Home biodiesel refineries blamed for fires
EDMONDS, Wash. - 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.
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 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.
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 didn't want to rely 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."