Free-fat product

A Reno casino used to pay to get rid of a waste product that it now uses to heat the building.

Ken O’Toole, head of maintenance at the Eldorado, makes an adjustment on the casino’s new green power system.

Ken O’Toole, head of maintenance at the Eldorado, makes an adjustment on the casino’s new green power system.

Photo By David Robert

Those who want to contribute used cooking oil can contact the Eldorado Casino at 786-5700 ext. 7150.

Beyond the ornate carpets, the plush interiors, the tinkle of the slot-machines and the colorful stream of guests and tourists, a completely different world exists at the Eldorado Hotel Casino. Away from guests’ eyes, a large elevator, blackened with use and dirt—a direct antithesis to the impeccable casino interiors—groans its way down to another level of human activity.

Here, the waitresses in enticing outfits and the stewards in tuxedos give way to busy engineers with tools hooked to their belts. They bustle with activity all day long, running innumerable machines, a maze of pipelines and new equipment that produces power from—get this—used vegetable oil.

That’s right. The Eldorado now maintains the glitz that visitors see by re-using cooking oil from its own as well as other casinos’ kitchens. It’s a strategy that is both cost-effective and environmentally friendly.

“The engineering department, the Eldorado family is very energy-minded,” said Herb Witherspoon, director of facilities at the Eldorado. “They have backed us in a lot of projects, and this just happens to be the most recent one. We’re always looking for ways to cut costs and not to affect the clean air that we have.”

The project, which began testing three months ago and is now in its second month of operation, had a humble beginning. Witherspoon, a veteran in his field, came up with the idea.

“Being in the industry for over 40 years, I have seen deep-frying fires, so we know [cooking oil] burns,” he said.

It doesn’t burn easily, however. “If you just poured it into a bowl and tried to light it, it would be very, very difficult to get a flame,” Witherspoon explained. “You have to get it in the right state. We did that by heating it, changing the viscosity, and then having our boilers burn it.”

They experimented first with a five-gallon bucket of oil, said Jody Eddy, assistant chief engineer at the Eldorado. They put some oil in a spray bottle, and when they sprayed the atomized oil across a flame, they got “a very bright, hot flame.”

They realized they didn’t have a petroleum product, but rather a “used renewable resource that we are using,” Eddy said. “And it’s a great thing all the way around.”

The power that is finally produced is used in place of natural gas to heat the building and to generate domestic hot water. Overall, the process is believed to be cheaper than using biodiesel—another alternative burning fuel that can be produced from domestic grease—because biodiesel needs to be blended with petroleum, and the price of the latter is unstable.

“It’s a great process they are doing there [at the Eldorado],” said Jason Geddes, environmental health and safety manager at the University of Nevada, Reno. “This is because currently what you have to do is to pay to dispose of the grease, so they get to save the cost of disposal. It also decreases the amount of garbage that goes into the landfill. It allows them to generate electricity from a non-petroleum source, and it basically decreases the amount of pollution.”

With the project apparently succeeding, the Eldorado wants to add people to the list of those who allow them to take their used vegetable oil for free. The current list of contributors includes Circus Circus Casino, Club Cal Neva/Virginian Casino, Silver Legacy Resort Casino, Sands Regency Casino, Fitzgerald’s Casino, the Silver Club Casino in Sparks, and Tamarack Junction Casino south of Reno. Some grocery stores, sports bars and other casinos have also been approached.

“Right now we are looking at cultivating business with restaurants and bars and so on around town,” said Ken O’Toole, head of maintenance at the Eldorado. “We’re calling all the casinos in town because they have multiple outlets in each of the casinos, so they are ideal to have.”

The Eldorado is also contacting supermarkets and such fast-food outlets as Burger King, McDonald’s and KFC, O’Toole said.

“We are providing these outside sources a service,” said Eddy. “We provide them with small, sealed containers that are emptied often, providing less of an impact as far as storage on their facility and less of a cleanliness issue because of the fact that the oil is removed quite often.”

This process of using waste oil left after deep frying to produce cheap, pollution-free power is quite innovative in this part of the country.

“It is kind of pioneering, [though] not entirely,” said Geddes, who helped establish a biodiesel program at the university. “Many casinos looked at using biodiesel to fuel their backup generators. None of them have done it in-house like Eldorado.”

The apparent success of their efforts has fed the confidence of the engineers.

“Eventually, we will get a lot of places involved with helping us," said O’Toole. "Right now we are [a] work in progress. And the progress is going very well."