November 2012, Business Fleet - Cover Story
Small Fleet Paths to Propane Autogas
Four fleets share their stories on the process of acquiring and converting vehicles to propane autogas and building the fueling infrastructure.
Lewis Pest Control is a family-owned residential and commercial pest control company serving South Alabama and Southeast Mississippi.
Lewis Pest Control Strikes a Dealership Deal
The gas spike of 2008 prompted Scott Lewis, president and general manager of Lewis Pest Control, to look for alternatives to traditional gasoline and diesel fuel. “We looked at everything. Natural gas had a lot of funding and press behind it but it wouldn’t work for us,” Lewis says, citing that the infrastructure for the fueling system “would have been cost prohibitive.”
“Propane is what we came up with,” he says.
Lewis Pest Control is a family-owned residential and commercial pest control company serving South Alabama and Southeast Mississippi. Of 40 total fleet units, the company converted eight to run on propane autogas: three Chevrolet ½-ton and two ¾-ton pickups as well as three Ford F-150s. Two more conversions are on the way. Lewis uses a Prins bi-fuel propane system, which starts on gasoline and switches to propane after the engine heats up.
Lewis struck a deal with his local dealership, Brooks Chevrolet of Thomasville, Ala., to get a service technician trained on installing the conversions and servicing them. Lewis says it took the dealership some time to get up to speed on the conversions, which caused delays with the initial installations. However, “the last two went relatively smooth,” Lewis says.
The cost of the Prins conversion was $5,800 per unit. The company converted three trucks and then was able to secure a grant from the Virginia Clean Cities program to completely fund the other five.
The cylindrical propane tank is installed in the truck bed against the back of the cab. “There was a little grumbling in the beginning,” regarding the loss of bed space, though it just forced the technicians to be better organized, Lewis says.
The smaller trucks have 60-gallon propane tanks while the larger ones have 80-gallon tanks, providing a 600- to 700-mile range. The average fuel economy for the company’s propane fleet is 13.5 miles per gallon, which includes a 10% loss in mpg with propane.
The cost of the propane per gas-gallon equivalent runs about a dollar a gallon less than gasoline. The company had enjoyed a 50-cent tax credit for the fuel, though that expired. That was hard to swallow, Lewis says, though the savings are still substantial. Lewis says the company is saving $1,380 per month in fuel, or more than $16,000 a year total. This translated to a return on investment in 13 months.
The route trucks average 30,000 miles per year and gain up to 250,000 miles total before retiring. Lewis expects less wear and tear on the propane engines because of the cleaner burning fuel, which he hopes will translate to an extra 50,000 to 100,000 miles of service life. The propane trucks burn about a tank of regular gasoline per month.
To fuel, Lewis installed propane tanks at two of the company’s locations using two different propane providers. Each provider agreed to furnish the tanks for free in exchange for the contract.
Lewis hasn’t sold a truck yet, but he’ll experiment with removing the propane system from the de-fleeted vehicle and installing it on the new vehicle for a second life.
With four years using propane, Lewis says the initiative has worked well internally and externally. “Drivers have accepted it,” he says, “and we’re burning a clean fuel made locally. People like that.”
With total annual savings of $16,573, Lewis Pest Control calculated a return on investment in 13 months for its eight bi-fuel propane and gasoline trucks. The calculations include the truck conversion costs and fuel costs for both gasoline and propane, minus grants. The per-gallon propane cost also factors in a 10% loss in fuel economy compared to gasoline.