Green Operations

How to Maximize Fuel Efficiency

January 2008, Green Fleet Magazine - Feature

by Joe Bohn

Persistently high fuel prices have many fleet operators redoubling their efforts to cut costs. Their various efforts range from "right-sizing" — and even reducing — their fleet size, to speedier shifts to alternative-fuel vehicles and increased driver education regarding fuel conservation.

Overall, the rate of change promises to significantly impact the industry and its vehicle composition for the foreseeable future.

‘Right-Sizing’ Trucks to Particular Applications

Richland County, S.C., and Center-Point Energy, Houston, are just two of many fleets right-sizing trucks to better fit particular job applications.

As Bill Peters, fleet manager for Richland County, points out, "It’s hard to downsize the work truck, especially if that truck size is needed in the first place."

But during the growth of the county’s fleet — a time when fuel prices were more reasonable — some employees were inclined to order a truck or "more truck" than they really needed "simply because they could," Peters adds.

Richland County now closely scrutinizes whether employees really need big SUVs, for example, and has found Ford’s Escape Hybrid is at least one alternative.

The fleet’s supervisors have also started buying Ford F-150s, rather than F-250 Extended and Regular Cab models, because "they really don’t need to carry as much going from crew to crew," Peters notes.

Richland County is also seeking to eliminate some trucks by using others more efficiently. Within the past year, the county has begun using Ford F-350 Crew Cabs, for example, to transport all workers and their equipment to a particular job site at one time, rather than having two or three trucks make separate trips.

"We’re still checking the effectiveness of it, but I like it so far," Peters concludes.

Meanwhile, CenterPoint Energy is also downsizing its vehicles, closely evaluating the "needs of the job" and what operators "have to have," rather than "what they want," says Edward Sparks, fleet and shop services manager.

That’s also led to replacing Ford F-150s with Escapes and Rangers, for example, and being more receptive to other brands and powertrain configurations.

"We used to be a Ford fleet, chiefly operating F-series models because they offered that company’s best truck quality," Sparks adds.

Now, as CenterPoint Energy seeks to right-size its company fleet, managers are open to considering other makes, such as Chevy, Dodge, and even Suzuki.

That openness is also true as the company seeks out new fuel-saving technology, such as variable displacement engine trucks for rural areas of Oklahoma, Arkansas, Mississippi, and Louisiana, to name a few. For this application, it has been evaluating Dodge and Chevrolet models.

In its underground service trucks, CenterPoint Energy has also installed a slow battery charger and Honda generator to power auxiliary equipment, such as strobe lights, rather than using the truck’s large engine for the extra power.

The generator provides enough power to operate the slow battery charger, as well as other tools and equipment. The system eliminates the need to idle the truck engine while crews are working in underground vaults. CenterPoint Energy currently operates 12 of these units.

A number of the company’s bucket trucks also use a 29-hp four-cylinder Kubota diesel auxiliary power unit (APU) to power the aerial device and all the essential accessories for crews to perform their jobs safely — again saving fuel cost and wear-and-tear of running the truck engine, according to Rick Hackstedt, fleet and shop services manager.

Sparks and Hackstedt handle different geographic areas of the company’s 6,000-vehicle fleet operation and also rely on GE Capital Solution Fleet Services for maintenance assistance.

Meanwhile, the city of Flagstaff, Ariz., has also been conducting utilization studies — targeting and eliminating underused vehicles. In addition, it has been switching from gasoline to diesel-powered trucks in Class 2-4 vehicles and replacing full-size pickups and SUVs with hybrid models, according to Jim Brohamer, fleet manager superintendent.

Over the past year, the city also began replacing ¾-ton, 1-ton, and medium-duty gasoline engine trucks with diesels, after its records indicated that the latter provided 13-15 mpg versus 7-8 mpg for the gasoline engine models, Brohamer says.

Since 2003, Flagstaff has been operating all its diesel engine trucks — currently about 300— on biodiesel fuel.

However, with the requirement to use ultra-low sulfur diesel fuel, the city ran into a snag using B-20 due to the lack of available winter blend (kerosene mixed with diesel) in its locale, required from October to April. "Until that’s resolved, we’re using B-5 rated biodiesel," Brohamer adds.

Flagstaff, with a 609-unit fleet, has also been aggressively downsizing and moving into more fuel-efficient hybrids. Full-size pickups and SUVs have been replaced with Ford Escape Hybrids, for example. The fleet now includes 15 hybrid light-duty models with five more on order.

"We’re identifying candidates for hybrids everywhere we can," says Brohamer.

Among other measures, in July the city will also require vendors, as part of their specs, to provide EPA ratings "so we can include the most efficient available vehicles," Brohamer says.

Similarly, Maersk Inc., a Madison, N.J.-based intermodal cargo transporter and container shipping company, has removed all large SUVs with standard V-8 engines from its fleet. It also eliminated any high performance V-6 engine models. This step improved average mileage to 15.5 mpg from a previous 13 mpg, with a savings of $2,481 per vehicle over a two-year period, according to Hans Sorensen, fleet director.

At the beginning of the 2007 model-year, Maersk also identified drivers living in highly congested traffic areas. These drivers were offered a specific hybrid at no additional cost.

While the up-front acquisition fee was a $3,500 premium, the company estimated savings over a 48-month/80,000-mile period would net a cost reduction in fuel expenses (based on $2.50/gallon) of $4,300 for the 25 vehicles used in the pilot program. The net cost savings (all-inclusive fuel, lease, resale, and operating costs) were estimated at $3,400 per vehicle.

Additionally, drivers who fuel with anything other than regular unleaded are sent reminders of the company’s policy. Posted on the company Intranet, a link allows drivers to input a zip code and find the lowest cost per gallon on fuel.

In its operational fleet at APM terminals, an independent operator serving global ship line containers, runs terminal pickup trucks with an automatic idle shutdown system set at 10 minutes. The idling control also applies to yard tractors (UTRs), top picks, reach stackers, and empty handlers with electronically controlled diesel engines.

The terminal pickup trucks and gasoline-powered pickups in the yard have 25-mph speed governors. (Diesel equipment is already limited to 25 mph). This control was accomplished by a modified engine control computer that electronically limits vehicle speed.

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