Biodiesel is quickly becoming more than a fad as contractors discover the benefits and develop experience with this alternative fuel source. Snohomish, Washington-based Earthwise Excavation has been an innovator in the use of biodiesel. This commercial and residential excavation company has been powering its entire fleet — including excavators, mini-excavators, skid-steer loaders, a dozer, a dump truck and a lowboy truck — with biodiesel since the 1990s.
“Ultimately, I was the big push for biodiesel because I like to try things out,” says Albert Postema, owner. “It’s one of the steps of our corporate responsibility program. If you want to look at the environmental impact your company has, look at the money you are spending on fuel.”
Earthwise Excavation runs B99 (99% biodiesel) throughout most of the year, with no retrofits or modifications required. In the winter, it switches to B50 (50% biodiesel).
The company has learned through experience. “Since we started, we have used a quarter million gallons of biodiesel,” says Postema. Initially, there were hurdles. “Quality of fuel and consistency of availability were tough issues in the beginning.”
The company even resorted to producing some of its own biofuel. But since that time, an ASTM standard has been developed and larger companies have stepped up production. “They have ironed out a lot of the issues,” Postema states. “If you are buying from the bigger outfits, they all meet the ASTM standards and they pass it through a fine micron filter. We don’t see issues these days.”
Green practices net benefits
The business case for biodiesel encompasses much more than the price per gallon. Postema reports that in the past, B99 cost almost $1 more per gallon, sometimes more and sometimes less. “It goes directly toward supporting what we thought was a good cause — using recycled fuel and helping out the farmers,” he says. “When you are paying $6,000 every time to fill your tank, it is much nicer knowing it is not going across the ocean.”
The use of biodiesel, along with environmentally aware hydraulic fluids and other sustainable practices, also positioned Earthwise Excavation to play a key role in the emerging sustainable building market that was gaining traction in the region.
During the recent downturn much of the conventional work dried up. “Before the crash, the sustainable building industry was about 25% of our work,” says Postema. “When the collapse happened, the sustainable portion of our business grew.” Now, it represents 60% to 70% of our company’s work. Sustainable builders work with me because they appreciate the extra steps we are taking toward sustainability. I credit a big part of our survival to the point that we have been sustainable and run the biodiesel.”
Given the current prices of diesel, the tables have also turned. “For low bid, we are currently cheaper than regular diesel,” says Postema.
There are health benefits associated with biodiesel, as well. “Using even a B20 really drops off the major carcinogens,” Postema points out. “So there is a little self-preservation. If you work around it and you are going to spend the rest of your life working around it, you can call it part of your health insurance.”
Operators experience a noticeable difference. “Our operators really like when we go back to B99,” says Postema. “They have fewer headaches, especially working in enclosed areas. If you have been exposed to diesel exhaust and you have been exposed to pure biodiesel, it is a night and day difference.”
The high concentration of biodiesel used by Earthwise Excavation can create a few unique challenges. It is not a problem for the vast majority of engines on the market, but there have been a couple of isolated fuel system issues.