Warning- Before using alternative fuels on the highway, ensure you are familiar with your state and federal laws for road use tax. The taxman takes this very seriously and getting caught with even a few gallons of untaxed fuel in your vehicle can result in thousands of dollars in fines. Off road, in generators and farm equipment and such, no problem. On the road, you are taking a risk if you don’t do the paperwork and pay the taxman.
Why learn about alternative fuels? My first experience with alternative fuels came 15 years ago. I was in rural Alabama on a buying trip in my diesel Ford van, and let myself get way too low on fuel as the evening progressed. I pulled into a little town with 2 gas stations, and only one was open. Of course, just my luck, the open station did not sell diesel. The one with diesel would not reopen until 6:00am the next morning, and the next station was 25 miles away, and I doubted I could stretch the fuel that far with the load I was towing.
Remembering what I had learned, I went into a local supermarket, purchased 3 gallons of vegetable oil, dumped them in my tank, and made it to the next station with diesel with no problem – in fact I found my engine ran a little quieter and smoother on the peanut oil. Had I not known this trick, I would have been sleeping in the van the next 8 hours until I could buy some fuel.
Not only can alternative fuels bail you out of a hard spot or be available when other fuels are out and the gas stations are closed, they can save you a significant amount of money. Often these fuels can be had at a substantial discount over regular diesel, or even free. When you are working make a homestead as low-cost and self-sufficient as possible, using alternative fuels can save a lot of money.
This article not going to go into deep specifics about what exact fuels and engines work, but give you a good basic overview that you can use to build your knowledge and learn from. From this, you will know enough to get started researching your exact situation with engines and available fuels. The primary knowledge you need it to know what engines work best and what can be used as alternative fuels.
The diesel engines best suited for alternative fuels are older designs that are non-computer controlled with indirect injection. This is not to say that modern diesel engines cannot use alternative fuels; however, there are factors that limit the ability to use them, and newer engines are far less tolerant. The most notable is that the modern computer controlled diesel engines, in an effort to produce the most power and economy while meeting ever more stringent emission regulations, are placing the fuel under much higher injection pressures and far more specific fuel parameters that the engine control computers demand. Shifting away from the viscosity, lubricity, and performance of diesel can have very adverse effects on these newer engines. Another major factor is that newer diesel engines have emission control systems that can be damaged by using some of these fuels. As a general rule of thumb, anything automotive older than mid-1990’s works best with these, on generators and tractors the dates push a little later.
Some that I have personally used and verified work well are the GM 6.2 and 6.5 V8’s, the Ford/International 6.9 and 7.3 V8’s (non-Powestroke), most 80’s VW and Mercedes diesel engines, the Kubota D905 and similar engines, and the engines found on military MEP-002A and MEP–03A diesel generators.
If you have a vehicle, tractor, generator, or other diesel-powered anything you are considering using alternative fuels in, a quick search on the internet will almost always yield a list where somebody else has tried it and shared their experience. A brief search before trying it can often save you the trouble if it is not a good combination, or let you learn how to best make it work from another persons trail and error.
This is a list of fuels I have either personally used or seen used in diesel-powered vehicles. This is not a complete list of all possible fuels, but it is a good starting point. Some I list as usable at a 100% mixture, some are only usable as a blend with diesel, kerosene, or another agent that thins it.
Home Heating Oil- This is essentially No. 2 diesel with a slightly different mix that is inconsequential for use in vehicles; or often the exact same thing, and the addition of a red dye so the tax man can tell it is not taxed for road use. In some parts of the country ,there are hundreds of gallons of this at almost every older home with an oil furnace, and if one has a pump and lines in an emergency it can be pulled from the tanks and used.
Kerosene- This also can be used with only a slight drop in power output. In a situation where all the gas stations have “no gas” signs, often the kerosene pumps will still be running. It does lack the lubricity that many diesel engines need. If available, you should mix some 2 cycle oil in at a ratio of around 100:1 to restore that lubricity. But in a pinch, don’t hesitate to use it. A few hundred gallons of it without a lubricity additive won’t harm anything. Note that it will act as a detergent and break gunk free from a fuel tank, so be prepared to change fuel filters.
Jet/Turbine Fuels JP4/JP8- The military runs all its diesels on JP8, so the same fuel can be used in all vehicles that are turbine or piston powered. Like kerosene, it lacks lubricity; so, if possible, add 2 cycle oil.
Unused Vegetable Oil- Vegetable and cooking oil that has not been used to cook, fresh from the bottle or even farm can be used. This is actually nothing new. Rudolf Diesel ran the very first diesel engine on peanut oil by design. It is possible to even raise soybeans as a crop for fuel. In the summer, in warm climates, you can dump it in many engines at 100% strength, no mixing. In colder climates, you cannot use it at 100%, as it will gel and the engine cannot pump it. Vehicles modified to run on vegetable oil year round will usually have a special fuel tank that circulates engine coolant through the tank to heat it; as well as heaters in line with the fuel system to ensure that fuel delivered to the engine is warm and, therefore, thin enough to run through the system; and a separate smaller tank for diesel that the engine starts and runs on until the veggie oil tank is warm. You can run in colder climates, to a point, by blending with diesel; kerosene; or, in limited amounts, gasoline. To test blend ratios, put varies ratios in jars and simply leave them out on a cold night, and see what mix gels and what stays liquid at various temps.
Used vegetable Oil - Generally called Waste Vegetable Oil or WVO. This is the famous used French fry oil. Not made into biodiesel, that is something outside the scope of this article, but used directly as a fuel. DO NOT JUST DUMP USED FRYER OIL IN YOUR TANK! Used veggie oil is dirty and has emulsified water in it, and both will harm your engine. Before use, used oil needs to be filtered, ideally to a smaller micron rating than your vehicle filter, and de-watered. There are varied methods for de-watering, from centrifuges, to simply heating it to boil water off to water absorbing filters. But you need to ensure the oil is clean and free of water, then you use it just like virgin vegetable oil. In a later article I will discuss filtering.
Motor Oil- New motor oil can be mixed with fuel up to around 50% in most cases. Used motor oil is the same, farmers often called it “black diesel” and have put the used oil from the farm in diesel tanks for years. Usually called Waste Motor Oil or WMO on most online forums discussing it. The same warnings that apply as to used veggie oil above- you must filter it and remove the water, and watch in colder climates for gelling. The Army, for a while, was buying a machine that removed the oil during an oil change, filtered it, and pumped it right into the fuel tank. They paid thousands, but you can easily build one yourself for around $100. Your friends, neighbors, and even local shops will probably be happy to give you as much free “fuel” as they can generate. One word of warning, some have found that WMO is best used in vehicles that are used for longer runs or duration, like tractors used all day or trucks run on the highway. Using it in vehicles used for short, around town drives can possibly lead to deposits being left in the engine as it does not get to full operating temperature.
Automatic Transmission Fluid- Can be run up to 100% in many engines. Since every gas station has it on the shelf, this is a good emergency option when the pumps run dry. If used ATF is burned, the same warnings about filtering apply, but in a pinch it is less likely to hold moisture dirt than motor oil.
Hydraulic Oil- Before all the engineers jump me, yes I know there are thousands of kinds of hydraulic oils. But most are around a 5-10wt oil that can be run up to 100% in these engines. Your farm supply places have it in 5 gallon buckets, and heavy equipment has gallons of it that can be removed and used in a pinch.
Transformer Oil- The kind from the big transformers on the pole or outside a big building. Do not use ones from transformers older than the 70’s as it may be full of nasty PCB’s, but anything newer will be fine. If you can find a shop that rebuilds these transformers, they may be very happy to have you haul away the oil so they don’t have to pay for disposal.
These are just a few examples of fuels and engines. The key things to remember before using an alternative fuel in your diesel engine are to research and see if anybody has used it before, ensuring whatever fuel you are choosing is clean and free of water; and to start with a slow blend if possible. Of course, in an emergency, this isn’t always possible, so use your best judgment. But for a cost saving measure on the homestead, these basic rules will help you explore and start using low-cost diesel fuel alternatives. In an emergency you will see all sorts of possible sources of fuel along the road that most people would have never considered. Try spotting all the fuel sources on your next drive.