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BIG TREE & The Green Dream


For any modern band it’s clear that touring is the only way to afford staying in business. Album sales, even for the unsigned or independent artist, no longer produce as much income as they did say, ten years ago. Touring is costly, however. Hotels, gas, food, and equipment add up. But while gas prices have risen two dollars over the past decade, musicians are still making the same amount per gig.

With more musicians on tour than ever before, due to this new do-it-yourself music drive, the carbon footprint of tour vehicles deepens. Some have taken initiative. Huge acts like Dave Mathews Band, Jimmy Buffet, and Neil Young have switched over to eco- friendly busses, nicknamed “grease cars”. Smaller acts have also hopped on the bandwagon, namely California’s Big Tree.

During a fall concert at the Third Annual Harvest Festival at Green Oaks Creek Organic Farm and Retreat in Pescadero, CA, I had a chat with Big Tree’s singer/keyboardist Kaila McKintrye-Bader regarding touring with a veggie van. She said that while the van has overall saved them money and helped them green up their tours, finding clean oil is difficult. Knowing little about what an engine running on vegetable oil meant, I asked to learn more, and was blown away with the complexity of such a simple operation.

I also learned that the main issue with touring in a veggie oil van is that there’s no system for getting grease. “We’ve had to dumpster dive for oil,” Kaila said. “And we often get oil from restaurants, but they have chunks of meat or something in them, and those take forever to filter out.”

As we discussed the situation further, I learned that if a network of businesses that produce oil waste and touring artists with veggie oil engines were to be created, then their carbon footprint would be lightened by nearly 90 percent, and that artists and the businesses would both be saving money.

We had to learn how to filter grease on the fly, between gigs

An Engine Breakdown:

See, as Big Tree taught me, veggie engines aren’t actually engines designed to run on vegetable oil, but are, rather, duel fuel system, or parallel fuel system engines. This means that the engine runs on both diesel and veggie oil. Big Tree's van has a Powerstroke diesel engine and a veggie tank they switch between; it's two separate entities.

“Rudolf Diesel, the inventor of the diesel engine, actually ran his prototype on peanut oil,” Big Tree told me. “So these engines were intended to run on veg from day one.”

The type of oil doesn’t matter. Organic, canola, or olive oil, along with diesel, will power a duel fuel system engine.

Hooking up the engine requires two fuel loops under the car and two solenoid valves that change which fuel source the engine is using. “We start the car up on diesel to let it get hot,” Big Tree explains, “because veg needs to be about 160 degrees to be safe to inject into the engine. Once the van is warmed up, we flip a switch that triggers our solenoid valve to stop drawing fuel from the diesel tank and start drawing it from the veg tank.”

“Nothing crazy happens,” bassist Luke Bace adds. “We’re just suddenly driving on veggie. It actually runs a bit quieter too!”

Grease produces only fifteen percent of the emissions regular gas engines do, and veggie oil has zero sulfur, which, I was told, is the worst emission from diesel engines.

But do grease vans really save money, and are they worth the hassle?

Do The Math:

Big Tree spent $2,200 on converting their engine and $300 on extra gear such as filtration set up. “We were going to go with GreaseCar, but they were an extra thousand, and we couldn’t afford it at the time.” Instead, they went with Patrick Keeney, out of Boston, MA. “He calls himself Green Grease Monkey.”

“We had to learn how to filter grease on the fly, between gigs,” Big Tree recalls. “[Keeney] helped us rig a pretty crude filtration process that included a sock filter, rope, two buckets, and an electric fuel pump.”

“It took a while to learn how to filter without making a huge mess,” they add.

The new fuel lines had to be regularly inspected for air tightness, “and not in the way or vulnerable.”

But, while a year later the engine hasn’t needed any repairs, fuel lines and a solenoid valve have needed replacements, leading up to about a $1,000 dollars in repairs, so not going with GreaseCar, “was a big mistake at the time.”

With their converted engine, Big Tree has clocked in 7,000 miles, getting anywhere from fifteen to twenty-eight miles per gallon on the highway. “The cool thing is, there’s no difference in mileage between diesel and veggie,” and because of that, Big Tree has already saved $2,000 in gas, not to mention that they’ve cut back heavily on emissions.

Totaling about $3,500 to date on converting and maintaining their engine, and subtracting the $2,000 they’ve saved, the remaining $1,500 balance will likely be made back during their spring tour, as an engine needs to be converted only once and they will experience only mild repairs.

The engine has also given the van some quirks. “Some of the biggest problems running on grease have been loss of power during acceleration and the lack of fuel being drawn,” I was told. “We recently solved both problems by installing a new fuel draw that heats the tank as well as pulls fuel.”

The issues likely came from clogs in the old fuel draw, causing less fuel able to be drawn at higher speeds, but “So far so good with the new addition.”

Still, even though Big Tree will be saving money from their converted van, many musicians don’t have $3,000 to drop in one swoop.


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