Propane Autogas – Conversions and Infrastructure

Answer These 9 Questions Before Implementing Propane Autogas

March 2015, Government Fleet - Feature

by Shelley Mika - Also by this author

Photo courtesy of PERC
Photo courtesy of PERC

When implementing any major change, the likelihood of its success often depends as much — if not more — on the thought put into it beforehand than it does on what happens after.

This can certainly be said about implementing propane autogas. Once the program is up and running, it operates more or less like any other fuel program. But getting to that point takes preparation.

At a Glance

When converting vehicles to propane autogas, fleet managers should consider:

  • Whether a centralized fueling facility is needed
  • Whether vehicles should be converted or bought new with the propane autogas system installed
  • Whether fleet technicians will service the vehicles or if maintenance will be outsourced
  • What the goals of the project are and how to demonstrate program progress.

To help, propane autogas experts weighed in on questions to answer before launching a program.

1. Dedicated or bi-fuel?

Propane autogas can be used in two ways — as the sole fuel for a vehicle (dedicated) or in tandem with gasoline (bi-­fuel). “The first question fleets should ask is, ‘Am I interested in fueling with propane autogas alone or am I interested in alternating between propane or gasoline?’ ” said Tucker Perkins, chief business development officer for the Propane Education & Research Council (PERC), a program established, operated, and funded by the ­propane industry.

Part of the dedicated/bi-fuel decision depends on the duty cycle of each vehicle. “The number of miles a vehicle is driven per day matters, because you want to ensure you have enough fuel capacity for the range a vehicle typically drives,” said Todd Mouw, vice president of sales and marketing, ROUSH CleanTech, which designs, engineers, manufactures, and assembles alternative-fuel systems for Ford trucks and vans. “You don’t want operators to worry about running out of fuel.”

If your fleet uses centralized refueling with on-site infrastructure or a nearby public station, then dedicated may be the way to go. Doing so can save more money on fuel costs. Bi-fuel will still help fleets save money, but it provides flexibility for vehicles with erratic routes.

“Fleet managers can choose from an array of OEM-supported vehicles that are Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)- and California Air Resources Board (CARB)-certified, and provide equal horsepower, torque, and towing capacity as conventional versions of the same models,” Perkins said. “Dedicated propane autogas vehicles are available from many major OEMs and offer the lowest total cost of operation, whereas bi-fuel [vehicles] that switch over to gasoline when propane autogas isn’t available make sense for fleets that don’t have a central refueling location or travel long distances.”

2. Should I convert or buy new?

Implementing a propane autogas program can happen in two ways: You can convert existing vehicles to run on propane autogas, or you can buy new vehicles already equipped to run on the fuel. When making the choice, Jesse Beeks, CAFM, director of fleet operations, City of Fayetteville, Ark., suggested asking two questions: “First, are vehicles compatible with conversions?” he said. “Second, will the remaining life of the vehicle provide a return on investment?”

The City of Fayetteville operates 10 propane-­powered trucks, two of which are police patrol units, and 12 Hustler mowers. Once a new fueling station is out to bid, the fleet plans to convert more units.

Fleets should ensure existing vehicles are worth investing in. If the end of its life cycle is drawing near, there won’t be time for the conversion to pay off. If buying new, fleets will also have to prepare for the associated capital expense.

3. Where will I fuel these vehicles?

Fleet managers will also have to decide how fueling will work.

“The traditional model is that propane is a return-to-base, centrally fueled choice: Most fleets come back to a base at night and fuel on site,” Perkins said. “But that’s not the limit. Some people don’t have the ability to use centrally located fueling infrastructure. Instead, they make arrangements with refueling locations in their community, state, or county. A fleet with just five or six vehicles might make arrangements with existing infrastructure, whereas a large fleet may invest in its own. It’s up to the fleet to decide what will work best.”

If a fleet makes the decision to invest in its own refueling infrastructure, space is an important consideration. Mike Walters, vice president of safety and training, Superior Energy Systems, which supplies products and services related to propane infrastructure, encourages fleet managers to consider the space on their property and what their configuration will be — a tank and dispenser together on one skid, or a tank that will be located remotely on the property.

“An 18,000-gallon tank may have multiple points of transfer, such as to the connection to the vehicle and to the fuel delivery truck, so adequate space is needed,” he said. “Fleets should also understand what the permitting process is for the authority having jurisdiction. The permitting process can be the slowest part of the installation process.”

Although space is a consideration, propane autogas proponents said an on-site propane autogas dispenser is compact and easy to install when compared with other fuels. Infrastructure also uses the same pump and motor to handle a number of tanks and dispensers without changing the electrical or site requirements, allowing infrastructure to grow as fleets expand.

Perkins suggested doing a little legwork when identifying a propane retailer. “It’s important to find a company that will be a good partner for you,” he suggested. “Not all retailers are focused on the autogas market; find one that is — and one that understands your fleet and is experienced providing fleet fuel.”

4. Where will my vehicles be serviced?

Fleets need to consider where their propane autogas vehicles will be serviced. “A lot of fleets have their own garage, but a number of others use an outside service,” Perkins said. “Many outside garages are trained, so this isn’t an issue as much as it is just another detail to work out.”

When working with a fleet, Mouw with ROUSH makes a point to ask if service is provided in-house, is subcontracted, or is performed by an OEM dealer. “We ask those questions to make sure we get the proper service technicians trained prior to implementation,” he said. “We want to make the transition as seamless as possible.”

Seeking to cut fuel costs and reduce harmful emissions, the City of Edmonds, Wash., converted more than a dozen Crown Victoria police vehicles and a Public Works truck to propane autogas in 2012. Based on his experience, Mike Adams, fleet manager for the Edmonds Police Department, recommended performing service on site.

“You’ll see the best success if you do your own maintenance. Your techs know how to work on the system, you have some parts on hand, and you have the diagnostic software,” he said. “If you have to take it somewhere every time the system needs attention, you will not be happy.”

5. What will the fleet’s propane autogas usage be?

Once you know where to fuel vehicles, it’s important to think about how much fuel you will need. “The number of cars you fuel will determine how much propane autogas your fleet is going to need — and the size of your refueling infrastructure,” Walters said. “It’s important to ensure a fleet has enough propane autogas supply to meet their needs. For example, it probably doesn’t make sense to have 100 vehicles with only a 1,000-gallon tank, but that 1,000-gallon tank might be ideal for a 10- or 15-vehicle fleet.”

Adams offered another fueling tip for fleets that plan to have a dispenser on site: “Make sure you have a user-friendly dispenser; at first, ours was not,” he said. “Now our fuel controls for gas and diesel also control the propane dispenser. It’s a huge improvement!”

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