Switching gears

May 1, 2007 By    

General Motors‘ decision to provide a dedicated propane engine with enough muscle to power bobtails was just the answer to pleas from frustrated propane marketers nationwide.

 A truck with a gross vehicle weight of 33,000 pounds offers the driver a high, clear view from the cab and allows him to make quick, tight turns to aid deliveries in hard-to-reach areas. It also can accelerate from 0-60 mph in 54 seconds.
A truck with a gross vehicle weight of 33,000 pounds offers the driver a high, clear view from the cab and allows him to make quick, tight turns to aid deliveries in hard-to-reach areas. It also can accelerate from 0-60 mph in 54 seconds.

Equally important, the newly released 8.1-liter engine puts propane all alone as an alternative fuel option for fleets in the massive medium-duty commercial truck market that includes school buses, utility vehicles, shuttle buses, beverage and delivery trucks. There were about 214,000 vehicles sold into that market in 2006.

Based on GM’s popular 8.1-liter Vortec gasoline engine used in its TopKick and Kodiak truck models, the propane version features a Liquid Propane Injection fuel system that replaces the gasoline fuel tank, fuel pump and injector rails with an injector fuel rail and flow control wiring harness that is installed pre-delivery to GM dealers.

Depending on the gross vehicle weight, the trucks are built with 50- or 65-gallon side saddle tanks. A 42-gallon step tank is being developed for propane and other industries.
Depending on the gross vehicle weight, the trucks are built with 50- or 65-gallon side saddle tanks. A 42-gallon step tank is being developed for propane and other industries.

The OEM-level technology provides improved fuel economy and superior performance with lower emissions that meet estimated EPA requirements through the 2009 production year for both EPA and CARB certification. The fuel system also matches gasoline horsepower, has a better torque curve than gasoline, and provides better cold starts than conventional propane systems.

LPI, developed by the Italian company ICOM S.p.A., is used extensively in Europe. It was brought to the U.S. market by CleanFUEL USA, a domestic manufacturer of propane and ethanol dispensing equipment and aftermarket engine fuel systems.

“We have been convinced for the last few years that liquid injection was the way to go,” explains CleanFUEL USA President Curtis Donaldson.

Dick Pennell of Sellers Truck Center in Farmington Hills, Mich., expects GM's 8.1-liter LPI engine to benefit the propane retailer.
Dick Pennell of Sellers Truck Center in Farmington Hills, Mich., expects GM’s 8.1-liter LPI engine to benefit the propane retailer.

“In vapor systems, we had seen valve failure due to high combustion temperature issues. We saw that the liquid system had a cooling effect inside the engine that helped us manage engine temperature back down, reducing valve failure and aiding endurance. We put our stock in liquid because we saw the benefits.”

The Texas-based company chose the 8.1 GM engine because nearly $1 million already had been invested in it through an earlier Propane Education & Research Council research project. Donaldson sits on the council.

Both GM and CleanFUEL are counting on healthy bobtail sales into the propane fleet market out of the gate, Donaldson says. About 150 have been sold since the product became available in late 2006, 90 percent of which are bobtails. He’s aiming for another 400 in the upcoming model year.

Propane retailers also may choose to have the LPI system installed in their vehicles as an aftermarket conversion.

Donaldson acknowledges that the bad taste left from previous undersized, unreliable models has tempered the enthusiasm of an industry that continues to rely on a competing fuel to deliver its product to customers.

“Yeah, I am still hearing about the problems they had with the Ford pickups and bobtails. I have to explain not only the difference in the LPI technology, but the different setup we have for servicing these vehicles through the GM master dealer network,” he says.

A steady stream of propane marketers at the Southeastern Convention and International Trade Show in Atlanta April 15-17 stopped by with questions and comments about the new engine.

Those already using the bobtails are providing good feedback that goes a long way to convince colleagues to make the purchase, Donaldson says. Others are still leery despite a two-year, unlimited mileage warranty on the engine and the fuel system and optional extended service coverage packages.

“In the end it all comes down to a service issue. These guys have not had good experiences in the past and they are cynical. I understand that. But we are doing it right this time and we are going to rebuild that trust.”

Selling the idea

Dick Pennell is the commercial fleet manager for Sellers GMC Truck Center in Farmington Hills, Mich. The 37-year veteran truck salesman says he is impressed with the new propane engine and thinks the federal tax incentives on alternative fuel and equipment purchases should help launch sales into fleets long dominated by diesel. But it won’t happen overnight.

“The trucking business is a conservative business. It always has been,” Pennell notes.

Still, his company already has sold 43 of the new LPI trucks – mostly bobtails – this year and expects to at least double that in 2008. Sales have reached fleets as far as Massachusetts, Texas and California.

“I couldn’t be more pleased with what’s happening,” Pennell says, adding that popularity should grow through advertising and word of mouth.

“We’re smoothing out problems in the first attempt,” says Pennell, who is working to establish dealers to handle service issues. “This is so sophisticated that it takes time.”

Pennell showed off the propane-powered vehicles to visitors in March, demonstrating the truck’s power and maneuverability and explaining its many advantages.

He says the power, handling and performance of the LPI truck are comparable to diesels used in the industry

Depending on the gross vehicle weight, the trucks are built with 50- or 65-gallon side-saddle tanks. A 42-gallon step tank also is being developed for use in propane and other industries as well.

A truck with a GVW of 33,000 pounds can accelerate from 0-60 mph in 54 seconds, Pennell says. It offers the driver a high, clear view from the cab and allows him to make quick, tight turns to aid deliveries in hard-to-reach areas.

The cost advantages also are notable. With government incentives, the trucks cost $12,000 to $14,000 less than their diesel counterparts, Pennell says.

Propane for LPG marketers

Some marketers are buying the propane bobtail as much for the industry’s sake as for the benefit of their own business.

“We’ve been in the propane business since 1949, and it’s kind of a sin to buy diesel trucks when you’re in the propane business,” says Dave Glaser of Glaser Gas in Colorado Springs, Colo. “I’m a big advocate of running propane on vehicles and also a big advocate of Liquid Propane Injection.”

Glaser runs all 20 of his bobtails on propane. Two of the bobtails and a bottle truck have the GM LPI engine, and Glaser ordered four more for bobtails this spring.

He says he likes the added power from LPI, the cheaper fuel, the convenience of refueling at his own plant and the available tax incentives. He figures he saves about 30 cents a gallon running on propane, not counting the tax incentives.

“With the tax incentives they have, they’re almost paying you to put the propane system on,” notes Paul Hayse of Tri-State Butane in Carmi, Ill.

Hayse has traveled “15,000 trouble-free miles” with his C7500 series bobtail that runs on the GM engine and hauls a 2,400-gallon tank. He’s had no problems starting and running the truck, especially in cold temperatures.

“We are a propane company,” Hayse says. “It seems kind of silly running diesel trucks with a propane company.”

That’s why Tri-State plans to convert another of its diesel bobtails to the LPI system this summer.

Hayse says his bobtails travel up to 250 miles each day, often burning 25 gallons of fuel. While diesel engines get better gas mileage than propane, it still costs more at the pump and maintenance can be expensive, Hayse says.

Since December, Hamilton Energy in Hamilton, Mich., has been running the LPI system on one of its seven bobtails.

“We’ve had no problems with starting or operating it,” Division Manager Pam Schut says. “If it continues like it is, we’d definitely add more to the fleet. We are a propane retailer, so it would be promoting our business, and for alternative fuel reasons it’s a good way to go.”

Schut’s drivers say the truck, which hauls a 3,500-gallon tank, rides comfortably and allows for a better turning radius than some others. Meanwhile, the company is recognizing the benefits of federal tax incentives on the truck’s fuel.

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