Propane technology advances to cattle ranches

January 11, 2013 By    

Still riding the dusty range like the Cartwrights at the Ponderosa – but in pickups and not on horseback – today’s cowboys still must ensure that the herds have plenty of fresh water to drink.

Maintaining these far-flung wells and ponds is much more efficient because of a new propane-based pumping and control system developed by Remote Well Solutions (RWS) of Cloudcroft, N.M.

“They’re really beneficial for propane sales,” says Larry Osgood of Consulting Solutions in Monument, Colo. “It’s a dream account. It’s like getting 10 houses [on propane]. They use a couple thousand gallons a year, and most of it is in the summer. Ranchers now have a control system at the site, and all the pieces of the pumping system are optimized.”

The units are typically connected to a 500-gallon or 1,000-gallon propane tank supplied and filled by a local marketer.

Mike Lisk, the owner of RWS with his wife Corina, is an electrical engineer by trade who is living out a lifelong dream as a rancher. He invented their Well Watchman system to address a multitude of water management problems faced by livestock producers and other industries.

The technology is also being applied to campgrounds, petroleum fields, mining sites and any other off-the-grid location where moving water is an issue.

Propane has proven to be a much better pumping fuel than diesel, solar or windmills on deeper wells.

Operating automatically on demand, the intelligent propane-powered electric generator system runs and produces water only as the consumption rate dictates, allowing the well to perform at full capacity and efficiency, according to Harris Baker, vice president of business development at Irving, Texas-based Pinnacle Propane, which has been assisting in marketing the product line.

“It senses when the water table is not recharging at optimal rates and eliminates any fear of burning out submersible pumps,” Baker explains. “Accordingly it runs only when it needs to run – fuel consumption is matched with the targeted water production. By optimizing the well’s production capacity, the generator and pump run between 20 percent and 60 percent less, yet produces the same or more amount of water.”

The system has typically delivered a 12.5 percent rise in per-day water production with a 30 to 60 percent reduction in fuel cost.

“A 60 percent savings in fuel cost is massive,” says Baker, noting that Pinnacle has supplied 17 of the units over the past year. “We’re interested in selling propane, so it’s a good deal. It’s a great product. I don’t know of any that have failed.

“You don’t have to change out the piping in the well,” Baker continues, “and it’s a great application for a forest service campground. This is a terrific solution for them.”

Sputtering diesels

The cost of installing a dedicated solar system for water-pumping applications can be prohibitive and stymied by cloudy days. Maintaining a windmill is equally problematic.

“It usually costs more, by a good amount, to repair a windmill than to buy a generator,” says Baker, and Lisk cites the risks faced by the cowboys: “Windmills are dangerous to work on because you’re way up there in the air hanging off a tower that is usually covered in oil.”

But propane’s biggest pluses are played out when the generators, such as Generac’s EcoGen, are compared to diesel, which has long been the primary pumping source on the range.

It is the nature of the beast that once you start a diesel generator it runs continuously until it runs out of fuel or sucks the well dry, which will cause the pump to fail. In ranch country, the wells tend to have differing flow levels, and they periodically need to recharge in accordance with the water table, making mayhem when the diesel engine keeps on chugging along.

“The water is trickling into the well at a certain rate,” says Lisk, “and we don’t want the generator to start when there’s no water. Folks are wearing out their submersible pumps early by letting them run out of fuel while the motor is electrically connected. In every circumstance, it’s taking lifespan off the pump and often the generator too.”

With propane and Lisk’s “electronic smart box” control system, if the fuel supply in the propane tank is consumed and reaches a low level, a signal to the controller will initiate a system shutdown. The pump will shut off immediately and the generator will warm down for one minute before powering down and not allowing a restart until the propane tank has been refilled and the system reset. This feature protects the generator and pump from the hazards of running out of fuel while the load or pump is electrically connected. Additional sensors monitor the water table level to cease operation when it falls too low.

“By starting and stopping the water pump, we can produce water in batches instead of a continuous flow,” says Lisk, also noting how the propane system prevents overfilling and water spilling – long another drawback of diesel.

According to a University of Arkansas study, lactating beef cattle require 20 gallons of water per day when the temperature hits 95 degrees. They drink less in the cooler fall, winter and spring months.

“The diesel generators cannot cycle on and off like the propane generator can,” Baker says. “The propane is able to cycle on and off many times a day. It does it in short bursts, and a diesel can’t do that. A diesel generator is running 100 percent of the time.”

The unit offers precise programming parameters, such as three minutes on and 13 minutes off.

“It produces more water using less fuel – and only when the water is needed,” Baker says. “It prolongs the life of the pump because the water table surrounding the pump is always full because of the on-off cycles.”

Another knock on diesel is the soil and water contamination that can occur if the fueling configuration develops a leak. And because some pastures are used only in the summer, a stored supply of diesel is subject to deterioration.

“Diesel has a limited shelf life, especially in the winter,” Lisk says. “The propane can sit there all winter. Propane is our fuel; natural gas is not convenient.”

Reining in travel time

Perhaps the most appealing aspect of the propane system is its time-saving ability. Cowboys in the Old West were often accompanied by “Cookie” and a chuck wagon because their tasks took days on end to accomplish over such vast territories. Even in a modern motorized vehicle, tending to a diesel system amounts to an endless array of frequent and far journeys.

“They would make a trip out there once a week, or maybe every couple of days, just to bring fuel. We’re talking 50 miles of dirt road one way just to get to them,” says Lisk, referring to the now-outmoded days of diesel.

He describes this scene while taking a cellular phone call: “I’m standing in New Mexico, looking into Texas. It’s 100 miles to the closest town. There’s nothing but a few cowboys and some water wells.”

At a customer’s 175-square-mile ranch, “they’d have the ranch hand just driving around fueling diesel generators that support pumps at wells all day, and then he’d do it the next day. Now they don’t have to do that anymore,” Lisk says. “The ranchers still have to make rounds to check on cattle, but they’re not running around filling up fuel tanks. They look at the tank and it’s full, and then they jump into their truck and go do something else.”

“These are big ranches,” Baker says. “These are incredibly remote locations where it can take a couple of hours to drive to, and the rancher can only take as much diesel fuel as he can carry on his pickup truck.”

With Pinnacle now on the account, “if you take a propane truck out there, we can carry a vast amount of fuel,” Baker adds. “We can do propane every month or two months, and we can monitor what’s going on out there. To heighten the service, the propane provider can do the monitoring and address it without the rancher having to interface with the process at all.”

Lisk’s remote controller unit has options that include automatically placing calls to up to seven phone numbers if anything goes awry. Messages are sent out once an hour over a three-hour duration to ensure that the rancher, cowboy or propane dealer responds in a timely manner.

“We have alarms or alerts that call when the propane gets down to 30 percent or if there’s a fault condition such as a tripped breaker or other fault condition,” Lisk says.

Lassoing sales

Don Bogle, a rancher in New Mexico, is so impressed with his RWS system that he contacted the U.S. Department of Agriculture just to relay his enthusiasm, saying that the unit “is working flawlessly” and saving time and money. He plans to buy more of them.

“The Well Watchman system is cost-efficient, clean and environmentally friendly, and significantly reduces costs for private and/or commercial water supply,” says New Mexico Lt. Gov. John A. Sanchez, who has reviewed the equipment.

New Mexico State University is considering the technology for its innovative test ranch.

The U.S. Forest Service Tonto Basin Ranger District in Arizona purchased an RWS system with the “solar assist” option that runs via sun by day and burns propane at night to supply 350 remote campsites with adequate water for drinking, showers and toilets.

“I’ve not had to spend my time up there keeping it operating, and I can view everything I need to know on the screen at the controller,” says Doug Winn, Tonto’s water operator, noting that the facility’s propane load is significantly higher during the summer vacation months.

“We’re looking at working with some of the Native American reservations out here,” says Lisk, noting that up to 50 systems may be installed if all goes according to plan. “The technology is being very well received. On some of these reservations, there are still people without electricity or other utilities.”

“I’ve been on frac water wells and seen these in operation,” Baker adds.

These applications, although temporary in nature, can require about 4,000 to 5,000 gallons of propane over a couple of months.

Back out on the range, Lisk’s marketing scenario may sound familiar to those in the propane industry.

“The younger ranchers will give us a chance; the older ones are a little tougher,” he says.

“Typically the older ranchers are pretty stubborn to new ideas. We’re hearing this over and over again from the older ranchers: ‘I’m going to do things just the way my daddy and grandpa did.’ And then they’ll get into their pickup truck with power seats, air conditioning and a cell phone. Well, their grandpa didn’t have air conditioning and cell phones,” Lisk adds. “When we hear that, we know we have a tough challenge – but once you sell them a system, everything changes.”

While the focus thus far has remained mostly out west, applications elsewhere in the country, with opportunities in the East, are being sought.

“It’s all about pumping water with propane,” says Osgood, a propane industry consultant. “It was created to take advantage of propane sitting there and ready to go at anytime.”

Comments are currently closed.