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.”
Lake Michigan Mailers Does the Math
David Rhoa, president of Lake Michigan Mailers Inc., brought in a fleet adviser to navigate his company’s path to alternative fuels. “I obviously had to run the trucks every day and I needed someone else to do the math and the logic and look up best practices and trends,” he says.
The document management company uses its fleet vehicles primarily for the collection and processing of mail and “banker boxes” full of documents to scan. The company’s fleet of 30 vehicles — predominantly Ford E-150 cargo vans and one Ford Transit Connect — covers an 89-mile radius from the Kalamazoo, Mich. home office and also serves a processing center in South Bend, Ind.
Rhoa says their first research was into electric vehicles. “We found that electric vehicles could work in a limited role, but the more practical application was between CNG and propane,” he says.
In regards to CNG, Rhoa understood the high costs to install a tank on site, even a slow-fill one, and knew his local mechanic wasn’t about to install equipment such as a methane detection system needed to service the highly pressurized gas. “All my savings would get eaten up by infrastructure and maintenance costs,” he says.
Ultimately, “We looked at vehicle, conversion and fuel costs, and the range and infrastructure necessary to support [different choices],” he says. “The only one that answered all those questions as a ‘yes’ was propane.”
The company has converted four vans to bi-fuel gasoline and propane using a system from Icom North America, with two more due in November. The conversions cost $6,300 to $6,500. Rhoa delivered the trucks to the Icom facility in Michigan and picked them up in three to four days.
Rhoa says propane providers were eager to install the fueling pump and tank — as well as extras such as concrete barriers — on the premises for free in exchange for the fuel contract. And that’s with the knowledge that Rhoa would use the pumps initially to only fuel two trucks.
Rhoa committed to a five-year deal. Lake Michigan Mailers ended up investing about $8,000 of its own funds in infrastructure, which included installing an electrical supply, lighting, a camera system and safety equipment. The company built its ground pad big enough to handle a second tank.
As of this writing, Rhoa was paying about $2.03 per gas-gallon equivalent, compared to $3.83 per gallon of gasoline.
Dallas Rain King Reins in Fuel Prices
Like many propane converts, it was the yo-yo price of fuel a few years ago that got Gary Kulp interested. Kulp, president of Dallas Rain King, a rain gutter installation and maintenance company servicing Dallas and Austin, Texas, also wanted to minimize his reliance on overseas oil and become more eco-friendly.
Of a fleet of 20 vehicles, Kulp runs six with propane autogas: three Ford F-150s, a Ford E-350 cutaway and an E-450 cutaway, all with ROUSH CleanTech dedicated systems, as well as a Chevrolet Impala with an aftermarket bi-fuel conversion from Prins.
Kulp says propane fits in well with how the company uses its fleet.
The loss of cargo space due to the propane tank in the pickup bed or truck box is not an issue; it actually helps to tow the company’s trailers. The placement of the tank moves the center of gravity forward on the truck, allowing for greater tongue weight with the trailers, which carry 5,000-10,000 lbs.
Kulp says that even when towing a full trailer there is no loss of horsepower with propane compared to a regular gasoline engine.
Dallas Rain King converted the Impala with an aftermarket bi-fuel conversion to defray costs in covering his wide service territory, though he recommends the ROUSH dedicated system for work truck applications. ROUSH’s liquid propane injection system suffers no horsepower loss and maximizes fuel efficiency. While the bi-fuel system costs substantially less, it is based on older, less efficient vapor injection technology.
While the state of Texas has the greatest concentration of public propane fuel locations, Dallas Rain King had a fuel pump installed onsite. Kulp pays about $1.50 per gallon, down 35% from last year, Kulp says. One unexpected benefit of propane is the elimination of fuel theft because employees can’t fuel up a personal vehicle. “It’s endemic in the service industries,” he says.
Kulp understands that propane leaves a cleaner engine — he’s expecting to get 300,000 miles out of his trucks — yet he’s tightened his oil change intervals. Kulp maintains that it’s harder to tell how clean the oil from a propane vehicle is because the carbon that propane leaves is lighter than the usual soot color left by traditional gasoline. “I researched the issue and found we should change every 5,000 miles to be safe,” he says.
While Kulp was able to take advantage of a federal subsidy on his original conversions, the company’s propane initiative is not presently subsidized. While propane seems to stand on its own right now without those grants or tax breaks on fuel, some relief would be fair, Kulp says. Propane users in effect pay higher road taxes, and while the per-gallon tax is the same, propane delivers only 70-90% of the range of a gallon of gasoline.
Kulp also points out that the EPA’s cost to certify a vehicle model for a dedicated conversion is very high, and much of that cost must be passed on to the end user.
Denison Landscaping Racks Up Miles
Josh Denison, human resources and operations manager for metro Washington, D.C.-based Denison Landscaping, had done some research over time on propane, yet it wasn’t until a fellow landscaper touted the fuel’s benefits that prompted the company’s first move. Denison investigated CNG, but found the conversions and infrastructure too expensive. “Propane has been the way to get into the green fuel market,” he says.
In October 2011, the company purchased two 2010 Ford F-250s with ROUSH CleanTech propane conversions that came out of the ROUSH demo fleet.
Denison first used the trucks as management drivers, and after registering their solid performance and initial fuel savings, he moved one into the residential maintenance division. In the spring of 2012 the company converted its lawn equipment to propane. Denison is in the process of buying another propane demo truck, a Ford E-450 box truck, to use in the maintenance and nursery production segment.
Because the fleet racks up high mileage — the propane truck on the maintenance route does 150 to 200 miles a day — the fuel savings equates to about $1,000 a month. With that mileage, the conversion will have paid for itself in about 14 months, Denison says. That’s without federal grant money, which had run out by the time the company purchased the trucks.
Denison first started fueling at a local U-Haul store, a 10-minute drive from the office, as well as at two propane distributors that are convenient to drivers’ routes. The pumps were slow-fill, which adds about 10 minutes to the fill time compared to a commercial gas station, Denison says.
The company then cut a deal to have an on-site fast-fill fueling depot installed. Denison switched propane suppliers in the middle of the installation process. For more than four months, the propane supplier was delivering fuel to the office two times a week to fuel the vehicles and equipment directly from the bobtail fuel truck.
When the on-site depot was finally dispensing fuel, “It was a very good day,” Denison says. The company pays about $2.25 a gallon, significantly less than at a retail propane autogas station, according to Denison.
With only two trucks to fuel, Denison still got the supplier to subsidize the pumps. He says the incentive for propane suppliers selling to the landscape industry is the opportunity to boost their sales during landscaping season in the warmer months, when residential and commercial accounts don’t use as much fuel.
Denison notes that it takes seven seconds longer for the propane engine to start compared to a regular gasoline-powered truck, but other than that, there is no difference in performance. Denison says the trucks have had “no maintenance issues whatsoever.”
The loss of space in the bed doesn’t encumber the fleet. “You can still fit a full pallet of mulch in that truck,” he says.