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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6. Who should I talk to?

Consulting with people who have first-hand experience can be the most efficient way to quickly get answers to a number of questions. Fortunately, there are several sources fleets can consult.

Perkins said talking to fleets that currently run propane autogas-powered vehicles is the perfect place to start.

“Professional fleet managers speaking to other professional fleet managers seem to be the most efficient and effective way to get answers you need,” Perkins said.

“Certainly, they can come to PERC, and we’ll direct them to a number of other credible sources including propane retailers, equipment providers, and other users," he added.

Bart Humble, captain, Homeland Security, Sandy Springs (Ga.) Police Department, is one such fleet manager. In 2012, the City of Sandy Springs’ Police Department converted 25 of its Ford Crown Victoria police cruisers to run on propane autogas. His advice? Consult multiple sources to get a well-rounded picture of how to implement a propane autogas program.

“Internal sources can provide information about financial questions concerning costs, payback time, etc. External sources can answer your equipment, maintenance, and logistics questions,” he said. “Consult with primary vendors such as fuel suppliers, fueling station contractors, conversion centers, and vehicle manufacturers. Alternative energy associations, governmental agencies, and similar agencies with experience in propane conversion fleets can help, too.”

Mouw recommended working with a manufacturing partner, as the company can often see the bigger picture. “We can connect the dots for fleets,” he said. “From infrastructure to training, we’ll help them understand the whole picture. It’s a complex thing to put all those pieces in place.”

Beeks said the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Clean Cities program also provides a wealth of information on alternative fuels. “Clean Cities provides links to many of these vendors as well as information on grants and rebates, both federal and state,” he said.

Thanks to a DOE Clean Cities/National Park Initiative grant, Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky operates propane autogas buses and pickups. Bobby Sanders, maintenance mechanic for the park, said his first step was to consult local safety codes and regulations. “It’s an important step to keep all employees safe,” he said. 

Another source Mouw said fleets might overlook is the fire marshal. “If your garage is up to code for gas and diesel, typically there are no other regulations for working on propane vehicles. But, it is always wise to contact the fire marshal early in the process to be sure there are no surprises,” he said. “The last thing you want to do is have everything in place, then learn you need to make additional changes to get your facility compliant.”

7. What is our motivation for using propane autogas? What do I want to accomplish?

The anecdote, “If you aim at nothing you’ll hit every time” rings true even in the world of propane autogas. As Zig Ziglar suggested, identifying your goals will set the stage for success.

“Public-sector fleet operators should determine why they are making the switch to an alternative fuel like propane autogas,” said Jim Bunsey, director of operations, Superior Energy Systems. “What are their goals? Do they want to run on a domestic fuel? Do they want to run a cleaner operation? Do they need to meet government-mandated emissions requirements? Are they looking mostly at costs?”

Mouw agreed. “Understand your motivations and be able to articulate them because you will be asked ‘Why propane?’ ” he said. “Help people understand why making the change has both economic and environmental benefits — then they’re much more welcoming of it. If you don’t do that, people can be more resistant and can make the program less successful.”

Beyond identifying goals, Bunsey recommended spreading the word about what you want to accomplish. “Public-sector fleet operators should educate their employees about the benefits of adopting propane autogas as its alternative fuel. That’s why it’s important to set goals at the very start of the process. Those goals may include a desire for a longer engine life, or use of a domestic fuel, but they need to be conveyed to drivers so they understand and can fully support the adoption,” he said.

8. How can we demonstrate our success?

Once you’ve set a goal, get more specific and determine how you’ll prove you’ve accomplished that goal. In order to show you’ve made progress, collecting data now is essential to proving the payoff later.

“I would collect maintenance records, fuel consumption, repairs, and cost,” Sanders said. “This will give you something to compare with after switching to propane.”

Beeks agreed; he suggested collecting fuel mileage and fuel costs per mile on current units. “This is especially important if you are converting units already in the fleet. The history you have under all conditions and seasons will give accurate measures when calculating ­comparisons,” he said. “The more data that can be accessed will give a better picture of how you are doing when comparing fuel types.”

Sources outside of your fleet can help make the business case, too. “PERC has calculators for cost savings and emissions reductions,” Mouw said. “You have to understand the baseline for your gas/diesel vehicles to show benefit. The better your data is on gas and diesel, the easier it is to make a case for propane autogas.”

Bunsey said trying to compare propane to gasoline or diesel retroactively may not be as successful as anticipated. “When fleets convert to an alternative fuel like propane autogas, operators can forget how much gasoline they were using previously,” he said. “We suggest real data before converting for the best experience.”

9. Who are my champions?

Skeptics can be the biggest threat to a fledgling propane autogas program, so arm yourself with a team of champions to spread a positive message.

“If you have support from the key individuals, that support will travel throughout the fleet,” Mouw said. “It’s important to have those advocates who understand the vision and are supportive of it.”

Beeks recommended using data to make the case for propane. “Take time to educate all users on benefits and savings they can expect,” he said. “Calculate savings and ask division heads where that money may be used instead of buying fuel.”

Even with several champions on your side, skeptics will remain. Humble said in this case, education is your best tool. “The primary challenge is the initial introduction of the program to the vehicle operators and their immediate supervisors,” he said. “A system of education is necessary, and each legitimate maintenance complaint must be addressed in a timely manner.”

Once the program is in place, you may gain more believers. “What we see fairly routinely is that drivers — particularly coming from diesel to propane — appreciate the performance and that their [agency] is doing something positive for the community and the environment,” Perkins said.

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