When making Biodiesel, it’s important to be as safe as possible. Because we’re working with a flammable alcohol (Methanol), caustic chemicals (Sodium Hydroxide, Potassium Hydroxide, and/or Sulfuric Acid), heat, and electricity, there’s the potential to run into safety issues.
On one of the major Biodiesel forums that I watch regularly (Biodiesel Infopop Forum), there have been several accounts of Biodieseler’s that have run into safety issues. Whether it’s a fire, chemical burns, exposure to too much methanol, or just massive spills, it’s happened to others and it can happen to you.
While there’s no way to identify and plan for every dangerous scenario that we might encounter when making Biodiesel, there are a few things that we can do to help mitigate the risk involved as well as help us to be safer when making this great alternative fuel.
Here’s a list of 10 things we recommend for keeping your Biodiesel production safer.
1- Keep A Fire Extinguisher Around & Know How To Use It
Having a fire extinguisher in the same room that you produce Biodiesel in is as important as having fire detectors in your home. We recommend getting an extinguisher that’s certified for use on chemical, oil, and electrical fires.
Be sure to know how to use it and also place it in an easy to access location. If the extinguisher is on the other side of the room, buried under a shelf buried under lots of junk, it won’t do you any good if you can’t get to it or forget where it’s at if a fire breaks out. Instead, mount the extinguisher in an easy to access location and make sure that anyone that works with you making Biodiesel knows where it is and how to access it. Also, be sure that the extinguisher you purchase is sized appropriately for your Biodiesel production setup.
2- Store Oily Rags In A Metal, Non-Combustible Container
We’ve read story after story of oily rags catching on fire in the summer heat due to spontaneous combustion. If oily rags are a part of your operation, make sure you have a safe place to dispose of them and empty it on a regular basis. Especially if they’re used to soak up oil, methanol, or Biodiesel.
3- Ensure Adequate Ventilation Is Available
Methanol fumes can evaporate from mixing Biodiesel, methoxide tanks, or even open 55 gallon drums of methanol. It’s important to make sure that the area you’re using methanol in is well ventilated.
Not only are methanol fumes flammable, but they are also bad to breathe and can cause permanent damage to the nervous system. It’s a good idea to ensure that the area that your Biodiesel is produced in or methanol is handled in is well ventilated. Also ensure that your processor has the appropriate vents connected to ensure proper removal of any methanol fumes.
4- If Possible, Use A “Sacrificial Building” For Biodiesel Production
The risk of fire is real and has been known to occur among Biodiesel producers; even at commercial Biodiesel production facilities. If it’s at all possible, we recommend that your Biodiesel production setup be housed in a structure that isn’t attached to a residence. This could include a shed, a detached garage, or a purpose built structure just for producing Biodiesel.
We’ve seen several fires reported that were in a garage that quickly spread to the rest of the home destroying an entire residence. Keeping everything in a detached space, even if it means investing in building a separate structure, is a good precaution to protect your house and family.
Sheds can be purchased pre-built or you can build one yourself fairly inexpensively. Ensure that it’s properly sized for your setup and that it’s well ventilated as well. Also, remember our first tip and mount a fire extinguisher in an easy to access location in the building you use for your Biodiesel setup.
5- Keep Your Area As Clean As Possible (Within Reason)
We realize that making Biodiesel can be extremely messy at times as we’ve dealt with some large spills ourselves. However, we recommend keeping your production area as clean as possible.
If you have a spill, clean it up immediately. Saw dust or kitty litter makes a great oil absorbent. Just be sure to dispose of it appropriately so as not to cause a fire hazard with wet, oil laden saw dust spontaneously combusting.
Keep walk-ways clear and keep a clean path to the door way. This includes keeping extension cords out of the walk-ways where people may trip or snag them. Anything under foot that can cause you to fall can also lead to serious accidents (tripping with a jug of methanol in hand comes to mind….).
6- Clearly Mark All Containers
Whenever we work with dangerous chemicals, it’s important to clearly mark all of your storage containers; especially if you’re using them second hand such as a milk jug or pop bottle. Methanol can look deceptively like water and any container it’s placed in should be marked with POISON on it. Chemicals containers should also be marked appropriately as well.
Be sure the markings are clear enough for anyone to read and marked in plain site on all containers. It’s also not a bad idea to keep all chemicals locked away in storage cabinets with a key when not in use.
7- Never Leave A Biodiesel Processor Unattended
Most of the accidents I’ve read about or heard about involving Biodiesel usually occur when a processor has been left running unattended. Either a hose falls off, a pump fails, or a heating element runs dry and the next thing you know you’ve got an accident happening.
Even with the most technically advanced processors on the market such as the BioPro’s, it’s still a good idea to always be in the vicinity of the area when the processor is working and to regularly check on it to ensure everything is working properly.
8- Leave The Phone OUT Of The Processing Area
Many of the accidents I’ve heard of involve answering a phone call for “just a second” and completely forgetting about what they’re doing in the Biodiesel room. Usually, that “just a second” turns into several minutes, which can then turn into several hours of distraction; which usually can be a recipe for disaster.
When you’re processing Biodiesel, get rid of as many distractions as possible and leave the cell phones out of the process. If someone calls while you’re in the middle of processing, have someone take a message. The 5 minutes you’ll lose talking on the phone isn’t worth the potential accident that could happen otherwise.
9- Use Proper Wiring And Fault Protection
Many Biodiesel fires involve electrical fires caused by overloaded circuits, overloaded pumps, or a short somewhere. If you’re using pumps or heating elements, be sure the wires carrying the voltage are rated to handle the load.
10- Use Common Sense And Look For Ways To Improve Safety
I know that sounds crazy and it seems to be in short supply these days, but a little dose of common sense when making Biodiesel goes a long way. Take a chance this week to look over your whole process and using “common sense”, see where potential risks and problems may be and look for ways to reduce those risks. Check your electrical connections. Are they overloaded? Check your chemical & methanol storage. Is it safe? Look for proper ventilation in your processing area.
Ask a friend to come over and help you look for areas you can improve on as well. Remember, your life and the lives of those around you are worth a lot more than saving a few bucks on the fuel you make. Be as safe as possible and you’ll be able to enjoy many more years making this great alternative fuel!
For additional tips on how to be safe when making Biodiesel, be sure to check out these great resources!
Biodiesel Best Practices Manual – From Pennsylvania State University
Biodiesel Safety – Article from Collaborative Biodiesel Tutorial
Biodiesel Safety – Article from Make-Biodiesel.org
Biodiesel Safety Forum – From Biodiesel Infopop Forum