Factory-built, propane-fueled bobtail now a reality

October 8, 2012 By    

Freeman Gas delivers much of its propane to residential customers in mountainous regions of the Southeast. Roads are steep. Driveways are tight. Maneuverability is a must.

To overcome these geographical challenges, the company runs bobtails that allow for a tight turning radius – a crucial feature, says Larry Shehan, veteran fleet manager for the large third-generation marketer, based in Spartanburg, S.C.

“In some areas, we drive down to the location and turn around to make the delivery,” says Shehan, who oversees a fleet of 75 bobtails.

Most of Freeman Gas’ deliveries over the past 10 years have come on a Freightliner diesel chassis.

“The truck is good on turning radius and has really good visibility out of the cab,” he adds. “It’s more like a truck driver’s truck, with an air-ride seat, a beefy suspension, the feel of the steering. It’s more in line with an over-the-road truck.”

While the company runs most of its fleet on diesel, it has converted vehicles to run on propane in the past and currently operates six GMC bobtails on a liquid propane injection system with the help of alternative fuel equipment manufacturer CleanFuel USA. Shehan has even converted his company vehicle, a Toyota pickup, to run on propane.

“Years ago, when I came to work for Freeman, we had a lot of vehicles on propane,” says Shehan, a 20-year employee. “All were conversions, and the problem with conversions at that time was they really didn’t have a lot of power in the truck, and on a cold morning it was hard to start. We had trucks down across the fleet.”

With better propane conversion technology and newer vehicles, those start-up problems don’t exist as much today, Shehan says.

The propane vehicles are comparable in power to gasoline and diesel, cheaper to fuel and cleaner for the environment.

Having such a history with autogas technology, Freeman Gas was interested to hear about a popular autogas project set for launch early next year: the first factory-built propane-fueled bobtail, built by Freightliner Custom Chassis Corp. The manufacturer says its S2G propane chassis will retain many of the same cab features, such as the turning radius that Shehan likes, of its diesel-powered models.

“The truck comes out of the factory ready for use with propane. Any problems will be addressed before it gets to the end user,” Shehan says. “The propane industry running our trucks on it is a no-brainer.”

Freeman Gas toured Freightliner’s plant in Gaffney, S.C., a 20-mile drive from Spartanburg, viewed a prototype truck and offered suggestions for the vehicle. While the propane marketer hasn’t committed to buying any trucks just yet, it will have another option to consider when it begins planning for changes in its fleet next spring.

Project parameters

The conversation began at the Propane Education & Research Council (PERC), originating in the former engine fuels advisory committee, and came to fruition in 2010 when the council approved $2 million to help certify a Freightliner chassis and a propane-fueled 8-liter General Motors engine for use in propane bobtails and school buses. It was a big step in a $15 million engine fuels project – $5 million from PERC – that included the planned development of an off-road terminal truck and an engine for the agricultural market.

The idea of a propane-fueled bobtail hitting the roads for customer destinations has been gaining the industry’s immediate attention. According to LP Gas’ Propane 101 handbook from 2007, the industry operates more than 35,000 bobtails, which are fueled mainly by diesel. But a partnership between PERC, Freightliner, Powertrain Integration and CleanFuel USA has made the industry’s first propane commercial chassis built by an OEM truck manufacturer a reality.

“Propane-powered trucks are not new to the industry, but what we’re doing is providing a complete factory-installed, warranty-supported [product]. This is not a conversion,” says Bryan Henke, manager of product marketing for Freightliner. “Customers will get the service and support from Freightliner dealers around the country 24/7.”

PERC is calling the 8-liter LPG engine chassis from Freightliner its top priority in autogas because it can enter multiple large markets and provide propane marketers with a propane-fueled bobtail. The project was borne out of the need to replace the General Motors 8.1-liter engine for the medium-duty truck market. The 8.1-liter gave propane a place in school transportation with Blue Bird, but it was phased out of production in 2009.

“We were intent on finding an engine that would replace, upgrade and fulfill the need in school transportation and other markets,” says Michael Taylor, director of autogas business development for PERC and a former fleet director for Heritage Propane.

The Ford 6.8-liter engine filled that void with Blue Bird, but in the middle of that search came another opportunity with the General Motors 8-liter engine, which will also power Type C school buses from Thomas Built.

“We have made significant inroads in school transportation,” Taylor adds. “We felt not having an engine in school buses was unacceptable. We now have the Roush Ford 6.8 liter, which is available in the Blue Bird Vision, and we’ll have the Freightliner GM 8.0 liter in the Thomas Saf-T-Liner in the first quarter of 2013.”

Hitting the road

The Freightliner S2G propane commercial chassis is scheduled for full production at the company’s Gaffney, S.C., factory early next year and certified for the U.S. and Canadian markets. A limited amount of pre-production units will hit the road late this year for monitoring purposes, project officials say. Propane marketers will be able to place orders late this year through their Freightliner and commercial truck dealers, and some bobtail body manufacturers, according to project officials.

Freightliner says demand for the propane-fueled bobtail is high, based on the response at industry shows earlier this year. According to project information from PERC, annual sales volume estimates for the school bus and bobtail markets are 1,000 units each, with annual, high-side estimates at 1,500 units for each platform. The sales price for the propane bobtail was not disclosed, though it is expected to be more than the diesel vehicle.

“I’m definitely a proponent of autogas and would like to see something like this,” says Dave Marcotte, business manager at Alliance AutoGas member Champagne Energy in Arundel, Maine. “In the past, everybody was hung up on the difficulty we had operating propane-powered equipment in the winter. Even my boss was very apprehensive of autogas when it first came out because of the negative experience we had in the early years. But his personal vehicle now runs on autogas.”

In older vehicle technology starting in the 1970s, fuel was introduced into the engine as a vapor, while current technology features electronic fuel injection, with propane entering the manifold as a liquid, Taylor says. The latest technology allows propane engines to maintain the same horsepower and torque as its fueling counterparts, making the vehicles more dependable, he adds. The S2G engine features 325 horsepower.

“Today’s engines are purpose built; they have components that are designed specifically for gaseous fuel applications,” Taylor says. “Customers are seeing good performance, reliability and durability. This is not your granddaddy’s propane engine.”

Coming together

The engine assembly and fuel system in the Freightliner chassis will fit in applications up to a 33,000-pound gross vehicle weight rating, and Taylor says a 3,000-gallon propane barrel will fit comfortably for a bobtail. A 60-gallon propane fuel tank is located on the passenger side of the truck, extending past the cab.

According to project information from PERC, the combined applications (bobtails and school buses) could consume 5.5 million gallons of propane per year at conservative estimates (2.5 million from the school buses) and 15 million gallons at extreme, high-side estimates.

Taylor cites several key selling points for the propane marketer utilizing the chassis as a bobtail: the cost to operate will be substantially less than a diesel-powered vehicle; warranty and maintenance issues will be minimal compared to the diesel engine; and costly requirements like anti-idling and regeneration on new diesel emissions technology will be avoided.

While the selling points of the LPG chassis appear aplenty, perhaps the biggest obstacle is the perception by some who still question propane’s reliability as an engine fuel.

“I hear it frequently – been there, done that; won’t work then, won’t work now,” Taylor says. “For those guys, I just say thank you for your feedback and I look to the early adopters and advocates because they are the companies who will get this project off the ground and ensure our success. I truly believe anyone who has concerns will follow the move to propane autogas soon.”

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About the Author:

Brian Richesson is the editor in chief of LP Gas Magazine. Contact him at brichesson@northcoastmedia.net or 216-706-3748.

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