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Phoenix-area firefighters wrestle with homemade ‘green’ fuel safety issues

A trend in home-based biodiesel production has fire departments in the Phoenix area looking at ways to protect residents from hazards that come with the green-friendly process.

There’s no way of telling how many people currently make biodiesel at home, fire officials say, but it is clear the trend is present and growing as gas prices remain high and more people adopt a green lifestyle.

The Gilbert Fire Department was one of the first in the Valley to take strides in promoting safety.

Last month, Fire Department Chief Collin DeWitt proposed an amendment to town code that would regulate the amount of stored biodiesel in a home and require residents to get a permit.

The permit, which would be free, would allow the fire department to have a record of where biodiesel is being manufactured, a benefit to firefighters if there is an incident at that house.

“My concerns were that if they’re storing diesel fuel on site, it poses a hazard to our personnel,” DeWitt said.

Across the Valley, fire departments are struggling to find ways to keep both their firefighters and residents safe from the potential of something going wrong.

Although the process for making biodiesel is relatively safe – biodiesel has to be heated to 140 degrees to burn – there are some dangers, DeWitt said.

Methanol, a main ingredient, is highly flammable.

Issues could also arise from mixing, disposing of, or just storing different chemicals.

Such was the case in late August when fumes from chemicals used to make biodiesel caused an explosion and fire at a home in Surprise.

The fire didn’t spread to the entire house, but there was heavy damage to the garage door, officials said.

But what could anyone, besides the homeowner, have done to prevent the incident?

How to regulate – not to mention enforce – boggles the minds of fire experts.

Gilbert officials, for example, have begun drafting an amendment to town code that would limit the storage amount to 80 gallons of biodiesel and 10 gallons of methanol in residences.

But the idea of a mandatory permit for something that is of personal use only irks some.

Rupert Nelson, who owns $3,000 worth of biodiesel-processing equipment, opposes having to get a permit, even if it’s free.

Bob Winters, fire protection engineer with the special hazards unit of the Phoenix Fire Department, said he doesn’t think mandatory permits will fly with Phoenix residents.

Winters thinks a co-op program for people who produce biodiesel is an ideal way to get the word out about safety while not infringing on residents’ privacy.

“It’s kind of our mentality that a person’s home is their castle and we don’t invade,” he said.

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