Biodiesel Safety Tips
By Rick Da Tech
Over the years there have been a number of biodiesel processing related accidents and fires, even some serious injuries and a couple of deaths. Making biodiesel is inherently dangerous, you are working with toxic flammable liquids and strong caustics to make fuel. While we can not eliminate all the dangers, here are 10 basic safety tips that can help reduce your exposure to accidents and fires.
Tip No 1: Stay awake, sober and alert.
Your brain is your best tool for preventing accidents. If it's asleep or impaired, or just not being used, then you're an accident waiting to happen. If you were to fall asleep at the wheel and kill yourself in a car crash, everyone would consider it suicide. Making biodiesel is no different. Both activities can be lethal if you attempt them while you are not in full control of your body. The same principal applies to making biodiesel while drunk, it's suicidal, don't do it.
Tip No 2: Do not process in your home.
If you don't burn down your home, you can poison your family with methanol vapors. It's next to impossible to make biodiesel without releasing methanol vapors. If you process in your basement or attached garage, those vapors will work their way into your bedroom or your children's bedroom. The effects of methanol poisoning are cumulative. Repeated exposure at low levels can cause chronic symptoms to appear. It's even more dangerous to children as their small bodies can tolerate less poison than adults.
This is fuel we are making. It may be "safer" than diesel due to it's higher flash point, but it's still fuel. It will make any fire burn hotter and faster. In fact, once your oil and biodiesel start to burn, you only have a few minutes before it totally destroys your home. In most of the fires involving processors in the home, the house was a total loss before the fire department could even arrive. If you do decide to keep biodiesel or oil in your home, then follow the local codes for Home Heating Oil (HHO) storage.
Process in the middle of your back yard or in a cheap shed you can afford to loose to a fire. If you process in your home or attached garage, you not only put your home at risk, you also put your family at risk.
Tip No 3: Keep your work area clean and free of oily rags.
Spontaneous Combustion is one of the leading causes of fires in homebrewing operations according to fire investigators. Oily rags will burst into flames without an apparent ignition source if the conditions are right. Unfortunately the right conditions are fairly easy to replicate. Just pile up some oily rags. The oil will chemically react with the air in a process called oxidation, giving off heat. The rags act like insulation holding in the heat, letting it build up to autoignition temperatures.
Tip No 4: Don't stockpile glycerin.
Many homebrewers don't have a plan to dispose of their glycerin. Often they will put it in the plastic containers they collect oil in. Then just stack it up. Those containers become brittle and develop leaks when exposed to sunlight. The methanol in the glycerin will attack the thin hdpe containers and cause them to leak.
Biodiesel and vegetable oil in small quantities can be handled safely, but hundreds of gallons not only pose not only a fire hazard, but also an environmental hazard.
Tip No 5: Use timers on heating elements.
You never know when you may have to leave your processing area. Emergencies happen. If heating elements are left on while you're away in town, you run the risk of overheating your oil. In fact over heating oil on a stove is the most common cause of house fires.
The smoke point of oil is the point at which it starts to smoke and becomes a fire hazard. That's when it starts to break down into low flash point compounds. Over time as oil is heated for cooking it's smoke point will drop. Restaurants on a tight budget will use cooking oil until it starts to smoke in the fryer. That puts smoke points at under 350F for typical WVO used in homebrew. In fact anything that causes titrations to go up also causes smoke point to go down. High titration oils can have smoke points as low as 200F. We can easily reach these smoke point temperatures in insulated drums with the small heating elements we use in processing.
The solution is simple and cheap, use a timer on you heating elements. The big box stores sell spring wound timers rated for 20 amps on 110V. all you need is a double gange box, a timer, a short extension cord, an a wall outlet and you can hav a timed wall outlet to plug your elements into. Use a timer even if you are regulating the temperature with a thermostat. Thermostats do commonly fail in the ON position and a timer would back it up that could prevent overheating your oil. Sping wound timers can also fail in the ON position, so its important to keep a close eye on your thermostat and processing temperatures and replace faulty electronics right away.
Tip No 6: Use Secondary Containment.
If you have a major oil leak, secondary containment can reduce both environmental and fire hazards. It is used by commercial brewers as cheap insurance against big spills reaching rivers and streams. Cheap that is when compaired to the cleanup costs and the fines slapped on poluters.
For home brewers it keeps spills contained until they can be cleaned up. When an oil spill soaks into the dirt below your shed, it will quickly go rancid. The only way to get rid of that awful smell is to tear down the shed so you can dig up and haul off the contaminated soil.
Secondary containment really pays off in a fire by preventing hot burning fuel from spreading the fire. The common thread among fries involving biodiesel and oil is how rapidly the fires spread.
Oil that spills during a fire will feed the fire as did in this 2006 fire in Cambey OR. Secondary containment would have prevented 500 gallons from being dumped into the fire.
Tip No 7: Use GFCI Fault Protection.
GFCI stands for Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter. It's pretty much required by code any place water and electricity are in the same room. Kitchens and bathrooms often have GFCI outlets. You can spot them by the reset button. They are designed to shut down the power to the outlet if there is a grounding fault. They look to see that the hot wire and the neutral wire have the same current on them. An imbalance of current of more than 0.05 amps is an indication that a short to ground exists and the GFCI will trip. If the circuit is leaking less than 0.05 amps, it will not trip the GFCI and you can still receive a painful shock, just hopefully not a lethal one.
Tip No 8: Don't use a drill and paint stirrer for mixing
Back in the bad old days we used drills and paint stirrers to mix biodiesel. It was a cheap easy way to mix both biodiesel and methoxide. The problem is that it's excessively dangerous. When methanol vapor concentrations around the drill reach 6%, the sparks from the drill will ignite the methanol. It will form a fireball centered on the drill. Since your hands are holding onto the drill they receive 3rd degree burns as do your forearms.
Tip No 9: Don't make test batches in a blender
You see it all over the internet, in videos and websites, people making small batches of biodiesel in a food processing blender. The practice goes back to the beginning of homebrew biodiesel and it’s time for it to stop. Food processors and blenders were designed to process food.
Tip No 10: Don't make biodiesel in a closed head drum
Closed head or tight head drums are not designed to be pressurized. They will come apart at the seams violently if over pressurized. One way you can over pressurize a drum is to ignite the methanol fumes by uncovering an electric heating element while it is on. readmore...