Checking Out the Different Fuel Options for Your Work Trucks

Straight diesel and gasoline engines are no longer the only way to go for your fleet of trucks. But are they still the smartest answer?

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The vast majority of vocational trucks serving the plumbing industry are driven by gasoline. However, alternative power sources — natural gas, propane, hybrid and fully electric — may offer advantages to your operation.

Why should you consider alternative fuels?

  1. Proper specification for your application
  2. Fuel and maintenance savings
  3. Emissions
  4. Promoting a “green” image

When specifying a truck, selection criteria are determined by many factors including annual mileage, terrain, elevation, gross weight, governmental regulation, PTO selection, driver retention, maintenance, fuel availability and marketing goals.

STARTING THE PROCESS

The various fuel types do not work well in all applications. An in-depth analysis of your operations — truck by truck, route by route — and a description of the makeup of your fleet is the starting point for considering alternative fuels. Compile data including mileage, PTO hours, fuel costs and maintenance costs per truck. Operational concerns such as terrain, weather and range per day are selection factors. In addition, the company’s goals and objectives are helpful in determining the specification.
Let’s use a hypothetical roster of equipment for a plumbing company with four gasoline trucks:

This company operates in northern Georgia. Their office is at 750 feet above sea level, but they service some customers in the mountains with elevations up to 2,500 feet, so terrain is hilly. The F-250s and 350s are on job sites regularly. The F-350s also tow trailers for equipment and supplies.

Georgia does not have any incentives for alternative fuels. Alternative fueling stations are not common in the area of operation.

There are two company goals: reduce costs and to cultivate a green image by having an alternatively powered green truck. An analysis of this fleet shows some potential for alternative power plants. Let’s look at the options:

Natural gas

Natural gas has been powering trucks for approximately 20 years and comes in two forms: compressed (CNG) and liquid (LNG). CNG is compressed to 150 PSI for storage. LNG is refrigerated to 294 degrees below zero for storage. It is available for classes 3-8.

Strengths: Extremely clean burning, fuel costs are low, good power curves, can be government subsidized, and LNG offers good range

Weakness: Requires specialized maintenance and fueling facilities, CNG has limited range and large fuel tank requirements, and LNG has fuel-handling safety concerns (due to cold) and fuel loss due to evaporation

CNG works well in applications that are predictable (route driven) and an economy of scale can be achieved with enough units. CNG has gained acceptance in the municipal solid waste segment (trash) and in the government segment. LNG works well for over-the-road applications provided fueling is planned and predictable.

Propane

Propane has been powering trucks for more than 50 years and is readily available. Propane has characteristics similar to gasoline, but it burns cleaner. It is available for classes 3-7 trucks.

Strengths: Readily available fueling stations, simple and reliable catalyst-based emissions system, maintenance, ultraclean burn, and can have governmental subsidies

Weaknesses: Different power curve requires higher rpm to generate torque, mpg is less, more frequent maintenance intervals, limited PTO applications, and minor fueling issues (pressurized to 60 psi) and some cold weather issues

Propane works well in applications similar to gasoline and can be considered a gasoline substitute. Acquisition cost is slightly higher but not significantly higher. Propane has the greatest penetration into a distribution market (propane bobtail tank trucks).

Hybrid electric

Hybrid technologies have been used in heavy-haul applications since the 1950s. Options are available in classes 3-8 trucks.

Strengths: Powerful and versatile, clean operation, and government subsidies

Weaknesses: Acquisition expense, PTO issues, and tare weight issues

The best example of a heavy-haul hybrid vehicle is a locomotive. The diesel engine powers a generator that provides propulsion to the wheels. There are some examples of this type of propulsion in the trucking industry. Wrightspeed.com has introduced a technology in the refuse industry with some success. No great penetration of any market has been gained by hybrid vehicles.

Electric

Electricity has been powering a small number of vehicles for more than 75 years.

Strengths: Powerful and versatile, clean operation, simplified maintenance, and governmental subsides

Weaknesses: Range, acquisition expense, lack of availability, PTO issues, and tare weight issues

While there are currently fully electric passenger cars, there are no viable electric vehicles operating in the commercial market. Many prototypes are in development and being tested. The greatest problem with electric vehicles is energy storage capacity. Current battery technology is not practically viable for fully electric commercial vehicles.

FLEET QUESTIONS

How does this apply to our example company? Reviewing the data provided shows some alternative power plant options.

The pickups are best served by gasoline. All run in the higher mileage/hour range and need the power of gasoline to work most effectively. Natural gas would work for these applications, but the acquisition cost and fueling issues detract from that option. Propane is an option for the pickups, but the mileage might lead to an increase in fuel costs.

This article is not designed to give you clear answers, but to offer a guideline to frame your truck power plant options. In a future article, I will discuss the missing alternative fuel: biodiesel.



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