Fill’er up … with vegetable oil

Ray Labrecque tops up the used vegetable oil slip tank he mounted on his combine. He converted his 20-year-old Massey 20 years ago and says he hasn’t had any problems.
 |  William DeKay photo

Farmer converted his Massey combine to run on used vegetable oil but warns farmers not to try it with expensive machinery

ROSETOWN, Sask. — The fragrance of fresh french fries floats over the field of flax.

Ray Labrecque was on the final few rounds to finish harvest on his 1,000-acre farm and had only burned about 200 gallons of diesel in his combine this year.

That’s because he converted his 1997 8570 Massey to run on used cooking oil and the exhaust smells like fried food.

“I’ve been running my combine for six years. Not a single problem,” said Labrecque last month.

“I burn about 150 to 250 gallons of diesel and I put 225 to 250 hours every year on the combine…. Basically, half the engine life of this combine has been on vegetable oil. I have 3,700 hours on it now.”

The inspiration took hold about 10 years ago when Labrecque sold an old diesel pick-up truck. The buyer converted it to run on used cooking oil.

After some research on the internet, Labrecque decided he could safely and simply alter his tractor and combine — “the big fuel burners.”

He adapted his Versatile 835 tractor first and then modified the combine. While there are conversion kits available for cars and trucks, that’s not true for farm machinery so Labrecque gathered the necessary parts and did his own assembly.

“It’s not complicated to do,” he said.

A 100-gallon slip tank is mounted to the platform near the engine. Heating elements inside the tank raise the temperature of the vegetable oil.

The used oil passes through a second heating mechanism attached to the engine, which further lowers the viscosity to resemble that of diesel fuel. It then runs through a fuel filter and two three-way valves before reaching the engine.

“Basically, I let the engine warm up enough that the viscosity of the oil drops enough that it will burn just like diesel,” said Labrecque.

He said there is no difference in engine performance and thinks the advantages tip the scales in favour of used oil.

“Personally, I’ve never noticed any loss in power. You can go to your engine r.p.m. and see what it runs on diesel and what it runs at on vegetable oil. They say there’s about a five percent loss in fuel,” he said. “Another nice thing about this is there’s more lubrication in the vegetable oil compared to diesel. I should by rights get more life out of my engine.”

Inside the cab, Labrecque in-stalled an electric on-off switch with a red light that controls the valves and flow of his two fuel sources. No light means diesel, red light means vegetable oil.

He starts the engine with diesel in the fuel system. Once the engine temperature reaches 180 to 190 F, he switches over.

Near the end of the day, he switches back to diesel to purge the vegetable oil from the fuel system.

He repeats the routine at the beginning and end of each day’s operation.

“I’ve never forgot in six years to switch it over. If you forget, you’re going to have vegetable oil in your system and that is going to get really thick once it cools down. You’ll never start that engine until you bleed the whole system.”

Labrecque gets the used vegetable oil from the storage vats of restaurants, which have given him permission to collect.

“I’ve got a few restaurants that I’ve been working with ever since I started. It’s just a matter of talking to restaurant owners and telling them what you’re doing. They’re usually pretty good with wanting to help you out. Say yes to us farmers.”

He uses a portable pump to fill his storage tote at restaurants and to fill the combine’s slip tank.

The oil gets filtered once at the slip tank, as well as the at combine’s two stock engine filters.

Trial and error, along with the desire to experiment, have been Labrecque’s best teachers.

“I’ve made some mistakes and learned a lot of stuff…. I used to run half diesel, half vegetable oil in my pick-up truck but my injection pump started giving me problems. So, I ended up taking it off and sending it down to the States to get rebuilt.”

Labrecque cautioned farmers not to attempt the conversions with expensive newer machinery.

“It’s got to be the older tractors and combines. I’m basically comfortable with converting anything with a Cummins engine. It all depends on the injection pump. Some are better suited for vegetable oil.”

He sees it as a potential cost-saver on smaller farms.

“It costs a lot to be a small farmer. Big farmers probably don’t spend as much as small farmers per acre. This is one really good way to save money,” he said.

His combine burns about 40 litres an hour, which is a saving of 70 to 80 cents per litre of diesel. The cost of used vegetable oil is his time and expense in collecting it.

Talk of carbon credits, government regulations surrounding greenhouse gases and potential add-on costs for consuming fossil fuels have Labrecque thinking that burning used vegetable oil is a win-win for farmers and the environment.

“Used oil is not considered a fuel. It’s not a controlled product like methanol, gasoline or diesel,” he said. “The exhaust that’s coming out of my combine is zero emissions. It’s not a big deal if you have a spill on the ground of your farm. It’s vegetable oil, it’s natural, it’s good for the land.”

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