Approved as an alternative fuel under the Clean Air Act of 1990, propane autogas is certainly not new to the transportation industry. For several decades, many American fleets have used the fuel to reduce emissions and operating costs. But as the U.S Environmental Protection Agency tightens standards and regulations – a trend that is not likely to change in the foreseeable future – fleets across the country are ramping up their efforts to find more reliable, cleaner and more affordable fuel alternatives. And for utility fleets in particular, propane autogas is proving to be a viable option.
A growing number of OEMs now offer propane autogas vehicles that provide horsepower, torque and towing capacity comparable to gasoline and diesel versions of the same models. Most recently, medium-duty product offerings such as the ROUSH CleanTech Ford F-650 and Freightliner Custom Chassis Corp. S2G have entered the marketplace. Certified aftermarket propane autogas fuel systems from Blossman Services Inc. and ICOM North America have also emerged, providing utility fleet professionals with options that are ideal for service, bucket and crane trucks.
ROUSH CleanTech built its first Ford F-650 propane-autogas-powered bucket truck for Asplundh Tree Expert Co. in late 2014. The bucket truck, fitted with a 58-foot aerial lift, is used to prune trees in North Carolina. Reports from John Talbot, Asplundh’s director of fleet services, echo the sentiments of other U.S. fleets using propane-autogas-powered vehicles – that they offer a reliable, green, affordable alternative to conventional fuels.
The upfront capital cost to add propane autogas vehicles to a fleet will fluctuate based on several factors, including vehicle model, class and fuel system. New vehicles can be purchased from the OEM, or existing vehicles can be converted to operate using propane autogas. Utility fleets that are considering adopting a propane-autogas-powered bucket, crane or service truck will, on average, pay a one-time incremental cost of $6,000 to $10,000 for a new vehicle, or $5,000 to $8,000 if they choose to convert one of their existing fleet vehicles. This is the only premium cost paid over the life of the vehicle, and fleets are seeing a quick return on investment, which usually occurs in fewer than two years. Propane autogas dramatically reduces fuel and maintenance costs and eliminates expensive nonwarranty repairs commonly associated with today’s diesel engines. Savings are multiplied year after year over the life of the vehicle.
Each utility fleet has unique needs, and propane infrastructure professionals can design a custom refueling option based on a fleet’s size, routes, budget, refueling requirements and facility space. Fleets can choose from a wide array of propane autogas infrastructure options. Custom-designed choices include on-site standard private stations and large advanced private refueling stations, as well as other flexible refueling options available through propane providers.
While diesel, gasoline and other alternative fuels can burden budgets with costly infrastructure, propane autogas refueling stations are the most affordable of any fuel to install, service and maintain, making them economical for fleets of all sizes. A standard private propane autogas station requires a minimum of a 1,000-gallon capacity tank and a single dispenser, which easily support up to 25 or more vehicles based on a fleet’s refueling requirements.
In some cases, propane autogas providers choose to maintain ownership of the infrastructure and only request that the fleet pay for site preparation and electrical supply. If the fleet owns the infrastructure, it pays for the site preparation, electrical supply, propane tank, pump, motor and dispenser. On average, a fleet pays about $1,500 to $5,000 for site preparation and $25,000 to $50,000 for infrastructure. In comparison, a diesel fuel tank can have a much higher price point. For instance, a diesel tank replacement for New York’s Washingtonville Central School District cost $100,000 based on a 2014 case study (see www.newyorkbussales.com/userfiles/Case%20Study%20Washingtonville%202014.pdf).
Public refueling stations may be available and accessible based on a fleet’s geographic location. These networks consist of existing stations owned and operated by a propane provider that, in some instances, has eliminated a fleet’s need to invest in refueling infrastructure or fuel contracts. Public refueling has proven to be valuable for fleets with limited on-site space, as well as fleets that require refueling locations along their routes.
Accessible 24/7 through a cardlock fuel management system, public refueling networks offer fleets the capability to identify and maintain transaction records that include driver name or driver ID, vehicle identification number, fuel gallons dispensed, total fuel costs and date and time. For areas that do not currently have a public refueling network, local propane providers may create one if a fleet – or multiple fleets – in the area can provide the adequate fuel consumption required to support the facility.
Low Total Cost of Ownership
Another benefit of propane autogas to fleets is its effect on a vehicle’s total cost of ownership. Fuel costs are a major component of a fleet’s overall budget, and through the use of propane autogas – which is up to 50 percent less expensive than gasoline and diesel – fleet managers are reducing those costs.
Looking beyond the pump price, propane autogas is also helping fleet managers reduce costs related to preventive maintenance, driver and technician training and replacement parts. In addition, the fuel assists in providing more uptime over the life of a vehicle, increasing overall fleet productivity and efficiency.
The exhaust system on a propane-autogas-powered vehicle consists of a simple three-gas catalyst that eliminates the need for additional emissions fluids and filters, both of which are common with today’s diesel engines. In compliance with EPA clean air standards and regulations, selective catalytic reduction diesel engines are equipped with a complex emission-reduction system that includes a particulate filer, oxidation filters, exhaust gas recirculation, combustion chamber, dosing valve and diesel exhaust fluid tanks that increase overall operation and maintenance requirements and costs.
Additional parts and emissions systems also lead to extra weight, which can restrict chassis and body option choices and reduce towing capacity. Propane autogas vehicles are lighter than diesel vehicles, allowing utility fleets to keep the same size truck while staying below 33,000 GVWR and avoiding payment of a federal excise tax.
Ideal for Idling
Medium-duty bucket and crane trucks are equipped with power takeoff (PTO) systems and perform most of their work, if not all of it, at idle. These fleets typically have low mileage but a much greater number of hours per mile. An electric utility’s aerial bucket truck, for example, may only need to travel a few short miles from the garage to an area where overhead work needs to be performed. Once the truck’s crew arrives at their destination, the mileage stops, but the engine continues to run for hours each day while the crane is up. While mileage isn’t increasing during idle, the engine is still experiencing wear and tear. For diesel fleets, this increases diesel emission regeneration requirements and fuel consumption while decreasing operator productivity and efficiency. Propane autogas doesn’t require complex emissions systems, eliminating excessive idling and related maintenance concerns.
How do propane-autogas-powered trucks stack up against trucks equipped with electric power takeoff (ePTO) systems? A truck that uses propane fuel is immune to idling issues without the need to rely on additional equipment, which helps fleets avoid greater upfront costs and lowers total cost of ownership. ePTO systems also require frequent recharging or a shore electricity source. If the electricity source isn’t available during a storm, and if a truck’s internal combustion engine hasn’t been in operation long enough, the truck’s aerial devices will be unable to function. By investing in trucks powered by propane autogas, fleets can avoid ePTO-related issues.
Most utility fleet trucks are classified as severe-duty – they experience high mileage, high engine idle times, off-road operation or a combination of all three. Severe-duty vehicle maintenance intervals on diesel trucks tend to be more intense than normal-duty intervals, which in turn increases the need to monitor overall engine hours and mileage and ensure the diesel system is in proper operating condition.
Failure to maintain the diesel particulate filter (DPF) as outlined in the OEM warranty manual will ultimately lead to increased downtime, as sensors will trigger the system to derate engine revolutions per minute and render it inoperable until the system is repaired.
Propane autogas engines are not equipped with a DPF, nor do they restrict engine idle times or require an operator to perform active or passive emissions regenerations. Instead, propane autogas engines increase uptime, require less maintenance and fewer repairs, and increase productivity and efficiency in idle-sensitive fleet applications.
Better for the Environment
To improve the safety of work environments, the American Federation of State, County & Municipal Employees (www.afscme.org) recommends replacing diesel engines with propane-powered engines when possible. Clean, American-made propane autogas is nontoxic and does not contaminate soil, air or water, allowing fleets to affordably meet environmental goals and reduce emissions while saving valuable budget dollars. The environmental benefits of propane autogas also help to eliminate concerns about anti-idling laws and EPA requirements for on-site storage.
Additionally, propane autogas vehicles operate more quietly than diesel models, which has proven to increase overall safety in work environments. Reduced engine noise increases an operator’s ability to focus on his or her surroundings, identify potential safety hazards and take preventive steps to eliminate potential dangers.
Overall, utility fleets will find propane autogas a sustainable and economic business solution. It is clean, safe and affordable. To learn more, visit http://propane.com/on-road-fleets.
About the Author: Michael Taylor is the director of autogas business development for the Propane Education & Research Council. Prior to joining PERC in 2012, Taylor served as director of fleet management at Heritage Propane for four years. Preceding his tenure at Heritage Propane, he enjoyed a 22-year career in the school transportation industry.