Heidi Vance and Jayne Ertel spend much of their time thinking about funky jewelry, cool handbags and other fashionable must-haves to stock their Madison Street boutique, Team Blonde. The women, like the atmosphere in their store, are light-hearted but a little edgy, and subtly convey an independence that encourages others to throw their shoulders back. The message is that confidence is cool, even if people think you’re odd.
Perhaps that is why it seems fitting, despite owning a shop filled with girly trinkets, that Vance and Ertel also spend their time hunched over 55-gallon drums mixing bio-diesel to power their Volkswagon Jettas.
“Whatever it is, you can do it yourself,” Vance said. “This is an offshoot of that. It’s about empowerment.”
It’s also about reducing their carbon footprint on the Earth, something Vance has long considered but hasn’t always known how to achieve. Having grown up on a farm in rural Illinois, Vance is always looking for ways to get the most out of whatever resources she has. Over the last few years she and Ertel have been ardent recyclers, but never would have imagined trying to mix their own fuel. Then, in 2004, Vance’s family turned them on to what is actually a less complicated process than they would have imagined.
“My dad’s next door neighbor did it,” Vance said of converting a diesel engine to run on a mixture of vegetable oil and other fillers. “All of a sudden it became realistic, reachable.”
Though the price tag on many eco-friendly technologies can be a daunting hurdle to consumers, public awareness campaigns and economic incentives are giving people a reason to change their habits. In the case of Vance and Ertel, neither of whom have a background in engineering or science, the two biggest factors in adopting this unorthodox resource were a sensitivity to the environment and money.
At the time Vance was learning how to mix her own fuel Ertel was driving a gas guzzling Jeep that she loved in between frequent trips to the gas station. In 2005 she sold the SUV, bought a Jetta and has enjoyed the savings ever since.
“It costs us about 70 cents a gallon,” Ertel said of making bio-diesel.
The fuel is made from non-hydrogenated cooking oil that is collected from a few Forest Park restaurants. Once they have 40 gallons worth, the oil sits in a large drum for about two weeks to allow the sediments to sink. Small amounts of kerosene, regular gasoline and diesel additives are mixed in and then it gets pumped through a pair of inexpensive filters directly into the car’s tank.
The women estimated they get 40 miles per gallon using the mixture and are still able to stop at a gas station and buy leaded gasoline if need be. During a recent business trip to New York, they drove from Chicago to the Empire State on just $40 worth of fuel.
“The hardest part is explaining it to restaurants and getting them to agree to give the oil to us,” Ertel said. “That’s the biggest challenge, finding the oil that works and someone willing to share it with you.”
Though the process for making bio-diesel is relatively simple and uses little garage space, according to Vance and Ertel, they acknowledge it’s not something that everyone is willing to do. For those with less ambition but an interest in helping the planet nonetheless, Dan Bjornson, a certified public accountant with an office in Forest Park, said there are plenty of tax breaks to help encourage green thinking.
The Internal Revenue Service will cut taxpayers a break for installing energy efficient windows, new doors, better insulation and other measures that improve a building’s efficiency. Such upgrades can be pricey, Bjornson said, and many of his middle-class clients are more inclined to make those changes only when the existing products need to be replaced.
Using energy efficient appliances, solar panels and geothermal power may also be eligible for certain tax credits, whether it’s a home or a business. Buying a hybrid, bio-diesel or lean burn car can also earn the purchaser a tax break.
The majority of Bjornson’s clients earn $30,000 to $50,000 a year, or as a household make less than $150,000. Because some of the technology behind eco-friendly products is still expensive, Bjornson said it’s rare to see people in these income brackets shell out wads of cash if their motivation is purely altruistic. Households and small business owners alike have a bottom line to consider.
“I don’t know that they’re looking to change just to be energy efficient,” Bjornson said.
Cecilia Hardacker, a small business owner in Forest Park, is among those who needed a financial incentive to make the switch.
Hardacker is the co-owner of Two Fish Art Glass, which specializes in colorful lamps, chandeliers and other lighting elements. To sell her product, Hardacker said she needs to put a light bulb in most every item that’s on display so that customers can see what it is they’re buying. That means, with roughly 115 lamps in the store, many of which take more than one bulb, she’s got some 300 to 400 lights on at any given time.
“All my energy is lighting,” Hardacker said of her electric bills.
With some encouragement to try compact fluorescent lights, Hardacker found herself in the hardware store looking at these bulbs and comparing their bulky price tag to that of regular incandescent bulbs. Changing over just one-third of the lamps in her store, Hardacker saw her electric bill cut in half. She’s a believer now and is certain that her $700 a month bill would easily be $2,000 were it not for all the CFLs.
“The bottom line is if you can save me $2,000 a month doing anything, I’ll consider it,” Hardacker said. “Small business is small business. Most people would do everything they can to save a few hundred dollars.”
She has since parlayed the switch to energy efficient light bulbs into the store’s advertising to help draw customers who value environmentally responsible companies. Two Fish Art Glass is also registered with an agency that recycles CFL bulbs and encourages community members to bring theirs to the store for disposal. Unlike incandescent lamps, CFL bulbs contain a small amount of mercury and should not be tossed in the trash.
Being able to promote the store in such a way has intangible benefits in the goodwill it fosters, Hardacker said, and only adds to the bottom line.
“I think our reputation is very friendly,” Hardacker said. “It’s just another aspect of that.”