Auto News: Mr. Green Car: Recent experiences: E85, drag racing and energy fair

August 8, 2012

“If you want to use E85 ethanol, make sure your vehicle can safely use it, or fuel system damage may occur. Consult your owner’s manual or talk to a service representative at a dealer that manufactured your vehicle. My old van says it’s OK right on the inside of the gas cap door (pictured).” — Allen Penticoff (Photo by Allen Penticoff)

By Allen Penticoff
Free-lance Writer

For much of the last year, I’ve been driving a 1998 Plymouth Grand Voyager SE as a handyman work truck. After I bought this rusty old van, I learned it could use E85 ethanol fuel. None of the other cars in my fleet has had this capability, so I thought I’d give it a try.

What I’ve found is that there is little discernible difference in how the van runs — any time of year or what blend of regular unleaded and E85 is in the tank. I’ve used pure E85 during the coldest of times and at the hottest — with zero problems. It is claimed that running on E85 produces less power — but it is not noticeable under anything near normal driving. It even does quite well with very hard acceleration. Short of an out-and-out drag race against another old mini-van (more about that later), you wouldn’t notice.

What I do notice is that the fuel economy is not as good — roughly 10 to 20 percent worse. Most of that is attributed to ethanol being a less dense fuel than gasoline. There is simply not as much energy in a gallon of ethanol as a gallon of gasoline — but the difference is not huge.

When operating on regular unleaded with 10 percent ethanol, I was getting about 19 miles per gallon. At $4 per gallon, this is about 20 cents per mile for fuel cost. When running E85, I get between 15 and 17 mpg. To break even on cost, E85 needs to be about 60 cents per gallon less than regular unleaded to yield the same cost per mile. Only a handful of places sell E85 at a low enough price to make it work out — but I’ve become accustomed to using E85, and will pay a bit more per mile to use it.

Since I’m in Freeport often, I try to fill up at the F/S station on South Street — where E85 is always about as cheap as you’ll find anywhere. During my last purchase, it was 70 cents per gallon less than regular unleaded, so the next few miles will be a bit less expensive than if I were using gasoline.

While E85 smells much better because you are not burning old dinosaurs and million-year-old ferns, it does not come with a very low carbon footprint. The creation and processing involves a lot of diesel in the course of planting and harvesting the corn, in transporting the corn, and the end product. Quite a bit of natural gas is used to cook the corn mash that makes the alcohol, and great quantities of water are used as well.

Corn is heavily subsidized by taxes, and is used in many products as well as food. Some say ethanol competes with food. But we export a lot of cheap corn to places that could otherwise grow their own (and puts their farmers out of business), so there seems to be a lot of corn to go around — so might as well keep our farms working and our money here rather than send it off to oil-rich countries that do little for us. It will be interesting to see what this year’s drought will do to ethanol, food and other commodities that depend so much upon it.

In the end, I know using ethanol is no panacea for our oil addition and carbon pollution, but I like to use it. Somehow, it feels good. If you want to use E85 ethanol, make sure your vehicle can safely use it, or fuel system damage may occur. Consult your owner’s manual or talk to a service representative at a dealer that manufactured your vehicle. My old van says it’s OK right on the inside of the gas cap door.

Allen Penticoff’s Rabbit vs. a Chevy 4-by-4 at Byron Dragway. “That was a bucket list item now checked off — run down a drag strip,” Penticoff wrote. “I can see where it would become addictive. Even in a slow, old greaser Rabbit.” (Photo provided)

Another recent experience was on the Fourth of July. I discovered that as part of Byron’s festivities, locals could bring their cars to the Byron Dragway and run the track for free. I decided I’d love to give it a go — but what to take? I decided to dust off the old yellow 1981 Volkswagen Rabbit diesel that runs on vegetable oil and take it to the track. After some minor repairs and a quick wash job, it was ready to go — and started at the turn of the key after a year of sitting. A good sign.

I filled the veggie oil tank, and my wife Ruth and I headed on down to Byron from our home in New Milford. We got in line with all sorts of other vehicles, and waited to run down the strip after signing a brief waiver and check in. We hoped to perhaps be the first vegetable oil-powered car to run down the strip — and perhaps the slowest.

Ruth rode along on the first run. We ran against a Chevy pickup that left us far behind, but the little Rabbit did well. We turned in 23.95 seconds at a whopping 55.99 mph for the quarter-mile race. Ruth had never been to a drag race before, much less been in one. Needless to say, we did not need a parachute to slow down.

After taking a seat in the stands and watching others race on that rather hot Independence Day evening — with some very fast cars and motorcycles running — and everything else from street cars, diesel trucks, and min-vans to a church bus (a big Dodge passenger van), I noticed many were making multiple runs, so I took the Rabbit out solo for another run.

On my second run, I was up against a rusty old Chevy 4-by-4 pickup with big tires. I chatted with the two guys in the truck about veggie oil operation and cost as we waited our turn. I did a better job with the timing lights the second time, and consequently did much better on elapsed time. Without Ruth along, the top speed was a bit better, too, as the Rabbit, straining to accelerate, turned in a better-than-expected 22.52 seconds at 57.48 mph. I believe the guys in the pickup were shocked to see me arrive at the return lane the same time as them — they’d turned in a very similar 22.92 seconds at 57.96 mph. I attribute their slowness to the big tires.

That was a bucket list item now checked off — run down a drag strip. I can see where it would become addictive. Even in a slow, old greaser Rabbit.

If you want to see the veggie oil Rabbit or talk to me about it — I’ll be doing a presentation, “Autos for a New Age,” at the Illinois Renewable Energy and Sustainable Lifestyle Fair at the Ogle County Fairgrounds (Room C) at 9:30 a.m., Sunday Aug. 12.

From the Aug. 8-14, 2012, issue

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