Biodiesel Puts Construction Fleets in the Green

Biodiesel is more than a fad as contractors discover the benefits and develop experience with this alternative fuel source.

Manatt runs anywhere from B5 to B20 in its fleet, depending upon market conditions.
Manatt runs anywhere from B5 to B20 in its fleet, depending upon market conditions.

Biodiesel is quickly becoming more than a fad as contractors discover the benefits and develop experience with this alternative fuel source.

Snohomish, WA-based Earthwise Excavation was 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 and a lowboy truck - with biodiesel since the 90s. “Ultimately, I was the big push on it because I want to try things out,” says Albert Postema, owner. “It is 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. In the winter it switches to B50 (50% biodiesel). The company has learned through experience. “Since we have started, we have gone through a quarter million gallons of biodiesel,” says Postema.

Initially there were some hurdles. “Quality of fuel and consistency of availability were really tough issues in the beginning,” admits Postema. 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 those issues. 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.”

The business case for biodiesel encompasses much more that the price per gallon. Postema reports that in the past the B99 would cost almost $1 more a 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. When you are paying $6,000 every time to fill your tank, it is much nicer knowing it is not going across the ocean.”

But 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 ‘green building’ market that was gaining traction in its region.

During the recent downturn much of the conventional work dried up. “The green building industry, before the crash, was about 25% of our work,” says Postema. “When the collapse happened the green building industry actually grew.” Now the green building is 60% to 70% of the company’s work. “The green builders work with me because they appreciate all of the extra steps that we are taking.”“I credit a big part of our survival to the point that we have been green and run the biodiesel.”

With the current prices of diesel, the tables have actually turned. “For low bid, we are currently cheaper than regular diesel,” says Postema.

“Using even a B20, you really drop your major carcinogens,” says Postema. This is a health issue. “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 can tell a noticeable difference. “Our operators really like when we go back to B99,” says Postema. “You have less headaches, especially working in enclosed areas. If you have been exposed to diesel exhaust and you have been exposed to pure biodiesel, it is night and day.”

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. “Biodiesel and straight rubber don’t mix,” says Postema. As a result, a couple of the off-brand engines in the fleet suffered injector issues after a couple of years. “Some of the rubber seals inside disintegrated. We had to rebuild the injector.” But these were isolated cases. “We know it doesn’t affect all of our injectors because we have trucks and equipment that we have run over a decade [on B99].”In fact, other than these isolated fuel system issues, Postema has never had any engine-related issues.

In lower concentrations, biodiesel can actually be beneficial to fuel injection systems due to the dry nature of ultra-low sulfur fuels. “I would not run anything less than a B5 myself given ultra-low sulfur fuels now days because you lubricity really jumps up,” says Postema.

“Be careful that you don’t spill it on your paint because it will take paint right off,” notes Postema. “If you do, wipe it up real fast. If you want to take the paint off, use straight biodiesel.”

Postema also advises contractors who make the switch to biodiesel to keep extra filers on hand. “It definitely cleans the gunk out of system. Just have some filters on hand and when it starts missing change that filter out.” One of the machines in the Earthwise fleet went through a couple of filters after the initial switch, but now it runs better than it did before.

Postema emphasizes that no retrofits or modifications are necessary to run B99. Running up to B20 should not pose any issues for a contractor. “Running B20 I don’t expect you to have any problems unless you have a real dirty fuel system.”

A more conventional approach

Iowa-based Manatt’s Inc. is a road construction; ready-mix concrete; and concrete and asphalt paving contractor. Over 600 people are employed under the Manatt name. The company has 100 plus ready-mix trucks, approximately 100 dump trucks and two tractor trailers. Other equipment includes motor graders, loaders, dozers, scrapers, excavators, crushing equipment and milling machines.

The company has been using biodiesel for approximately 10 years. “We run anywhere from 2% to 20%,” says Curt Manatt, vice president. “We typically drop back to 5% in the winter months. Based on what we here about lubricity we never go below 2%. We think we need a minimum of 2% to add some lubricity to the fuel.”

This summer the company plans to use B20. “By going with B20 we are saving 4 cents a gallon at this point in time,” says Manatt. “It all adds up. When you buy it by the transport load, it is all money worth saving. As long as it is equal or less, we will burn 20%, and if we start paying too much of a premium we will cut back a little.” It is important to note that most manufacturers’ warranties will allow the use of up to B20 fuel.

“We feel like it has been a good fuel,” says Manatt. “It is a cost savings and it is good for the environment and good for the economy with benefits to the farmers. Biodiesel has become more plentiful and it is more acceptable. Here in Des Moines we buy ours from Diamond Oil.”

Manatt recommends the use of biofiesel. “You have to look at the economics. Sometimes the price is up and sometimes it is down based on supply. Recently it seems like the biodiesel is a better price. That is what determines our percentage. As long as it makes economic sense we burn it all the time. Whatever the price we always burn at least 2%.

Manatt has also been investigating future use of CNG. “At this point it is an issue with fueling stations for us. We would be doing that right now if we had the fueling figured out.”The first public CNG station has just opened in Iowa, so availability is still a major factor.

At CONEXPO-CON/AGG, Manatt was interested in a CNG-powered ready-mix truck on display by McNeilious. “They brought the truck down to show us last summer. The interesting thing was they had to haul it down on a lowboy because they couldn’t get here and back.” In addition, previous CNG trucks were a little down on horsepower. “That is supposed to be taken care of pretty soon. That will be changing things around a little as it becomes more popular. It is coming, it is just a metter of time and it will be hitting the market. It is pretty exciting times.”

In the meantime, Manatt is investigating dual fuel options that would address the interim while the CNG infrastructure is being built. “If you run out of natural gas, it runs on straight diesel.”

Make your own

Alabama-based McInnis Construction is a family general construction business focused on road and bridge construction. The company  has been building bridges, grading roads and buidling pads, driving piles, pouring concrete and constructing buildings for over 40 years, completing projects in Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Florida and Georgia.

Clayton McInnis, vice president of business development, was able to expand the company’s environmental initiatives through college studies. “When I went to college I wrote a business plan for my degree,” he recalls. “It was to make our own biodiesel. I partnered with a company out of Chico, CA called Springboard Biodiesel. I became the Alabama dealer rep for the equipment.” McInnis used one of these systems to manufacture biodiesel for its own use and began blening it into the fuel supply. “We run anywhere from B10 to B20 in our off-road equipment.”

This offers a pricing advantage. “We make it for around $1.20 a gallon,” says McInnis. But no corners are cut on quality. “It conforms to ASTM standards. If biodiesel is handled correctly, it is a really good quality of fuel.”

But many contractors ignore the possibilities. “There is still this adverse reaction to it where a lot of people kind of turn a blind eye because they don’t want to consider anything different,” says McInnis. “And we must. We must have other options that are compatible, not only for the economy, but for environmental and social reasons. The problem is not so much about the fuel and compatibility with the machinery, it is more a lack of education and a lack of awareness.”

Biodiesel is user friendly. “The biodiesel itself is less toxic than table salt and more biodegradable than sugar,” explains McInnis. “When diesel engines were first invented by Rudolf diesel, they were actually built to run on peanut oil.” Later they were modified to run on petroleum diesel for economic pruposes. “It is coming around 360 degrees.”

McInnis explains that economics favor a decentralized approach to biodiesel production since it costs quite a bit to truck in feedstocks to manufacture biodiesel and then transport the biodiesel to its final destination. “Our equipment allows us to have smaller scale production in communities.” Cutting the external costs associated with the logistics makes it more viable.

“In the South we don’t have the luxury of being next to a large plant,” says McInnis. “That I know of, we are the only contractor in this area that makes a portion of its own fuel. You can’t go to a gas station down here and get B20, It isn’t retailed.”

Making biodiesel with the Springboard Biodiesel system has proven simple. “The machines that we have are all stainless steel,” says McInnis. “They are very durable.” There are different size systems depending upon how aggressive you are at making fuel. Our systems are heavily automized. For 100 gallons of fuel, theorehtically it would only take you an hour and a half to two hours for human involvement. The machine does the rest. You can make 100 gallons in 16 hours, but only two of those hours do you have to be there.”

This is the third year McInnis Construction has used biodiesel. “It averages out over the years at B20,” says McInnis. “We are not seeing any significant problems. The biodiesel is more lubricated than petroleum diesel. It keeps everything lubricated. It runs slightly better. It runs quieter.” Low-sulfur diesel is dry and hard on the engines. “If you compliment it with a 20% biodiesel blend it works well because you have a lubricated fuel and a non-lubricated fuel that you are blending together.”

“I know that contractors are really watching their budgets, but it is a good long-term investment and it is something that adds a little more stability to the business model,” adds McInnis. “It goes beyond the day to day. It is important to think a few years ahead and get that return on investment if you are planning on being in the industry and staying in the industry. Government contracts really like to see that you are thinking outside of the box.”