Volume 80, Number 9 | July 29 - August 4, 2010
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933

Photos by Tequila Minsky

The converted cab outside its “fuel pump,” the A Salt & Battery fish-and-chips shop, on Greenwich Ave., above. Kavanagh-Dowsett points to his “Greasecar” control device, which allows him to switch manually from diesel to cooking-oil fuel, at right.

After fish and chips, oil fuels shop’s delivery cab

By Albert Amateau

There’s an off chance that you’ll get a whiff of fish and chips on a Village street when a black London taxi drives by.

If you do, it’s more than likely that Sean Kavanagh-Dowsett, a partner with his wife in Tea & Sympathy and A Salt & Battery, two adjacent restaurants on Greenwich Ave., will be driving that cab.

In London, cabs run on diesel fuel. Kavanagh-Dowsett converted his cab — which he bought earlier this year with the help of a friend in Britain where he was born and raised — to run on diesel and filtered, used cooking oil.

“I did it because it’s green. We have a daughter who is 6½ years old and I’d like to say I’m doing something for the planet,” he told this reporter last week. “We also have an unlimited supply of cooking oil,” he said, noting, “You can’t throw cooking oil away in the garbage or in the sewer. You have to pay someone to take it away.”

He had the cab shipped from England to Port Elizabeth, N.J., in April, picked it up at the dock, took it through customs and drove it to Holyoke, Mass. There he bought a cooking-oil conversion kit from a man who makes them. He then drove to Greenfield, Mass., where a mechanic installed the device in the cab.

Kavanagh-Dowsett drove the vehicle back to the Village after a test run on cooking oil.

“I waited until it was all done before I unveiled it to the missus,” he said. His wife, Nicky Perry, who founded Tea & Sympathy 20 years ago, said she didn’t know it was happening until she saw the cab in front of the shop and it was too late to do anything about it.

The total cost was $11,500, including shipping the car across the pond and about $5,000 for the conversion kit and installation, Kavanagh-Dowsett said. In addition to very low-cost fuel, there are federal and state tax incentives for commercial vehicles using recycled cooking oil for fuel. Kavanagh-Dowsett uses the cab for deliveries and other business-related trips in the city.

The cab starts on diesel. After a minute or so, a dashboard dial indicates the filtered cooking oil is hot enough, and the driver pushes a button to switch the fuel.

“There’s no discernable difference in performance, no bump or shift,” he said during a demonstration drive last week, and his two guest passengers agreed. A minute before turning off the engine after parking, the driver pushes another button to purge the fuel line and switch back to diesel for the next start. During the stop-and-go of commercial driving, the cooking oil needs only a few seconds to get hot enough to use.

“It just needs diesel to start and stop and you get a little over 30 miles a gallon,” he said.

In addition to the cab’s original 25-gallon diesel fuel tank under the boot (the British word for trunk), the conversion involves a 15-gallon tank in the boot for the cooking oil. The tank has a filter for the oil, and hoses bring heat from the engine to the tank. Separate fuel lines for diesel and oil lead to the engine and join at a solenoid valve where the switching occurs, Kavanagh-Dowsett explained. The cooking-oil line also has another filter before joining the combined line.

Some local commercial vans use biodiesel fuel that has been denatured and processed for use as fuel; but Kavanagh-Dowsett said he doesn’t know of any other commercial vehicle that runs on unprocessed, recycled cooking oil.

His black London cab is distinctive enough to get comments and questions from passersby. HSBC bank uses at least one London cab painted red and white, Kavanagh-Dowsett noted. But he said he believed it was converted to gasoline.

“I’ve been thinking about this for some time,” he said, regarding cooking-oil fuel. “A couple of years ago a couple of guys from Vermont in a truck stopped at the store and asked if they could have some cooking oil to use for fuel,” he recalled.

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