Early Tests Show Promise for Propane as Alternate Fuel for Heavy Trucks
By Eric Miller, Staff Reporter
Can diesel and propane fuels operate in harmony under the hood of a Class 8 truck? Charles “Shorty” Whittington thinks so. The owner of tank truck carrier Grammer Industries said his fleet is testing the alternative fuel and has seen promising results. “We are running a propane injection system on a couple of units on a test, and it has been phenomenal,” said Whittington, who also is a former chairman of American Trucking Associations. “We are up to almost 11 miles per gallon.” So far, the biggest challenge to the use of propane, however, might not be under the hood. “The problem is none of the engine manufacturers want to give you any warranty the minute you tap into the engine with propane,” Whittington said. “So you’ve got a very delicate situation.” He added, “But in my opinion, it’s got more legs than [compressed or liquefied natural gas]. We’ve worked a lot of bugs out, but you’ve got to have someone who has an open mind to try it out.” Indiana-based Grammer is one of the few carriers so far to kick the tires on a fuel that often is used in smaller commercial vehicles, but heretofore an unknown in Class 8 trucks. Ed Hoffman, president of propane supplier Blossman Services Inc., is trying to change that. Hoffman’s company has teamed with Alliance AutoGas and expects to soon offer commercially the first federal and California Air Resources Board emissions-certified Class 8 fueling system that substitutes propane for diesel at predetermined engine operating levels. The system, exhibited in May at the Alternative Clean Transportation Expo in Dallas, will substitute propane for diesel an average of 30% of the time it travels down the highway, according to Hoffman. He said the company earlier this year obtained U.S. Environmental Protection Agency certification for model years 2004-2007 Detroit Diesel 14-liter engines. Alliance and Blossman are expecting certification for model year 2013 and older Volvo D13 and Mack MP8 engines from EPA and CARB in December.
The new system successfully completed its high-altitude testing in the Colorado Rockies in May. Hoffman concedes the market for the system on the older engine models has been limited. The older vehicles already have come out of service, and from an aging standpoint, they’re on their second and third owners at this point,” Hoffman said. With cheaper diesel prices, it likely will take some time to persuade truckers to purchase propane blending systems even with newer models, he said. “We continue to field calls from interested prospects,” Hoffman said. “We are preparing the test vehicle to put into demo service shortly. We understand that we need to demonstrate performance.” Alliance has estimated the substitution system will save fleets 5 cents to 7 cents per mile in fuel costs and yield a cut in diesel emissions. The system will cost about $9,500 installed, Hoffman said. Not only will the system save fuel costs for carriers, it will help satisfy the requirements of shippers who seek to patronize green fleets, he added. “Directionally, we continue to see this tremendous interest in anything that uses propane in lieu of diesel, because the cost benefits are just so strong,” said Tucker Perkins, chief business development officer for the Propane Education and Research Council. “In the Class 8, what we’re seeing is more and more user interest.” Perkins said that, so far, the propane systems being tested are not necessarily increasing miles per gallon. Instead, they are reducing cost per mile since propane costs less at the pump and has less price volatility. “Almost exclusively from our test data so far and from the limited field data we’re seeing, it’s certainly a huge cost benefit, both in fuel and maintenance cost,” Perkins said. “It gives them every bit of a power pickup, better performance. While it hasn’t been a strong emissions play, I think over time we’ll see that the emissions are certainly better.” He added, “It only seems to enhance the diesel technology. We get lower cost per mile, we get extended life on the [diesel exhaust fluid], we get extended life to a degree on the particulate filters, we get more power. We get all of those things, and we’re not seeing any complexities on the diesel.”
The propane system that Blossman Services has developed would not have been possible without the sophisticated electronic controls in a modern diesel engine, he said. It also has required the blessing of an EPA certification and a sophisticated control and feedback technology that substitutes propane for diesel only when it would be best served in the combustion cycle and when the engine’s diesel particulate filter is regenerating. Perkins said the “poster child of test fleets” for using propane in a Class 8 engine is Keystone Automotive Operations. Anthony DiVeronica, service manager for Keystone, said his company has been testing a Class 8 truck with a propane-substitution system since January 2014. “Since the vehicle was placed in service with this technology, it has traveled over 60,000 miles throughout the northeast U.S. and Canada,” DiVeronica said in a statement. “While offering uninterrupted reliable service to Keystone’s customers, the truck has also been delivering significant fuel savings and has reduced emissions utilizing clean, domestic propane autogas.” DiVeronica said the conversion process was easy and trouble-free, and the truck has performed flawlessly with not even a single check-engine light. He said feedback also has been positive, with drivers saying they are unable to differentiate when the diesel-blend engine is substituting propane autogas or running on diesel. “Substitution levels of propane to diesel have averaged around 21%; however, depending on load, we have seen levels as high as 50%,” DiVeronica said. In another recent development in the alternative-fuel truck market, Alkane Truck Co. announced that it will begin production in early 2016 on a Class 7 cabover truck powered by either liquid propane autogas or compressed natural gas. The truck, which features an 8.8-liter engine from Power Solutions International and an Allison automatic transmission, is now available for dealership order, according to a Nov. 13 Alkane announcement. “When one considers the tax advantages to owning a vehicle that runs on LPG or CNG, then add the reduced cost of operation, these vehicles make perfect economic sense,” said Steve Rayborn, vice president of global sales at the Myrtle Beach, South Carolina-based company. CEO Bob Smith said the company’s assembly facility in Dorchester County, South Carolina, will employ more than 300 workers once it reaches full capacity. Alkane said it also is developing a Class 8 longhaul truck powered by natural gas and a “Humvee-type” vehicle fueled by propane.
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