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Sustainable Classics: Think Biodiesel

Classic vehicle purists tend to want the very best of what they can find for their restored or project vehicles. The pride that comes with a complete restoration is an experience which relatively few ever share. When every bolt, seam, and clamp is tightened, and there isn't a scratch on the paint, is there anything beyond perfect? For drivers and restorers of classic diesel vehicles, there is: perfect and sustainable. If a classic diesel vehicle has been restored with modern hoses and seals, it may already be prepared to run on biodiesel.

Biodiesel is diesel fuel created through processing organic waste materials such as animal fat and discarded vegetable matter. Biodiesel is already included as part of many existing diesel fuel blends, and blends containing specific percentages of biodiesel are already widely available. The blends B2, B5, and B10 (containing 2%, 5%, and 10% biodiesel, respectively) are considered safe for use in any diesel engine without modification, and are typically not in conflict with manufacturer warranties on newer vehicles. The B20 blend (20% biodiesel) is becoming more available, and some manufacturers are considering expanding warranty coverage to include it. B100 (pure biodiesel) is not currently covered under any manufacturer warranty, but this is generally of little concern to classic vehicle enthusiasts.

Any diesel vehicle can use biodiesel, though in some cases it may require some slight modifications. Though biodiesel production does not currently match the availability of fossil-fuels, it does offer a sustainable resource that can both reduce dependence on fossil-fuels, and reduce pollution as well.

Advantages of Biodiesel:

There are a number of reasons why owners of classics should switch to biodiesel. Here are several:

  • Biodiesel is environmentally friendly: Vehicles that run on biodiesel produce less pollution compared to vehicles that run on standard diesel. The emissions from biodiesel use are typically lower overall, and less toxic to the environment.
  • Biodiesel is cheaper: It is considerably cheaper compared to other types of fuels. Many have invested in the materials needed to process biodiesel at home, and while this may be the most efficient and cost-saving method, because it is produced from waste materials which do not need to be extracted (as fossil-fuels do) biodiesel is also typically less expensive in locations where it is available at the pump.
  • Biodiesel requires little commitment: In general, any modification of a vehicle made to improve its use with biodiesel is entirely compatible with traditional diesel fuels. There is typically no need for any reversions in order to run standard diesel fuel.

Biodiesel and the Environment

As concepts of sustainability expand to encompass a broader range of people, biodiesel itself has become increasingly popular. Reports have revealed that biodiesel can help to reduce greenhouse gas emission to a significant degree. The use of biodiesel also reduces the environmentally unfriendly activities associated with oil drilling. According to the Renewable Fuel Standards Program Regulatory Impact Analysis which was released in February 2010, biodiesel which is produced from soy oils help to reduce greenhouse gases by up to 57 percent and biodiesel produced from waste products help to reduce greenhouse gases up to 86 percent in comparison to the fossil fuels.

Modifications Required For Biodiesel Use:

At minimum, modifying a classic diesel vehicle to run on biodiesel may require no effort at all. If a classic has been restored with modern, synthetic hoses and seals, it is relatively immune from the slightly corrosive effect which many biodiesel blends can have on natural rubber materials.

One factor that all biodiesel users must consider is temperature. While most classic vehicle owners do not drive their vehicles in the winter, in areas where temperatures drop significantly at night, it should be noted that depending on the makeup, some biodiesel blends will solidify under warmer conditions than will standard diesel fuel. The specific point at which this occurs should be identified, and if this point is frequently reached, measures must be taken to assure full compatibility.

Counteracting the solidification can take several forms. In some areas, owners will simply install heating elements around fuel lines and in some cases, the fuel tank. In areas where temperatures fall further, some owners may choose to install a separate fuel tank, often with heating coils which circulate engine coolant. When the engine has warmed the fuel sufficiently, a switch can be thrown to select the biodiesel, and the vehicle will operate normally.

Lastly, under some circumstances, biodiesel users have found that slight adjustments in engine timing may improve performance with their biodiesel vehicles, and while this is arguably the biggest concern when one wishes to maintain the ability to use standard diesel fuel, it is far from a universal requirement, and is largely dependent on the operating conditions and biodiesel blend being used.

Important Things to Remember:

After any required modifications, the use of biodiesel requires only that the driver remember three key points on a daily basis:

  • Biodiesel has solvent properties, and should be handled with care. If spilled, it can harm automotive finishes and other appointments. Cleanup should be undertaken as quickly as possible.
  • Biodiesel has a limited life span. According to the National Biodiesel Board, biodiesel should be used within 6 months of its production. It may not maintain its performance and consistency after its expiration date.
  • Biodiesel solidifies at warmer temperatures, and more quickly than conventional diesel fuels.

Additional Resources:

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Matt is the Managing Partner at Leland-West Insurance Brokers, Inc. He started with the firm while still a college student, way back in 1984. According to Matt his only remaining hobby is Motorsport ... because its all he can afford ("will work for tires"). Reach him at matt@lelandwest.com