Green Operations

Inside the Green Fleet Decision Process

May 2013, Green Fleet Magazine - Feature

by - Also by this author

Jason Ebert, GO Riteway’s fleet and facilities coordinator, stands next to the company’s new propane refueling station, which was funded entirely through a Clean Cities grant.
Jason Ebert, GO Riteway’s fleet and facilities coordinator, stands next to the company’s new propane refueling station, which was funded entirely through a Clean Cities grant.

To say that GO Riteway has a varied fleet is an understatement. The ground transportation company runs school buses, motor coaches, shuttle coaches, limo coaches, limousines, executive sedans, and vans out of nine locations to serve business travelers, tourists, students, and local residents.

So, in deciding to “go green,” choosing just one form of alternative power or fuel wasn’t necessarily right for the entire fleet. For Jason Ebert, fleet and facilities coordinator, the process took a hands-on vetting of vehicle choices based on job types, routes, operational concerns, and return on investments.

The path to a greener fleet started with the company’s strict no-idle policy for all fleet vehicles, from school buses to shuttle buses to executive sedans. “With that in mind, it just made sense to look at other ways to be green,” Ebert said. This mind set was compounded by the fact that southern Wisconsin has one of the worst air pollution problems in the nation. “We’re doing our part to cut down on the air quality problem we have in the Milwaukee area,” he said.

The Grant Equation

GO Riteway purchased four new Thomas Built school buses with Eaton Corp. hybrid systems and Freightliner Custom Chassis. The company paid $85,000 each for the buses and $75,000 for each hybrid unit. This time, however, the company got a Wisconsin Clean Cities grant, which covered the entire cost of the hybrid conversions.

Ebert said the grants process is not prohibitive, as long as fleets follow Clean Cities’ guidelines, checklists, and documentation requirements. The wait for funds is usually 30 to 60 days after submitting the application. After acquiring the vehicles, the fleet is required to report on its mileage, fuel economy, and operational aspects on a regular basis.

“We’re seeing a 10- to 20-percent increase in fuel economy on those buses,” with savings varying greatly by route and driver, Ebert said. He added that he has seen an even greater increase in drivers who “make a game of it” by driving in a way that keeps the electric motor on as long as possible before the diesel engine kicks in.

In terms of driver acceptance, Ebert said drivers like how the hybrid school buses ride and they like the air brakes, though some have mentioned that the brakes are a little slower from a dead stop than conventional diesel models.

An additional 12 Thomas Built Hybrid school buses were delivered in August 2012, as well as two International school buses with Eaton hybrid systems in January 2013.

Ebert said he has investigated the new all-electric school bus — the Newton e-trans out on the market — though with its non-standard configuration he has concerns about whether it meets Wisconsin’s state statutes for school bus regulations.

In addition, GO Riteway operates two Chevrolet Volts, which are primarily used by the company’s outside sales staff, according to Ebert. The Volts achieve 150 to 200 mpg. The company also has two stage two charging stations in place, allowing vehicles to charge in approximately four hours.

Considering Propane Autogas

In 2010, GO Riteway purchased a company that specialized in airport shuttle transportation. This company had begun the process of switching some vans to propane autogas through grants from Wisconsin Clean Cities.

When the company changed hands, Ebert picked up the ball and investigated compressed natural gas (CNG). He decided CNG wasn’t a fit for his particular fleet. “In talking to other people in the industry, we found that CNG seemed to be a little heavier on repairs and maintenance; a lot of that has to do with the pressurization of the system compared to propane autogas,” he said. Another issue was the reduced storage created by the larger fuel tank needed to produce a similar range.

The company went with propane autogas. Ebert bought 21 used Ford E-350 passenger vans and retrofitted them with ROUSH CleanTech propane autogas systems. The conversion kits ran about $11,000 and were completely covered by a Clean Cities grant.

On the conversion, the factory-installed gas tanks are simply swapped out for propane autogas tanks. The new tank holds 35 gallons with room for 27 gallons of propane autogas; the remaining 20 percent is left for the gas to expand. “Looking at our shuttles, you wouldn’t know they use propane autogas instead of gasoline,” he said. Ebert claims a range of 270 to 300 miles per propane autogas tank compared to 350 miles on standard gasoline.

The kit installation process started with a visit from ROUSH technicians, who took one full day to train GO Riteway’s mechanics. ROUSH returned the following day to observe an installation, and after that, the mechanics were on their own. They now install each kit in less than six hours and are certified to do warranty work on the ROUSH system.

As well, Ebert took on the task of installing a propane-autogas fueling station. While he had choices of national suppliers for his propane autogas, he went with a local vendor, Boehlke Bottled Gas. Ebert said Boehlke beat the big guys on price by a couple cents per gallon, but the real benefit was how Boehlke helped him through the permitting process and worked with the contractor and electrician on site. While they had to scrap their original fueling site for parking considerations, the installation took less than four months. The project cost about $90,000, and was again completely funded through a Clean Cities grant.

With the grants, the ROI is almost immediate, Ebert said, along with savings moving forward because of the lower cost of propane autogas versus gasoline. Ebert also pointed out further savings by elongating oil change intervals (from 5,000 to 7,000 miles) as a result of burning a cleaner fuel. “That ROI adds up in a hurry, especially when we’re putting around 100,000 miles on each vehicle a year,” he said, expecting a 500,000-mile lifespan.

Ebert also added 10 more propane-autogas-powered shuttles in December 2012, and the following month in January 2013, five more propane autogas-powered school buses became new additions to the fleet as well.

There is a question as to whether the Clean Cities grant funds are still available. However, “We’ll be investing pretty heavily in propane autogas, regardless if there are any grants or not,” Ebert said, because the ROI is still favorable. “Without the grant funding on the conversions or the fueling infrastructure, we still would have gotten an ROI in about three years,” he said.

A Return to Gas

Ebert said ethanol is not part of the conversation, nor is biodiesel at this point. Biodiesel is not readily available in his area, and he does not want to risk mixing percentage blends in the same vehicle as it could have mechanical consequences, he said.

However, Ebert is in the process of switching some of his smaller school buses to traditional gas, due to the added cost of the technology on new diesel trucks to meet the 2010 emissions standards. Not only is the company saving about $10,000 on the buses’ initial cost, he hasn’t seen a marked difference in fuel savings from gas compared to diesel, and he anticipates a comparable lifespan on the new gas engines.

The change to gas from diesel has been transparent to the drivers. For vehicles with heavier chassis, he said he’ll stick with diesel.

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