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Larry Thomas

Natural gas fleet benefits touted

ATLANTA - Although converting a portion of their diesel truck fleet to natural gas has presented unexpected challenges, participants in a pilot program in Wisconsin told a logistics conference here that natural gas powered 18-wheelers clearly have long-term benefits.
     Speaking during a panel discussion at the Council of Supply Chain Management Professionals global conference, logistics and transportation executives involved with the program said they are pleased with the initial results, but said more research needs to be done regarding engine maintenance issues they have experienced.
     "Natural gas is a fantastic component to our sustainability story," said Lance Whitacre, vice president of order management and logistics at Andersen Windows, a Wisconsin-based producer of replacement windows and doors. "We've had lower fuel costs and reduced price volatility."
     The pilot program involved converting seven diesel trucks used for Andersen's short-haul routes - generally 400 to 500 miles per day. The trucks, which are leased from Dart Transit, now run on compressed natural gas (CNG), which sells for roughly half the price of diesel fuel.
     In addition to slashing fuel costs, Whitacre said the CNGpowered trucks have reduced emissions by more than 30%, and are supporting jobs in North America since the U.S. and Canada have plentiful natural gas supplies.
     The biggest drawback, according to Whitacre and David Oren, president of Dart Transit, has been higher-than-expected maintenance costs.
     "We're not where we need to be ... but we know that this works," Whitacre said of the CNG program.
     Oren told the audience that since the conversions were made last year, maintenance costs are running at an annual rate of $40,000 per truck. That's largely because oil for the CNG engines must be changed every 15,000 miles (versus 25,000 miles for diesel engines), and sparkplugs must be changed regularly - something never needed for diesel engines because they don't have sparkplugs.
     Plus, two of the trucks have experienced ignition failures and several others have had manifold problems - all of which have resulted in increased downtime, Oren said.
     "It has been a challenging startup," he said. "The maintenance costs have been considerable."
     Oren said Dart believes the costs of converting to natural gas engines will be recovered in about 2.1 years - well above the expected payback period of 1.3 years - but is still supportive of the program because he believes maintenance issues will decrease once more mechanics become familiar with CNG engines.
     Plus, the introduction of an 11.9-liter engine next year (most 18-wheelers now have 8.9-liter engines) also will benefit CNG conversions, he said.
     "The maintenance is bound to get better when (other trucking companies) start working on the engines," Oren said. "And I do think the 11.9-liter engine will take care of a lot of these maintenance problems."
     Whitacre said one issue that was expected to be problematic - the time it takes to fuel the CNG engines - has not been a major concern.
     "The dispensing speed has been absolutely fantastic," he told the group. "And we all know that the speed of fueling is critical."
     Whitacre credited U.S. Oil, with whom Dart and Anderson partnered to build the necessary CNG fueling stations, with making refueling a relatively quick and painless process.
     Michael Koel, a U.S. Oil vice president who also was on the panel, said his company currently supports about 500 CNG fueling stations and plans to build about 30 turn-key stations of its own in the Midwest in the next three years.
     "For us, North American fuel is a game-changer," Koel said of his company's interest in natural gas. "Before we build a fueling station, we need to have a major customer commit to using it, and based on the talks we've had, I don't think we'll have any problem (finding support for) 30 of them. It wouldn't surprise me if we end up building more than 30."

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