Diesels and Mob Ignorance

So today was my first day at work with my new Golf TDI. Wait, I’m getting ahead of myself. First off -now that I’ve seen it in real life: its is fantastic. Super clean inside and out, everything works but the cupholder, and there are no weird noises in the chassis other than a strut mount starting to show its age. We got over 50mpg on the way home, and its got plenty of power to tote around a family of 4 w/gear. Incredibly pleased with the purchase.

But back to my work. Seems that many, many people simply cannot understand why I would buy a diesel -even at 50mpg. The price stigma on diesel seems to be incredibly strong -all they can remember is when it was $4.79 a few months ago. I often get frustrated by normally decently intelligent citizens refusing to think things through for themselves. So here is the thinking to my argument with them -I will try to be less condescending here than in real life… The long and the short of it is that as long as you are getting 12% better fuel economy -a diesel can cost you less. But it is alot more to it than that.

Pump Price

Diesel is often, but not always, more expensive than unleaded. In the past year that I have been watching it it seems to anecdotally hover around 10-12% over unleaded. The issues with The Mob is that a 12% premium over unleaded at $4.29 is about $4.79, which carries alot of sticker shock. It is best to de-emotionalize the major purchases of our lives so lets stick to that 12% worst case scenario to be objective.


Diesel fuel has about 30% more “boom” per gallon than unleaded – but good engineers can actually eck out more efficiency than that using turbocharging and direct injection. Golfs come in both unleaded and diesel versions of the same car so it is a decent comparison of apples/apples. The 2.0 liter VW unleaded engine can was rated at 24/31 with 105 hp. The TDI in the same year was rated 35/44 with 90 hp, but more torque (they “feel” stronger). That is a a roughly 45% improvement! Now the 2.0 VW engine uses ancient technology, so lets compare it to a high tech Honda of the same year -though this loses some of the apples to apples as the Honda is more aerodynamic and weighs less being only a 4 Star car. It got 28/35. Still the TDI is a 25% improvement over the highly esteemed Honda 4 cylinder – and that is in a heavier car.

Fuel Cost

Really they only way to compare fuel costs is in dollars per 1000 miles o some other distance. Lets say unleaded is $4 a gallon. Lets compare a 2001 Honda Civic(28/35), a 2001 Golf TDI (35/44), and a 2004 Prius (48/45). I used the ’04 Prius since it the oldest year of the most fuel efficient 4 door car available. I will also include a 2004 Subaru Forester (19/25) as that is what we had until recently considered a frugal tow vehicle. These figures are from http://www.fueleconomy.gov and use the revised 2008 EPA numbers which are a joke -if you can’t beat these you are a menace to the planet. I will simply average the numbers for “mixed driving”.

  • 2001 Civic costs $126.98
  • 2001 Golf costs $113.45
  • 2004 Prius costs $86.20
  • 2004 Forester costs $181.81

The Prius is a hands down winner here. On strictly fuel alone, the Prius would save you about $800/yr if you traded in your Civic and drove 20k a year and a significant $2000/yr over our Forester.

Vehicle Cost

This is the Prius killer for us and many others. Lets compare average prices on Autotrader within 500 miles of me (Upper Midwest) which include Detroit, Chicago and Minneapolis.

  • 2001 Civic were $7960
  • 2001 Golf/Jetta TDI’s were about $9500
  • 2004 Prius were $20,500
  • 2004 Forester was $13950

On Total Cost the Civic is our winner. But the TDI is close enough that many people would be able to make good rationale decision on more subjective things like safety ratings, towing capacity, resale, availability etc. The Prius loses out on any cost analysis, but that isn’t really what hybrids are about and this isn’t news to anyone.

Basically a diesel can save you some money in the real world. I drove a 2001 Civic for many years and got 37pg every single tank. I expect the TDI will get me about 48mpg on mixed driving, but that remains to be seen. That would save us a decent $300/yr. Better yet, it has alot more utility for our family -it can tow barrels and Grillo’s, is more comfortable on long trips to visit family in SD or Ohio, and most importantly I can make my own fuel for it which weighed very heavily on our final decision.
One final note, I didn’t even touch the emmisions debate -and that was intentional. Alot of the diesel emmision info on the web is from the old uber dirty diesel (500+ ppm sulfur) and the data on the 15ppm sulfur is not readily availible for these older cars. Also I plan to run 20-100% biodiesel mixes and tailpipe readings for that are even harder to come by. In this category the Prius gains significant ground as a PZEV it is by far the friendliest to the planet.

Again,the moral to this very long story is that as long as you are getting 12% better fuel economy -a diesel can cost you less, but there are sooooo many other variables you should really spend the time thinking this through that any purchase of this caliber deserves. I have made impulse vehicle purchases and have always regretted them.

Our world is very much in need or more mindful consumerism. Be the Change.


PS: The 2008 EPA estimates are frustrating. They seem to factor in driver behaviors even less than before and really show a bias to low tech producers like GM and Ford. Low tech and/or big engine like the Big 3 and the 2.0 liter VW engines seem to be more accurately reflected -my parents are slow drivers and can only eck our about 32 highway in their 2.0 Jetta -a 5% gain. Compare that to our Forestes (27mpg mixed ) a 20% gain, and that I was able to achieve 52mpg in my first ever trip in the Golf also for a 20% gain, and many Prius drivers can do the same. High Tech engines are better able to run efficiently if the driver is smart and light on the throttle -where the low tech ones cannot since they are always dumping in fuel. The EPA, under the Republicans and Big business, has catered to mediocrity. Again.  Your goal should be to beat the new 2008 EPA estimates for highway driving by 10% in
your mixed driving.  If you aren’t, adjust your behaviors and save money and the planet.

Gone Bio Diesel Crazy

We are heading out tomorrow morning to grab the Golf.  Spent much of the weekend first researching VW tuning (Friday) and the boning up on Bio Diesel Processing.  Here is some of my findings

VW Tuning

The MK IV cars (1999.5-2004) come into the world with 90hp/155lb ft torque.  They also make a routine of going 700+ miles on their 14.5 gallon tanks (45-48mpg).   They also come very well equipped 4 wheel disc brakes, side curtain air bags, and lots of luxury items in the GLS models.  The mileage is great, but I need a bit more power to tow my barrels.  Luckily the tuner community has lots of answers.

  • Fuel Nozzles.  Upgrading these to “Euro” spec injectors nets 10-15hp and 20#’s of torque.  No loss of mileage if you keep out of the turbo
  • “Chip” tuning will clean up the fuel map and bump the boost up a bit to 18.5psi max.  This get you another 10hp and real close to 200#/ft of torque.
  • 2.5″ Down Pipe and performance cat and remove the muffle (diesels are quiet) gets you a broader power band (turbo spools 300rpm’s sooner), a handful of ponies/torque, but more importantly let the turbo breather better and lowers your Exhaust Gas Temps (EGT’s) by several hundred degrees (reduces stress on engine components/oil).  This one is optional and will only get done if I see my EGTs going up on towing runs.
  • There are many drivers with these mods in the “800 Club”: 800 miles on one tank  That’s 55mpg in  vehicle that can tow 2000#’s while seating 4 adults in 5star safety.  Nice.

Bio Diesel

I’m not going to go into all the ins and outs of making it here.  A staggering amount of info can be found on Journey to Forever’s bio fuels pages which is where I have spent several hours this weekend as I huddled indoors to avoid the ragweed pollen until my allergy medicine could catch up.  I am convinced that we will be going Bio Diesel and not WVO at this point – our Subaru may very well get traded in for a ’09 Sport Wagon Jetta, and one BD processor can handle multiple vehicles if it is sized right.  Progress so far:

  • First contact at our local China Buffet -permission granted to salvage their grease!
  • Spoke to my farmer friend and he is willing to donate space for a Processor-I am not willing to have 99.5% pure Lye and Sulfuric Acid within reach of the kiddos.   Our discussion grew into making an “Energy Shed” to house a gasifier, Bio Diesel Processor, and an Ethanol Still.  Huh.
  • Emailed out to several Craigs listers with various Processor Bits for sale -mostly large drums, pumps, etc.  Looks like a 50 gallon sized still can be made for under $1000.  That is big enough for 2500 gallons a year or so.  That would be 112,000 TDI miles so there is room for 3-4 more in the project, or more likely I only run it once a month.

Time will tell where this goes.  I would be happy making 5-10 gallons weekly, but it seems that the effort is about the roughly same if you make 1 gallon or 40.  If I proceed, it will likely be with a 5 gallon mini processor to get the feel of it, and then maybe ramp up to a 50 gallon processor if it seems doable.  Price for BD home brew seems to be in the $1 range these days -driven mostly by the price of methanol which I still need to find a local supplier for.
Much of this was mulled over while harvesting (and selling!) my 900th pound of potatoes.  Still 3-500 pounds left!


End of an Era

3 years ago I bought my beloved Honda Insight… a 2001 5spd with 54k miles on it. I have absolutely adored that car -it was literally the only car that could have broken by affair with Big Speed and my modified 330hp Mitsubishi EVO 8 race car. The Insight was everything I wanted -wicked huge mileage -peaking as high as 102.2, rolling poster child for “a Better Way”, and a nice slice of minimalism in a life that is not yet bike friendly. But in the past year our need for a second car that can either tow a trailer for our Eco LLC business or have a backseat for the kids has increased as our little uns begin to get Involved: swim and ballet lessons, sports, play dates, etc. Out here in the rural suburbia seemingly everything, be it groceries or a pool, is 10 miles away. So we began to look at options.

4 Months ago I was completed smitten with Plug In Priuses. Sure the $30k buy in ($20k + $10k conversion) was uber steep, but I had a plan to sell 160 rain barrels in the next two years to cover at least the cost of the conversion. Then oil hit $140+ and inflation crested 5%. That Prius became $35k as used hybrids appreciated and we struggled mightly to sell our first load of rain barrels as America (finally!) tighten her belt. We’ve sold most of the barrels, but just barely and selling another 100 is not likely since the majority went to one buyer.

But we still need a high mileage 4 seat car.  So 3 weeks ago I began to look very seriously for a used VW TDI.  There were never a ton of these on the road (thought the 2006+ are MUCH more common!) and they are also in demand.  Prices are ranging from 10-30% above Kelly’s Blue Book -and most buyers are flying in to get them and driving them 3 states home.  I had 4 semi local cars slip through my fingers -even calling within an hour of the ad posting is not enough to get these.   Then just this week I found my new car. I had email Mia my “Dream Ad” and don’t you know it, I came home from work to find a  new Ebay listing that matched it perfectly.  Its a 2000 Golf TDI GLS 5spd with about 110k miles on it.  I am as vain as the next guy so I wanted it loaded -moonroof, premium sound, and heated seats (these little diesels take like 20 miles to heat up in the winter) and I found it on Ebay.    4 doors, super clean, and I bought it for $4k less than I am selling my Insight for so the budget is uber happy.  Its in MN so I am bumming a ride with family on their return trip to South Dakota this weekend.

More on why I bought a TDI -this paragraph gets more than a little Car Guy.  Most guys driving them are getting 42-48mpg every single tank -and the hypermilers are getting 60mpg!  Second, they can be turned into nice little tow vehicles.  In Europe these engines have about 20 more hp -and the only part change is larger fuel injection nozzles-about $300.  You can also add a “chip” that remaps some of the boost parameters for the turbo and get another 10-15hp.  More importantly you can also get another 80 ft/lbs of torque making the Golf a better tow vehicle than our Forester.  Open up the exhaust with a bigger down pipe off the turbo and you can keep your Exhaust Gas Temps down too and add a few more ponies.  Here is the kicker -there are many guys with these mods still getting over 50mpg every single tank.  You only use the extra fuel and boost of the mods if you push the engine hard while accelerating/towing. Even still, I have yet to see anyone on the forums at TDI CLUB getting under 40mpg in a modded 5spd.   Nice.

Are hybrids more efficient?  You bet.  But they can’t tow, cost over twice as much, and I can’t make my own fuel in a pinch.  I am very happy with my decision and will likely start doing some home bio-diesel processing using Journey to Forever’s 5 gallon “Test” kit this Fall.  Making 5 gallons a week actually would cut my Dino Fuel use 100 gallons anually over a standard Prius.  I have already found a source for grease, just need to build the kit. In my “spare” time.

Very sad to see my beloved Insight going away, but also excited for the future!


Fall Projects

So I am in a mid summer lull.  Not that I have lots of free time mind you… we’re still building barrels, harvesting 1-200#’s of spuds a week, weeding, watering, working 50 hours a week etc its just that things are in a routine and I guess I have some mental free time which I have been putting to use.  Much of that has gone into Fall Planning.


We will not be putting in any large crops for fall, or more precisely any crops for market.  Projects are falling behind and I would like to catch up.  We still have alot of fall squash in the ground, and will see those, our beans for drying, onions, etc to harvest and will plant a winter hoop house for greens.  But the land that is coming out of production will be entirely put into cover crop at the market garden to allow us to get a better jump on weeds next year.  Hopefully next year will start to see a significant drop in the amount of tilling we do as well.  I also need to map out a Big Vigorous Veggie (BVV) rotation to ensure we are confusing the Colorado potato beetles and not taxing the land.


As we transition away from the Plug-in Prius plan (too expensive in a downturn), I am going full force into the TDI VW camp.  Still some major descisions there.  Do we go WVO?  Can I find grease, and will it still be there in 3-5 years?  Then there is what kind of VW.  Jettas are the more easier acquired and cheapest, but I want at least a Golf for the hatchback functionality if not a Jetta Wagon.  A Passat Wagon would be able to be a rain barrel delivery truck, and I have always loved them, but they are so dang pricey.  More thought, and more than a bit os serendipity, is needed


I am completely enamored with our gasifier, but it is impossible to put one in here.  We are committed to our next home being The One, but need to re build the $30k beating my 401k has taken in the past 6 months for that to happen.  Figure 2-3 more years.  I also think that a Bio Diesel still is where I will end up on the diesel front.  While a WVO is simpler and cheaper to maintain, every single engine will need one, while a Bio-Diesel still will allow me to make fuel for multiple, unmodified, engines powering everything from my Grillo to our cars, to farm trucks and tractors.  Also, if we build it oversized we could start a small fuel co-op and spread the start-up costs, but as importantly offset even more dino fuel by spreading to other families -in permaculture you strive for a surplus, right?  My wife Mia is uncomfortable with me making fuel in our HOA -safety, insurance, pushing the neighbors just a bit too far, etc so it will likely have to be off site.  Also, BD stills take a goodly amount of energy -the oil must be heated for a long time -and they typically use one or more 1500 watt heating elements.  That is like running 2-3 waterheaters for days on end -using electricity.  Ouch.   But back up a minute -BD stills need  heat and electricity.   Our gasifier  makes heat and electricity.   Can we do a “tri”-gen facility producing hot water, electricity to a grid tie, and Bio Diesel in one set up?  Time will tell.  But the ability to heat a home, power a site, and fuel a fleet from one contraption -that runs off of wood chips grown on site- may be eco nerd nirvana.

Lots of loose ends to wrap up here, but it will be an exciting Fall to follow an exciting Summer, which followed an exciting Spring.  Living in a time of Historical Change may be stressful, but at least its not boring!

Be the Change!


%d bloggers like this: