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Department's Mower Bio-Diesel Program Stalls

Jeff McManus' experience with bio-diesel fuel fell into his lap, more or less, lasted only about five months, and now is on hold. All that said, McManus would not hesitate to repeat the process.

"For us, it was a great experience," says McManus, the director of landscape services, golf and airport operations with the University of Mississippi in Oxford, Miss,, pointing to the improved productivity bio-diesel produced and its environmentally responsible benefits. "We got sold on it because it was so clean."

The department's use of bio-diesel — and the reason none of its mowers now use the fuel —reveals a roadblock all managers need to consider in deciding whether and how to undertake such efforts. Bio-diesel is nontoxic, biodegradable and suitable for sensitive environments. It contains no petroleum but can mix with petroleum diesel to create a bio-diesel blend.

The department started using the fuel in June 2008, when the university's Mississippi Mineral Resources Institute (MMRI) began producing bio-diesel and looked for applications to test its product. MMRI produced the bio-diesel using vegetable oil from local restaurants. An MMRI official approached McManus to see if the 33-person department would be interested in trying the fuel in some of the 14 diesel mowers used to maintain the hilly, 1,000-acre campus.

"Our biggest fear was that the bio-diesel fuel might damage our current mowers," McManus says. "We were very leery, and believe me, our folks had heard the horror stories on how bio-diesel has ruined equipment." The first mower to use bio-diesel was one of the department's oldest models, a 72-inch unit.

"We used the bio-diesel at a 10 percent ratio to 90 percent diesel, at first," McManus says. "We put one of our best operators on the mower and instructed him to be sensitive to any lack of performance issues he noticed. After about 24 hours of operating time, we noticed a drop in performance, which we were expecting, so we changed the fuel filter immediately. The mower ran great with noticeable increase in efficiency." Slowly, the department expanded its use of bio-diesel.

"We slowly introduced another mower to bio-diesel fuel and repeated the process of changing the fuel filter around 24 hours of operation," McManus says. "At the end of the summer, we had seven of our 14 mowers on bio-diesel fuel with no major problems." The department came to embrace the alternative fuel, though McManus and his staff remained cautious about its effects on the equipment.

The bio-diesel experiment ended almost as unexpectedly as it began, and the abrupt end reveals a tough issue managers must deal with in deciding whether to make such a changeover: Make sure the department has access to a reliable supply.

"Our reliable and trusted source went away," McManus says, referring to MMRI, which had been producing the fuel as part of its research. The institute moved on to other research, and the flow of bio-diesel stopped. McManus checked with the fuel supplier for the university's airport, as well as with another local fuel supplier, but neither carried bio-diesel nor planned to in the foreseeable future.


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