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As more Americans turn to biodiesel, safety issues become apparent

Consumer Reports News: April 28, 2009 12:21 PM

The prospect of saving money has seen more Americans turn their garage or shed into a refinery for biodiesel, which is made by converting vegetable oils or animal fats into automotive and home-heating fuel with specialized home-use systems.

You'll find hundreds of online sources of biodiesel processors, which range from a few hundred to several thousand dollars, like the $3,495 "Freedom Fueler Biodiesel Processor" shown. (There are also potential costs related to upgrading your electrical service and/or installing a fire-prevention system, not to mention possible hikes in your homeowners insurance.)

But a spate of biodiesel-related fires around the country highlights some of the very real safety risks associated with biodiesel, reports the Associated Press.

Biodiesel typically is made from a chemical reaction involving the oil or fat, methanol, a catalyst, and mild heat. But safely processing and handling the materials, which can be caustic or highly flammable, is far from foolproof, as illustrated by fires and explosions in Arizona, Colorado, Massachusetts, Oregon, and Washington state. 

Before you become a mini-member of OPEC, check with your town about fire-safety and building-code issues surrounding setting up a biodiesel operation at your home. And please follow all safety guidelines once you do start converting oil into fuel. Visit the National Renewable Energy Laboratory for more information on the safe handling and use of biodiesel.—Bob Markovich | | Twitter

Essential information: As our colleagues who cover cars have reported, the upside to biodiesel is that it's fairly widely available—you can find free sources of spent vegetable oil—and older diesel cars can seamlessly burn biodiesel or diesel.

But keep in mind that it takes a lot of effort to convert the oil, which costs more than petroleum diesel. What's more, since the quality of biodiesel varies widely, car companies will honor warranties only up to 5 percent biodiesel.

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