raw material cost for new oil is about $1.80 after a rebate from the IRS. Taxes and processing expenses still add into that, but the end result is that the price for B99 BioDiesel should stay stable at about $2.70 a gallon while the price of gasoline fluctuates with market volatility in the $3-$5 range.

Since BioDiesel is a renewable resource produced domestically on a pretty small, localized basis — you can even make it yourself fairly easily — there shouldn’t be the kinds of problems we’ve seen recently with petroleum, so the price can be counted on to stay the same or even go down as production increases and becomes more efficient. Another major consideration is gas mileage. A 20% mix of BioDiesel has been found to increase overall engine efficiency and fuel mileage by around 15%.

Plus diesel engines generally get better gas mileage than gas-burning equivalents. Diesel mileage increases over time, but mileage figures in the 21-25 mpg range are not unheard of when using B20 fuel, and that’s pretty good for a large truck. BioDiesel also causes a lot less pollution. With the efficiency of modern engines the emission levels from BioDiesel are really remarkable. BioDiesel produces significantly lower levels of hydrocarbons, carbon monoxide and particulate matter and completely eliminates the sulfur dioxide produced by petroleum products.

According to the EPA the overall environmental impact of BioDiesel was 50% less than that of PetroDiesel. Finally, BioDiesel is a renewable resource. We’re not going to run out and we can always make more – plus it can help revitalize our agricultural economy.

So I went and bought the truck. It wasn’t cheap. The Diesel engine adds about $5000 to the total cost of the vehicle. Almost as expensive were the features my wife thought a ‘family’ truck ought to have. I’d been planning to strip it down to the bones and keep the price low, but as it turned out, once we added things like automatic windows and door locks, the whole package ended up being several thousand dollars more than I’d planned to spend.

Fortunately my old Nissan Frontier has held its value really well and I was able to get a better price for it than I’d ever expected, plus I found a way to qualify for an extra $1300 in rebates from Dodge, bringing the total price a bit closer to my target. Nonetheless, it’s still the most expensive vehicle I’ve ever bought, so it’s a good thing Diesel engines just about last forever, since I may have to drive it that long to justify the cost.

From the very first time I refilled the gas tank I’ve been running on BioDiesel. I wanted to start out with BioDiesel from the very beginning in order to avoid problems with deposits from regular diesel. I’ve been experimenting with mixes between 20% and 90%.

I’ve gone about 500 miles of mostly commuter and urban driving so far, and have found that gas mileage seems to be better with the biodiesel than I was getting on the tank of pure PetroDiesel the dealership gave me. I’m still assessing it, but it looks like mileage is about 15% higher with a 20% mix of BioDiesel. Mileage benefits may drop off at higher percentages of BioDiesel. Diesel engine mileage also goes up over time as the engine gets broken in. Others have reported mileage as high as 25 mpg running BioDiesel in a broken-in engine, which is awfully good for a large truck.

My purchase coincided with the gas price here in Texas breaking the $3 barrier, so it’s nice to be using a fuel which is already universally at or a bit below the cost of Unleaded in addition to getting good mileage. I’ve also noticed that with a high mix of BioDiesel the engine noise goes down substantially. Engine noise has always been one of the drawbacks of Diesel engines, and the BioDiesel lowers it enough that I can actually order at a drive-thru without having to turn off the engine.

Finally, it’s nice to know that I’m using a renewable resource and producing less pollution. And with the BioWillie and Austin Biofuels bumper stickers on the back of the truck, when I park in downtown Austin and an eco-nazi decides to key the truck, he’ll feel a little guilty when he gets to the end and sees the stickers.

On the whole the BigAss Ecotruck has been a pretty good experience so far, but there are a couple of minor shortcomings. Although Dodge did a great job with putting lots of compartments and storage areas in the front seating area, the back seating area is less full-featured.

Particularly bad is the placement of the back-seat cup holders, which are in the middle on the floor, very hard for a four-year-old to reach to place or retrieve her drink without spilling it. The factory radio also leaves a great deal to be desired.

The controls are arcane and the placement in the dash is peculiar, with an irregular shape which has round cut-outs for the knobs, so that when I replace it with a better quality sound system it’s never going to look quite right. Ultimately fairly minor problems with aftermarket solutions available at a reasonable price. The one other concern is that there are still relatively few BioDiesel stations in the Austin area and they are limited to a very limited area, but from what I hear the numbers should double or more by the end of the year.

If you’re in the market for a new vehicle, consider BioDiesel. You don’t have to get a BigAss EcoTruck of your own. There are cheaper and more compact alternatives. Volkswagen and Mercedes both make excellent sedans in the US and you can still get Diesel Volvos in europe and all will run on BioDiesel and get over 30 mpg.

If you don’t want to buy new, remember that older Diesel engines have a lot more life left in them than a gas engine of the same age. The main issue for a used car is that those produced before 2004 are likely to need any rubber gaskets or hoses replaced to run BioDiesel.

Forget the pie-in-the-sky about ethanol and hydrogen vehicles of the future. With BioDiesel the economical, renewable and clean fuel you’ve been waiting for is here now.


If you want to learn more about BioDiesel there’s a fascinating article on ways to convert our entire fuel supply to BioDiesel from the University of New Hampshire. I also recommend Journey to Forever for information on BioDiesel, including practical methods for making your own.

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About Dave Nalle

  • http://www.markiscranky.org Mark Saleski

    either an old mercedes or maybe volkswagon running biodiesel is my next move.

    by hey, don’t dump on my cooper, man. chicks dig it!

  • http://www.elitistpig.com Dave Nalle

    Chicks dig your Cooper because only chicks can FIT in the damned thing. Drive an EcoTruck like a man, dammit!

    Dave

  • J Baustian

    I had not heard of the Dodge “Contractor’s Special” diesel hybrid truck before — sounds interesting, and probably the wave of the future for pickups of all sizes.

    I read yesterday that 38% of all VW Jettas sold in April were the turbo direct-injection diesels (TDI), and over 40% of the VW New Beetles. The author referred to a Volvo diesel — AFAIK there haven’t been any Volvo diesel cars sold in the US in more than 20 years. Maybe he was thinking of Mercedes-Benz?

    The author says B20 can increase fuel mileage by 15%, compared to regular #2 diesel. I believe this is incorrect — biodiesel burns clean but has slightly less energy (BTU’s) per gallon, so gets slightly worse fuel mileage than regular diesel. (E85 ethanol gets much worse fuel mileage than regular gasoline.)

  • http://www.elitistpig.com Dave Nalle

    I had not heard of the Dodge “Contractor’s Special” diesel hybrid truck before — sounds interesting, and probably the wave of the future for pickups of all sizes.

    If they could get off their butts and start manufacturing and selling it to a more general market, I agree.

    AFAIK there haven’t been any Volvo diesel cars sold in the US in more than 20 years. Maybe he was thinking of Mercedes-Benz?

    We do have an international audience here at BC, but I ought to have also mentiond Mercedes.

    The author says B20 can increase fuel mileage by 15%, compared to regular #2 diesel. I believe this is incorrect — biodiesel burns clean but has slightly less energy (BTU’s) per gallon, so gets slightly worse fuel mileage than regular diesel. (E85 ethanol gets much worse fuel mileage than regular gasoline.)

    I was just reporting my personal observations comparing burning 20 gallons of PetroDiesel and 20 gallons of B20. But It’s born out by others who have done similar tests and come up with similar results. Apparently the falloff in mileage comes with higher mixes of BioDiesel.

    Dave

  • http://www.markiscranky.org Mark Saleski

    well, my last vehicle was a full size 4wd chevy k1500. fun to drive (in a different sort of way) but i never missed it after take the big “step down”.

  • http://www.elitistpig.com Dave Nalle

    Going from that to a Cooper is quite a change.

    I test drove the Chevy equivalent of my new truck including the hybrid version, and it wasn’t even close to comparable as far as the quality of design and engineering. The interior is particularly unappealing, just about as bad as the horrible Ford F150.

    Dave

  • http://www.markiscranky.org Mark Saleski

    i really loved the chevy. we still have it, but use it for stuff like trips to the lumber yard.

  • http://www.iamcorrect.com Lono

    Dave Nalle – this will be the first time we have agreed on anything. That was a great piece. I too have a diesel (Ford F-250 Powerstroke Superduty). I very much want to run Bio-diesel but there is none in South metro Denver. Denver is getting closer to making biodiesel a real alternative, as the mayor ordered all Denver school buses to switch over to Biodiesel.

    I hope to be switched over full time to biodiesel sometime in the next year or so. It has all the advantages:
    it is cheaper
    it is cleaner
    you are giving money to farmers instead of terrorists!

    As soon as I can get my hands on it in South Metro Denver I will drop a line here.

  • http://www.iamcorrect.com Lono

    Oh, another thing. Biodiesel doesn’t run well in the Winter… but neither does Diesel. Diesel solidifies around the zero mark. Something for folks to be very aware of in colder climates. That is why diesels have plugs coming out of the grill.

  • http://www.elitistpig.com Dave Nalle

    That winter business may be why it hasn’t taken off yet in Denver. Not so much of an issue here in Austin. But mine does have the plug for plugging the warmer into the garage outlet.

    I do have some good news for you on that front, Lono. One of the companies which I contacted for some info on the production end is in the Denver area. They’re a large scale manufacturer and wholesaler, but can retail outlets be far behind?

    Dave

  • Bliffle

    Sounds like a nice truck. But does it have wing windows? My 32 year old truck does. Nothing beats blasting down the highway with the wing window reversed open, providing Gods Own Airconditioning, left fist wrapped around the wing window pillar. Especially nice if you have a guffers knob on the (non-power) steering wheel. In The Old Days I used to have a Lucky Strike hanging from the corner of my mouth and the pack rolled up in the sleeve of my T-shirt.

    Now that’s a Real Truck! Sometimes I let young Framer Dave drive it out of the driveway so he can back his uninteresting behemoth in. Makes me feel good to see the Kid get a big thrill.

  • JR

    Dave Nalle: Chicks dig your Cooper because only chicks can FIT in the damned thing. Drive an EcoTruck like a man, dammit!

    Why would a man want to drive anyone but chicks around in his car?

  • http://www.elitistpig.com Dave Nalle

    JR, if that’s ‘chicks’ plural then where can you put the man in the Cooper? And if the man is any larger than a chick himself, where’s he going to go in that tiny thing even when there aren’t chicks in it?

    Dave

  • http://www.markiscranky.org Mark Saleski

    dave, the perfect cd for this article.

  • http://www.elitistpig.com Dave Nalle

    I love the band name, but having sampled a few tracks on iTunes I have to say the music doesn’t live up to the name, though it is truly irritating.

    Dave

  • Maurice

    Interesting read. How large is your gas.. er I mean BioDiesel tank? Have you looked into getting a larger tank – either replacing the original or getting the dreaded in-bed-refill-tank?

  • http://www.elitistpig.com Dave Nalle

    The truck already comes with a 34 gallon tank, which is about all you’d want. I’ve already seen people who’ve done analysis of the significant difference in gas mileage based on driving with an empty tank and a full tank because 34 gallons of fuel is heavy enough to actually alter GVW enough to impact gas mileage.

    Dave

  • Maurice

    I looked into it because I have a ’99 Dodge 2500 with the V10. When I have the slide in camper on it and then hook up the trailer I am down to 6.7 mpg with only a 30 gallon tank.

    Maybe it is time for me to upgrade to the eco groovy BioDiesel…..

  • http://www.elitistpig.com Dave Nalle

    The V10 is inherently way less gas efficient than the V6 diesel, and ironically it’s also less powerful. Diesel burns at a 75% higher rate of efficiency than gas, so it really kicks some butt as far as power goes.

    That camper likely costs you as well. I saw someone with the same truck today who had replaced the back gate with an aerodynamic after-market version which lets wind pass through. I’m curious how much that helps with the mileage.

    Dave

  • http://www.iamcorrect.com Lono

    We must Must end this myth here and now. Removing your tailgate or leaving it down does NOT give you better mileage. It actually hurts mileage by creating drag. The car guy’s tested this (they are MIT grads) and it was also tested and demonstrated on Mythbusters.

    Sorry, this is unrelated to the thread but I had to drop that off. I am definately hoping to see retail outlets with Biodiesel. I know you can brew it at home, but that is too much trouble and my wife would shoot me.

    Another thing for you diesel folks, there is a most excellent site called Diesel stop (www.dieselstop.com) that has a great forum questions where you can get answers to everything.

  • http://www.elitistpig.com Dave Nalle

    Lono, some easy research brought me to the same conclusion about the tailgate. Apparently the whole bed is in the shadow of the cab, so the point is moot.

    Where do you live? Biodiesel is popping up everywhere.

    Dave

  • http://www.iamcorrect.com Lono

    Parker, Colorado… which is basically south Metro Denver.

  • http://musical-guru.blogspot.com/ Michael J. West

    Big Ass Truck is a good band name, but in this case, Dave, I would recommend “Jesus Chrysler Supercar.”

  • Dave Nalle

    I’m not sure that Jesus Chrysler Supercar would be appropriate given my general relationship with the ‘son of man’ and his minions.

    And Lono, Colorado is going to be a BioDiesel paradise before you know it.

    Here’s a list of biodiesel retailers in Colorado. There are 4 or so in the Denver area, including one selling B100.

    Dave

  • http://absent-mind.blogspot.com/ Jet in Columbus

    My compliments Dave. I have absolutely no hope of every owning one, but your article held my interest all the way through! (If only to see if you were going to give up and buy one of Willie Nelson’s old tour busses out of frustration)

    Nice writing
    Jet

  • http://www.elitistpig.com Dave Nalle

    I imagine that anyone driving in one of Willie’s old tour buses would be in serious danger of a major contact high.

    Dave

  • California Democrat

    Why doesn’t Texas Republican do like the Republican Governor of California, and go out and buy his and hers matching Humvees? Actually, the Eco Truck sounds Ok, but not for going to the market to pick up a carton of milk. For most people, a cheap plug-in hybrid makes a lot more sense, both economically and ecologically. Maybe someday Toyota will market one. Doesn’t look like the Oil cartel or any American car manufacturers are interested in doing anything serious to help the nation, beyond getting crooked politicians re-elected.

  • http://www.elitistpig.com Dave Nalle

    Sadly there are no decent hybrid pickups that can seat 5 available or that’s what I would have gone for. It’s discussed in the article.

    Dave

  • Rick

    So, summing up what I’ve read here, I should get a Dodge 2500 crew cab maybe the Contractor’s Special with a V-6 engine. I can expect to get upwards of 20 mpg and it’s not too noisy. Man, that sounds like the ticket to me! I’m moving out to the Nashville, TN area and want to get a boat to haul around with the wife and the kids in the back (actually, the kids in the backseat and the wife in the front – in case my wife reads this. She keeps my privates in her purse and won’t let me have them back to wear occasionally unless I’m a good boy. I’d complain, but after being married all these years, I just don’t have the sack).

    I have a Ford Ranger V-6 that gets 20 mpg on regular gas, but there’s no room in the backseat for the kids on a long trip. Your Dodge sounds like the deal to me, I’m going to start looking next month after tax returns. Thanks!

  • Dave Nalle

    You can’t actually get the contractor’s special, but the rest sounds about right. Oh, but don’t expect your mileage to hit 20mpg until you’ve had the truck for a few months. But if you’re a Ford fan, you’re also in luck. I’ve been working on a follow up article based on the biodiesel experiences of an acquaintance and he’s driving a Ford F-250 extended cab with similar results to what I’ve had with the Dodge, so that might be an option as well. It’s actually a bit cheaper too – though the back seat isn’t as comfy IMO.

    Dave

  • Jeff

    I’m considering an F-250 as well. Any chance you could put me in contact with your acquaintance? I’m also in Austin, Texas.

  • http://www.elitistpig.com Dave Nalle

    Jeff, use the author email link to send me an email and I’ll see what I can do.

    The F-250 engine is even more powerful than the one in the Ram 2500 that I have, but it seems to be a pretty solid truck. IMO it’s overpriced and less comfortable than the Dodge, but comfort is highly subjective.

    Dave