Lawyer goes green in her own veggie oil-fueled ambulance

John Hilliard

It sounds like the punch line of a joke: the local lawyer who bought her own ambulance.

Attorney Dawn Harkness' ride is no gag, but an exercise in alternative fuel: It is rigged to run on waste vegetable oil and gets about 20 miles per gallon.

Her fuel bill for a 300-mile trip? Three dollars, she said. And it even runs smoothly.

"One advantage with an ambulance (is) the previous owners were really meticulous with maintenance," said Harkness.

Harkness, a Town Meeting member and longtime proponent of alternative fuels, is working to demonstrate how municipal fleets could run large vehicles on alternative fuel sources. She drives the ambulance to public events to show one in action.

"What I'm interested in is sparking the imaginations of young people to do things differently," she said.

Harkness had heard of using waste vegetable oil as a fuel, and thought the process could recycle oil that can damage home pipes and sewer systems.

"I didn't want to recommend (waste vegetable oil) until I tried it myself. And a Mercedes wouldn't cut it," said Harkness.

She had discovered ambulances for sale on - where else? - the Web auction site eBay, and picked one up for "a really good deal." The veggie fuel came after $3,000 custom installation of a Greasecar-brand vegetable fuel system by Green Grease Monkeys in Brighton.

But the ambulance was a tough buy, she said.

"An attorney can't buy an ambulance. Can you think of the jokes?" said Harkness, who plans on getting her next license plate to read, "CAUGHT1."

She named it the "Great Green Ambulance," and Harkness' daughter suggested the metallic green paint to symbolize the "green" fuel it uses, she said.

The ambulance runs on diesel or biodiesel until the engine warms up, then the vegetable oil can be used for fuel. Before the engine can be shut down, more diesel has to be used to clear the fuel lines of vegetable oil, so when cooled off it doesn't congeal and damage the vehicle, she said. This means the ambulance is reserved for long-distance trips, she said.

Finding fuel has meant some private deals with restaurants to cart away their old oil - otherwise the restaurants would pay up to $200 a month to get rid of it correctly, she said. She fills up the ambulance at home with a funnel.

Because she makes her own fuel, she sends monthly checks worth 21 cents to the state to cover the gas tax, she said.

She is hoping homeowners who want to get rid of their used oil will contact her about giving it away so it can be recycled as fuel and not dumped.

The side effect of burning used veggie oil? The ambulance smells like its fuel source: If the oil came from a Chinese food place, the truck smells like it. Ditto for doughnuts and french fries.

At tolls, "there's a quizzical look on the tolltaker's face," she said, "Until they realize it's me."

It's not babied - the ambulance doubles as a camper and mobile office, and Harkness has driven it as far as Lake Michigan and can carry a 13-foot kayak. In the back is a fold-away queen-sized bed and television, plus a microwave will be added soon.

Even the old oxygen dispensers are set to deliver helium for balloons, she said, and the vehicle has carried her kids to activities, once equipped with a disco ball.

So do the kids get to drive the ambulance?

"Nobody drives the Great Green Ambulance but Dawn," she said.

More information can be found at http://greatgreenambulance.com.

John Hilliard can be reached at 508-626-4449 or jhilliar@cnc.com.