Capturing More Gallons Year-Round With Autogas!

Over the past few decades, new propane liquid injection systems and other technological advancements have helped revitalize propane autogas’ performance, and improved its reputation, as a clean, alternative fuel option for vehicles—public and private fleets, school buses, and other transportation sectors.
Seminar Autogas Preferred Clean Fuel For USA FleetsThere has never been more opportunity for propane marketers who want to grow their gallon delivery and enjoy year-round revenue than by securing autogas accounts. This starts with propane marketers converting their own vehicles so prospective clients will see firsthand how well vehicles run on autogas.

With major advancements in vehicle propane technology; cultural shifts toward environmental stewardship; financial incentives for clean, alternative fuel and vehicles; and propane autogas market development groups such as United Propane Autogas Solutions (UPAS) eager to help marketers seamlessly facilitate autogas utilization by fleets, the process of converting fleets to propane autogas can be a positive and lucrative one.

With local, state, and federal legislators passing stricter environmental standards, including reductions in vehicle emissions and displacement of gasoline and diesel vehicles with cleaner, less-polluting fuel options, propane autogas is a formidable competitor when it comes to cutting operating expenses and significantly reducing vehicle emissions.

During their presentation at the 2019 NPGA Southeastern Convention in Atlanta, Dudley Westlake, executive director of the UPAS Group, and David Griffin, autogas fleet development specialist with ICOM Alternative Fuel Systems, told the audience that the challenge to capturing this market is twofold.

First, one concern that some propane marketers have historically held is that autogas just wasn’t for them. It meant learning to support their own fleets with a new fuel and also it required upgrading their refueling stations for a higher volume pumping station that is required to make autogas fueling times competitive with unleaded gasoline or diesel. There is also an educational component. Propane marketers may not be aware of what it really means to “grow gallons year-round” that occurs by capturing this new, 12-month-demand gallon growth since fleets operate throughout the year.

Second, a better job must be done by all autogas stakeholders to identify and educate the right fleet owners, managers, and other vehicle operation stakeholders about the significant cost, performance, and environmental benefits that propane autogas provides to make it the most economical and convenient alternative fuel option. With the right vehicles selected and under appropriate use/applications, propane absolutely provides the best return on investment.

Addressing the first challenge, with what facts can autogas overcome the cultural barriers inherent in a predominantly gasoline/diesel transportation sector? Propane is nontoxic, has low or near-zero emissions, and is much less hazardous to health than emissions from gasoline or diesel. According to David Griffin of ICOM, propane is the only clean, alternative fuel to be recognized by the American Lung Association as a Clean Air Choice. Propane is less expensive and outperforms gasoline, diesel, and electric in nearly every category. Autogas infrastructure is 10 times less expensive to install than CNG; autogas reduces maintenance needs; autogas vehicles run quieter and cleaner than diesel or gas; vehicles start immediately in cold weather; and, perhaps most important to fleet managers, propane vehicles provide a much lower total cost-of-ownership than any other alternative fuel option.

To address the second challenge, UPAS’s Dudley Westlake made the case that although multiple alternative fuel options are available, it doesn’t need to be a zero-sum game that pits one fuel against another. He stressed that propane marketers must focus on the fleets where autogas does provide the best solution. “There’s a role for CNG, there’s a role for electric, especially smaller vehicles, and electric hybrids, and there is definitely a role for propane,” Westlake said. With OEM engines getting smaller with higher compression ratios, the approximately 105 octane rating of autogas is the fuel of choice for many engines according to a recent research paper by Southwest Research Labs.

The key, Westlake explained, is to identify and focus on those fleet opportunities where autogas undoubtedly provides the best fit: the low-hanging fruit such as public, private, and other fleets that offer the possibility of gallon growth. “Lots of sectors make sense for autogas,” said Griffin. He enthusiastically cited box trucks; moving vans; HVAC service fleets; paratransit, school, and shuttle buses; contractor vehicles; Amazon; FedEx; DHL; and myriad other public and private fleet possibilities. Westlake told the audience that out of 660,000 federal vehicles, only 135 run on propane.

Westlake shared with audience members a number of examples from ICOM clients in which propane autogas is considered the “fuel of choice.” One outstanding case in point includes the Texas Department of Transportation’s (DOT) decision to upgrade its F-150 and F-250 trucks to run bi-fuel, propane and gasoline. Texas officials shared the two main reasons why autogas is the fuel of choice for their fleets. One is supply security; “Like we see during a natural disaster or emergency situation, with Hurricane Harvey in Texas, gasoline and diesel distribution was disrupted, further crippling the affected area. However, propane supplies are always readily available and it’s also easily portable if needed, making it a critical source of power during a disaster; propane is never too far away.”

The second reason is fuel range; choosing to upgrade to a bi-fuel autogas/gasoline application provides Texas vehicles an extended fuel range of approximately 800 miles. In Texas, fuel range is important, especially when it comes to safety and security needs.

The cost savings realized in autogas refueling infrastructure also makes propane an attractive option. The propane industry needs to reevaluate that all too often when a marketer finally gets a fleet to go with propane, they install the refueling station “behind the fence” or on private property. Westlake emphasized that marketers must consider installing the refueling infrastructure in common areas that allow the anchor client to have convenient, 24/7 access, but also allow other propane vehicles to refuel there, as long as the drivers have undergone the proper safety training to receive key fob entry.

Griffin noted that just five years ago it was still illegal in many states to install a public propane refueling station. But, he pointed out, with the development of the Euro-Nozzle and the ability to comply with safety regulations by watching a fueling station video, many states have made public propane refueling stations acceptable. He has helped ICOM install four public refueling stations in North Carolina; three are anchored by paratransit fleets, two stations are located on propane company property, and one is on city property. Currently, Phoenix has five public stations, and the numbers are growing. The industry must seek opportunities to locate refueling stations in common locations that can be shared to assure fleet access when travelling beyond their normal home based routes.

One of many success stories shared during the lively discussion came from a Minnesota marketer who described how the Minnesota Propane Gas Association has been working with the State Fire Marshal to address Euro-Nozzle and other training requirements needed to make refueling stations public. Officials have now approved public autogas refueling stations with instructions posted on the dispenser. Minnesota marketers are working to add more credit card-operated dispensers along interstate corridors. We need to replicate this model across the United States, the marketer said.

Griffin reminded the audience that when diesel was first introduced, it wasn’t readily available at public fueling stations either. That took time as diesel use increased.

Both speakers were emphatic that the first low-hanging fruit marketers should consider is running their own company vehicles on propane autogas—especially if they are asking fleet owners and managers to consider autogas in their fleet vehicles. A member of the audience added, “don’t forget to advertise this fact on your vehicle—it’s a rolling billboard.” Plus, when marketers convert their own fleets, they’ve started selling propane at a great price while lowering their own operating costs.

The propane industry has the best product available. With the right vehicles and proper application, the benefits of autogas are clearly evident, offering the best return on investment. It is a matter of educating fleet owners and dispelling cultural bias toward gasoline, diesel, and electric. ICOM, UPAS, the Propane Education & Research Council (PERC), and many others are working hard to address these obstacles and assist marketers who want to add year-round gallon delivery by implementing a comprehensive, seamless transition for their autogas clients. — Andrea Young