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. Powered by Sidelines