Trying to live green and beat high gasoline prices, some enterprising Americans are turning cooking oil into biodiesel in their garages. Problem is, some of these do-it-yourselfers are burning down the house.
Fire officials around the country are warning of the dangers and considering new restrictions to make sure people don't torch the whole neighborhood.
"You won't find a rule anywhere that says you can't cook biodiesel in your garage," said Bob Benedetti, a flammable-liquids engineer for the National Fire Protection Association in Quincy, Mass.
A matter of time
Ferocious fires and explosions blamed on backyard refining operations have been reported in Washington state, Arizona, Colorado, Massachusetts and Oregon. No deaths or serious injuries have resulted, but some fire officials say it is only a matter of time.
In recent years, many Americans have discovered that diesel cars can run on fuel made primarily from vegetable oil, and about the only drawback is a french fry smell. Some motorists are going so far as to brew their own fuel from used frying oil obtained from restaurants, which are often glad to get rid of the gunk for little or no charge.
Biodiesel is typically made by combining the cooking oil with methanol, or wood alcohol, in a mixture heated to about 120 degrees. But methanol is highly flammable. And frying oil, as any cook knows, can catch fire if it gets too hot or comes into contact with a flame.
The results can be spectacular, particularly in cases where home refiners have stockpiled tanks and barrels of material.
When a barn caught fire in 2006 outside Canby, Ore., "it was a huge column of black smoke unlike anything I'd ever seen in a typical fire," said Canby Fire Marshal Troy Buzalsky. "We had flames that scorched nearby 70-foot trees. It was so hot that it burned aluminum and sagged metal."
The blaze was caused by an electrical short, and the flames eventually ignited a 275-gallon plastic container of fuel.
"I took a lot of safety measures. It was pretty mind-blowing when I did have a fire," said Jeff Brandt, the barn's owner. He said had even visited his local firehouse to let them know what he was doing. But the blaze hasn't discouraged Brandt from continuing to make fuel.
Phoenix considers restrictions
In Phoenix, officials may restrict residential biodiesel production to properties of one acre or more, Fire Chief Bob Kahn said.
"We're trying not to discourage people from doing it," Kahn said. But "when you're rendering it in a garage in a family or neighborhood setting, you're exposing an awful lot of people to this potential hazard."
Setting up a home biodiesel operation is relatively easy. With hundreds of how-to guides posted online and kits for sale, enthusiasts can get started with less than $500.
"It's a fun little hobby, like making your own beer," said Lyle Rudensey, who brews about 50 gallons per month in his Seattle garage to heat his home and run his car. "It's really kind of neat to go into your garage and fill up."
But in the classes he has taught for three years, Rudensey urges people to take precautions such as storing chemicals in metal cabinets and keeping fire extinguishers on hand. Similarly, Bill Carney, who gives workshops in Louisiana, said he tries to scare his students with horror stories and pictures of fires.
In the Phoenix suburb of Surprise, fumes from chemicals used to make biodiesel caused an explosion and fire at a home in August. In Colorado in 2006, a homeowner who was processing a tank of homemade biodiesel forgot to turn off the heating element, and a fire burned the surrounding shed and equipment. Investigators found seven 55-gallon barrels of methanol and other hazardous materials.
Blazes, blasts near Seattle
In Monroe, not far from Seattle, chemical vapors caused an explosion last May in an attached garage where a homeowner was brewing biodiesel. Firefighters put out the fire before it caused serious damage. In December, a biodiesel blaze broke out in a shed in Edmonds, a Seattle suburb, and quickly destroyed the owner's house.
Edmonds Fire Chief Thomas Tomberg said he wants to see a code that tells home-brewers what they can and cannot do.
In Northborough, Mass., a biodiesel fire in 2007 destroyed a home and caused about $350,000 in damage, Fire Chief David Durgin said. The homeowner had served in Iraq and wanted to stop relying on foreign oil.
"They got out with the clothes on their backs and their lives," Durgin said. But he added: "Somebody ultimately will have a fire, burn their homes, be injured or killed by this."