National Autogas Day: Clean, Propane School Buses Gain Popularity Among USA School Districts

(September 27, 2019) — As the country celebrates National Autogas Day, Butane-Propane News (BPN) recognizes school districts across the country that are replacing aging, polluting diesel buses with clean, cost-effective propane autogas buses. The Propane Education & Research Council (PERC) reports there are nearly 13,000 propane school buses operating in 700 school districts. These buses transport more than 700,000 students across North America. Propane now makes up about 45% of all non-diesel school buses used for pupil transportation. That’s about 675 million gallons of propane being consumed over the lifetime of the existing buses on the road.

With more school districts looking to stretch budgets, save taxpayer dollars, and make “greener” choices, school districts increasingly are opting to upgrade to propane school buses as an efficient solution to meet these challenges.

One example is the Grain Valley School District in Missouri that found after evaluating alternative-fuel options that propane was the far superior choice in both environmental sustainability and fuel and maintenance cost savings. Over the years, Missouri state reimbursements for school transportation have dropped from 75 percent to 16 to 20 percent. School districts in the state, and across the nation, have had to tap their own general school funds to make up the shortfall.
Independence and Grain Valley MO school districts and others across USA upgrade to clean fuel propane school bus fleets to save money environment National Autogas Day Sept 27 2019 reports BPN the propane industry's trusted source for news and info since 1939
To help save money, the Grain Valley district considered alternative fuels for new school buses and evaluated both compressed natural gas (CNG) and propane autogas. District representatives attended an alternative fuels workshop hosted by Kansas City Regional Clean Cities, a Metropolitan Energy Center program. The district considered various fuels but “the vehicle costs and fueling station costs for CNG were much higher versus propane,” said Shawn Brady, director of transportation.

In 2018, the district decided to purchase 14 propane buses to replace diesel buses of 2001 and 2002 model years. Brady researched and applied for a grant from the U.S. Department of Energy through Kansas City Regional Clean Cities to assist with the purchase costs of the buses.

Preparing for Propane Autogas
To fuel the new buses, the district entered into a contract with their local propane provider, Ferrellgas. A fueling station with two 1,000-gallon tanks was built in the school district’s bus parking lot in April 2018. “It saves time not to have to travel to refuel,” Brady noted.

Infrastructure costs for propane are the lowest of any fuel; alternative or conventional. For Grain Valley schools, the start-up cost for the fueling station totaled $16,500. “We received a 45 percent grant from Metropolitan Energy Center for the installation of our propane fueling station,” Brady said. The center’s grant amounted to $7,425. “The fueling station cost us only $9,075 after the grant.”

Before putting the new buses on the district’s routes, drivers received training in propane bus operation. “Our bus vendor provided training on how to properly operate the buses and maximize fuel efficiency,” Brady said. The district’s technicians traveled to the bus manufacturer’s factory in Tulsa, Oklahoma, for a complimentary week-long training course on maintenance. The district didn’t need to make changes to its bus repair facility. Requirements for a propane vehicle service facility are generally the same as those for conventionally fueled vehicles.

Financial Benefits
After tapping grants for purchase assistance, each new bus cost about $250 more than a comparable diesel bus. District officials say that the higher initial cost can be quickly recouped in fuel savings.

In fact, by adding propane buses to its fleet, Grain Valley School District has noted savings on both fuel and maintenance. On average, propane autogas costs up to 50 percent less than diesel. As part of its negotiated contract, Grain Valley paid a locked-in rate of $1.20 per gallon of propane in 2018-1019. For the 2019-2020 school year, the district pays $1.15 per gallon. For comparison, the district pays $2.31 per gallon on average for diesel.

Each bus in the district runs about 9,000 miles per year. For the 2018-2019 school year, fuel savings amounted to about $14,500. “The district’s increased savings year after year will allow the transportation department to serve as a better steward of taxpayer money,” said Brady.

Additional savings come from the reduced maintenance. With propane autogas, no exhaust after-treatment or diesel emissions fluids are required like with diesel to meet today’s strict emissions regulations. Propane vehicles don’t need particulate trap systems, turbochargers and intercoolers. Plus, propane uses less engine oil. All these factors contribute to the overall savings of time and money. The district’s technicians like the propane buses, Brady reports. “There are fewer parts and systems to have to maintain.”
However, Brady explained that “warranty work is challenging with no established shop in Kansas City.” He noted that IC does provide a traveling technician who assists his staff when they encounter maintenance issues. Kansas City Regional Clean Cities recommends fleet managers ensure that there is a local service shop to do warranty and continuing work on buses before purchasing.

Even more saving shows up for the district in the winter. Due to the chemical properties of propane autogas, the propane buses warm up faster and have no cold start issues. Unlike diesel vehicles, these buses can start up in temperatures as low as -40 degrees Fahrenheit. School districts report lower electric costs because the propane buses don’t rely on block heaters. “Our propane buses warmed up faster this past winter than the diesel buses,” Brady said.

Beyond the Bottom Line 
Grain Valley’s propane buses are helping the community’s air quality. Unlike diesel buses, propane vehicles emit virtually no particulate matter and, with substantially less nitrogen oxides (NOx). Buses fueled by propane also emit fewer greenhouse gases and total hydrocarbon emissions when compared to diesel buses. Propane’s quiet operation makes riding the bus more pleasant for passengers and safer for drivers, who are less distracted by engine noise. “We’ve benefitted from much cleaner air and much quieter buses running through neighborhoods,” said Brady.

Drivers also report that the propane dispenser pumps are just as fast or faster than the diesel fuel pump when it’s time to fill the tank. The district notes that it will be sure to order buses with 100-gallon fuel tanks going forward. “These were not available from IC when we placed our first order,” Brady said.

The district’s leadership in adopting an alternative fuel earned it a 2018 Agent of Change Award from the Metropolitan Energy Center, a Kansas City nonprofit catalyst for energy efficiency, economic development and environmental vitality.

The district’s plan to purchase seven more propane buses this year, and eventually move to an all-propane fleet, speaks to the administration’s belief in the benefits of this alternative fuel for their students, drivers and overall community.

“Our district made the decision on propane buses to save money. The environmental impact is an added benefit. There’s no reason to not make the move into propane now,” Brady said.

Highlighting the environmental and economic sustainability as well as the safety of propane as a clean, alternative fuel is key to converting school districts into propane customers. An “In-Use Emissions and Performance Testing of Propane-Fueled Engines,” was commissioned by the Propane Education & Research Council (PERC). A link to the study, together with other information about propane autogas school buses, can be found on PERC’s website at propane.com/propane-products/buses/.

(Source: Case Study: School District’s Propane Buses Go Beyond Cost Savings; September 20, 2019 in Kansas City Clean Cities, News, Kelly Gilbert, Metropolitan Energy Center, Missouri Propane Education & Research Council (MOPERC) Missouri
Vehicles: (14) 2018 IC Bus CE Series propane autogas-fueled buses
 Fueling: On-site propane autogas station (Ferrellgas)