Zheng fuels future while filling bellies
EL JEBEL – When Mike Mercatoris says that egg rolls, spring rolls and crab rangoon really get him going, he means it.
Mercatoris, co-owner of Zheng Bistro in El Jebel and Glenwood Springs, drives a 1996 Mercedes Benz E300 diesel that’s been converted to run on vegetable oil. Instead of paying a vendor to haul off the waste veggie oil from his restaurants’ deep fryers, he has been using it to fuel his Benz for the last 2 1/2 years.
“I’d been looking at this for a long time,” Mercatoris said. “When gas prices went through the roof last time, we just said let’s go for it.”
He was checking out diesel vehicles for sale on eBay when he spotted the Mercedes. It seemed like a natural, especially since the official color was “Aspen green.”
Soon after he purchased it in Kansas City and drove it home, Eco-Performance Automotive of Carbondale installed the conversion kit that allows it to run on veggie oil.
“Liz [his wife] said, ‘It’s an old-man car.’ I said, ‘Yeah, but it runs on vegetable oil. It’s cool,'” Mercatoris said with a laugh. A sticker on the Mercedes features a wok with flames coming out the back and the words “Powered by Zheng.”
The car has a 10-gallon tank in the trunk for veggie oil. Coolant from the engines circulates through that tank to warm the fuel to a usable temperature. Veggie oil gels when it isn’t warm. A dashboard gadget called a co-pilot allows Mercatoris to manually flush the vegetable oil from the motor in a few seconds before he shuts it off.
The car uses regular diesel fuel when the vegetable oil isn’t warm enough, so Mercatoris uses a bit more regular diesel during winter months and hardly any during summers. During warm weather months, he figured he uses about one tank, or 13 gallons of regular diesel, over 2,000 miles traveled. He fills up with regular diesel so infrequently that he forgets which side of the car the tank is on when he pulls up to a pump.
He figures he gets about 30 to 35 miles per gallon with the used vegetable oil. At 32 mpg, he uses roughly 62 gallons of veggie oil per 2,000 miles traveled.
Mercatoris teamed with two friends in a mini-cooperative to process waste veggie oil from four restaurants. They use it to operate three vehicles.
Mercatoris takes roughly 35 gallons of used veggie oil per week from his two restaurants and pours it into a big drum to settle. Any chunks of food fall to the bottom. The remainder, the vast majority of the drum, goes to a friend’s garage where it is run through two filtering processes before it is used. The Mercedes also has a filter.
His friends, one a chef and the other a food salesman, collect the used veggie oil from two restaurants in Aspen and run it through the same process. No additives are necessary. Mercatoris said the veggie oil burns without releasing sulfur, unlike regular diesel fuel. In addition, the plants used for veggie oil absorb more carbon dioxide while they are growing then the oil releases when it is burned, so it is carbon neutral, according to Mercatoris.
He regularly commutes from his midvalley home to his Glenwood restaurant. He also uses the Mercedes to go skiing and to haul around his two young children. It’s traveled 60,000 miles in 2 1/2 years on veggie oil. It’s a great feeling, he said, to be rolling along – virtually for free.
Mercatoris said people are definitely interested in the car when they learn about it, but some are skeptical of converting their own diesel vehicles.
“For a lot of people, it’s a leap of faith – what will running veggie oil do to my motor?” he said.
He has experienced no performance issues. In fact, some folks contend the fuel is so good for vehicles that it will help them run longer.
The Mercedes might also play a clandestine, though unintended, marketing role for Zheng. When it is running, you can pick up a faint whiff of fried food from outside the vehicle.
“It smells like egg rolls, so we call it egg rollin’,” the perpetually good-natured Mercatoris said. He is determined to get vanity plates that say “Egg Rollin’.”
His son was recently outside in the playground at his preschool, out of view of the parking lot, when he informed his teachers he could smell his dad arriving. The teachers were thrown for a loop when Mike appeared seconds later. They laughed when they learned about the veggie mobile.
Mercatoris has encouraged other Zheng employees to tap into the used veggie oil by converting their own diesel cars. There have been no takers yet, but a couple of guys are considering it. As easy as it is, Mercatoris said he is surprised more restaurants aren’t using their used veggie oil to fuel their own vehicles. It doesn’t take long for the free fuel to offset the cost of converting a vehicle. It’s economical and good for the environment, Mercatoris said.
Zheng’s motto since starting the green initiative is, “Fueling our future while filling your bellies.”
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