The propane proposition — Why communities are making the switch
With gas prices on the rise once again, concerned communities hoping to combat rate increases are looking for ways in which to fuel their fleets without busting their budgets. While some municipalities choose to invest in fuel-efficient, low-impact vehicles, others are turning to alternative fuel sources such as electric power, compressed natural gas, biodiesel and propane in order to save money.
Propane, or liquefied petroleum gas as it is more commonly known, is considered to be an alternative fuel under the Energy Policy Act of 1992. It is an odorless, non-toxic, clean-burning and high-efficiency product that is comparable to traditional gas in terms of performance, but one that comes with certain economic advantages for municipal fleets. According to the Propane Education & Research Council, there are nearly 150,000 propane vehicles currently functioning on U.S. roads and a fair number of them include municipal trucks, school buses, taxis and squad cars.
“I’m not sure why anyone would not want to invest in propane,” said Chief of Police Ron Tischer, with the city of La Crosse, Wis. “Budgets are tight and we must find a way to reduce costs.”
Understanding the mechanics
Propane vehicles are nothing new. In fact, they have been widely used and improved upon over the past few decades and continue to gain ground as communities seek out more eco-friendly and cost-effective fuel solutions. While there is an upfront cost — a few thousand per car — to converting the vehicles over to propane, it is an investment that can be recouped in about a year through environmental benefits, fuel savings and lower maintenance costs. The systems have low carbon and low oil contamination, which results in an extended engine life.
Tischer said his department has always taken a proactive approach when it comes to seeking out the latest innovations and technologies that can help save a few dollars here and there. The community as a whole has a big commitment to the environment, and when looking for a fuel alternative, both issues were taken into consideration. It was determined that bi-fuel propane conversion kits made the most sense while meeting the city’s exacting criteria, and in 2009 the department began the process of retrofitting the cars. By May 2016 all of the cars had made the transition.
Unlike a dedicated propane vehicle, which runs exclusively on an alternative fuel, a bi-fuel propane tank is one that ignites the engine with traditional gas and then transitions to propane after the vehicle is in operation. It is a seamless transition that the operator does not notice. However, La Crosse officers who have used these patrol cars said the propane provides a smoother ride, emits less air pollution into the atmosphere and saves plenty of money in fuel costs throughout the year. Propane also performs well in cold weather climates that often experience issues with liquid fuel and cold starts during periods of inclement weather.
“The advantages (of using propane) are a savings of over $50,000 per year in fuel costs, the seamless transition from propane to gas while the car is in operation and a consistent performance level regardless of which fuel is being used,” Tischer said.
Across the country, a number of communities are embracing propane-powered vehicles and tout the fuel’s benefits. Since 2003, the Zeeland Public School District in Michigan, which transports 9,000 students about 750,000 miles per year, had been using biodiesel to fire up the majority of its school buses, but after learning more about propane and the advantages associated with it, school officials decided to give it a try. Dave Meeuwsen, transportation director for the Zeeland Public Schools, said the district bought nine new Blue Bird Propane-Powered Vision school buses in 2010 and has shaved 30 percent off its budget.
“The buses fueled by propane auto-gas fit into the environmental standard we are trying to accomplish here at Zeeland,” said Meeuwsen in a comment for the Propane Education & Research Council. “The continued support and positive feedback the buses have garnered from staff, students and the community also will influence the future of the school district’s green fleet.”
Other communities that have made successful transitions to propane include the King County Department of Transportation in Washington, the Indiana Department of Transportation and the Muscogee County Police Department in Columbus, Ga., which, like La Crosse, converted several of its police cars to propane. Cobb County, Ga., did something similar using a federal stimulus grant.
“Any vehicle can be converted to propane usage no matter if it is a pickup truck used by another city department or a fleet of vehicles,” Tischer said. “The more propane used, the cheaper the costs.”
As more and more communities look for ways in which to save while being environmentally conscientious, the trend suggests that more of them will continue to turn to propane to power their fleets. Tischer said as long as there are cost savings and municipalities committed to supporting a cleaner burning fuel source, it is fiscally sound to consider propane.
“Propane or alternative fuel vehicles are here to stay and their performance and reliability are continuing to improve. If the costs work out, it only makes sense to utilize these types of vehicles,” he said.
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