A new animal, new opportunity

May 1, 2004 By    

They are not the dinosaurs of the past. They are not the horror stories of
years ago. They are not the shunned equipment that was given such a nasty name
called “conversions.”
They are a new animal. They are fast, powerful and port-sequential, fuel injected.
They have diagnostic capabilities comparable to their gasoline counterparts.
They are the future of alternative-fueled vehicles and are available today.

April 1, 2002 was D-day for many alternative fuel companies that had been selling
aftermarket conversions. That was the day the EPA cracked down again on the
certification requirements to ensure that the aftermarket was meeting the emission
requirements that the factory-built vehicles were meeting.

It was also meant to regulate some degree of quality control and accountability
for systems installed on vehicles, whether changing to propane or natural gas
fuel. Many businesses that had been converting vehicles for years were shut
down. Some of them probably needed to be; many were the very “mom and pop”
shops that gave the aftermarket industry its tainted name. They were a group
of visionaries – early pioneers who would slap components on a vehicle to make
it run on a cheaper fuel, but not necessarily with cleaner emissions.

In their defense, those early conversion companies and experimental technology
began creating a market for the use of alternative fuels and helped pave the
way for the introduction of OEM alternative-fueled vehicles. According to the
U.S. Dept. of Energy, OEMs grew the number of alternative fuel vehicles by more
than 40 times from 1995-98 (Flex fuel – E-85) vehicle production increased and
was included in the total statistics at this time).

During the same time, conversions to propane and natural gas dropped 40 percent
between 1996-97 and by almost 50 percent between 1997-98. The two major reasons
for the decline were EPA’s implementation of Addendum to Memorandum 1A that
tightened standards for conversion kits sold, and the increase in availability
of factory-built vehicles, including the flex-fuel vehicle (which greatly increased
the statistical numbers but did not necessarily increase the alternative fuel
usage).

The End for Conversions?
While the conversion industry was perceived as dying, it appeared that OEM
production of alternative fueled vehicles would thrive. There were several years
of steady growth in OEM sales while the aftermarket sales dropped, but then
to everyone’s surprise the numbers changed direction again.

OEMs began incurring the costs associated with developing alternative-fuel
platforms, and they learned the difficulty of discerning good quality products
versus those from companies that were good at marketing and building political
alliances but didn’t have the product reliability to back up the sale. They
realized that the few vehicle sales they made would hardly compensate for the
cost to develop their own products.

Some of the technology used in the factory-built vehicles already was “old
news” in the aftermarket industry (the use of 3000 psi cylinders when 3600
psi was the new standard, for example). The under-hood components that had been
used in the 1990s at the aftermarket level and contributed to its negative perception
for excessive product failure were also used in early OEM applications.

The OEMs must be commended for persistence in working through the bugs of various
component failures and disappointing products that had already been snubbed
in the conversion industry. Their support and dedication has helped to convince
and encourage use of alternative fuels on a national basis, thanks to the money
they have devoted to marketing and product development.

Many of the OEMs cut back on their platforms this new model year, while product
offerings in the conversion arena are again emerging. Aftermarket companies
that have survived are reputable, knowledgeable entities that are “playing
the game” to the rules of EPA, just as they were told to do. They are complying
in every way, even when it is costly and painful.

So why is there still the negative stigma of conversions?

This industry as a whole needs an attitude adjustment if it is going to survive.
We need support from all facets of the industry for quality products that will
help justify the building of more fueling infrastructure, increase volumes that
will help to drive costs lower and create the mass numbers that we need for
this industry to survive.

We need to recognize that the aftermarket can provide a healthy complement
to the OEM offerings. It can provide fuel users for many years after a new vehicle
rolls off the product line. It can be an option to a new vehicle when the OEM
does not offer it in the alternative fuel they prefer.

Quality aftermarket products can help be the stepping stones for future sales
of OEM platforms. They provide a sample of what an alternative-fuel vehicle
can be, and the benefits that can be achieved on a vehicle that the user is
already comfortable with.

Conversions are not the enemy, but an ally to help conquer the enemy. As long
as they can provide the quality that is necessary to sustain an excellent, reliable
product that meets EPA emission and other requirements in all ways, we need
to band together as one – OEM, conversion, fuel provider, equipment supplier,
government or private fleet. There is strength in numbers!

Stephe Yborra of the Clean Fuel Vehicle Coalition, a non-profit organization
that promotes alternative fuels, says there also is a problem with the public
perception of modified systems. Problems linger with the terms “conversions”
and “aftermarket” due to the experiences of the past.

“Because of the aversion to the word conversion, I choose to refer to
them as EPA-certified aftermarket OEM. While that sounds like an oxymoron, it
accurately describes the product: Aftermarket happens after manufacturing, OEM
because of the fact that they go through the same steps as far as research,
emission testing, and quality control. It equivocates that they are not the
systems of yesterday,” Yborra says.

Educated buyers can take advantage of the new direct-injection method of propane
conversions. It offers sophisticated technology that eliminates backfires since
the propane is injected at the same location as the gasoline. Also, the propane
is injected in the same firing order that the OEM designed the engine to fire,
assuring consistent drivability.

There are many success stories with aftermarket-converted vehicles that are
having excellent results running on new direct-injected systems. For fleets
consisting of all aftermarket vehicles or mixtures of aftermarket and OEM, systems
have improved drastically since the early learning years.

Great strides have been made in technology and through tougher regulations
and accountability laws imposed by EPA. Most of the incompetent kit suppliers
have been weeded out, leaving the reputable, reliable companies that are willing
to stand behind their products. There still are differences in technology, however,
so it remains wise to question what you are buying to make certain you get the
best product for the dollar.

A New Animal
So where do we go from here with this new animal? Do we continue to run
as though it were a dinosaur of the past? Or should we, as an industry supplier,
fleet supervisor, government agency, or end-user, re-evaluate the possibilities?

Those in a position to make policies need to be educated about the options
as well as the changes that have occurred. They can then make knowledgeable
decisions about supporting an arm of the industry that carries a bad name from
past years, and remains excluded from funding opportunities due to some poor
products and political pressures.

We need this new animal for our future. We must embrace a cooperative effort
among ourselves so that we all can work together to create the mass volumes
we need to survive in a country that still fails to appreciate the importance
of cleaner air, foreign independence, and national security.

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