A long-held misconception among maintenance personal is that switching to electric school buses will require less work and ultimately fewer technicians to do the job. Two leading-edge alternative fuel district officials debunked that belief.
Trey Stow, the director of transportation for Fulton County Schools in Atlanta, oversees the operation of the largest Blue Bird propane fleet in the country with 443 buses. He is also the district’s former shop foreman, so he also knows school bus maintenance issues. Stow joined Ray Manalo, fleet director of Twin Rivers Unified School District in Sacramento, California, who oversees the largest electric school bus fleet in North America with 40 buses. They discussed training their staff on alternative fuel maintenance at the virtual Green Bus Summit on April 22.
Manalo said Twin Rivers is nearly running 50 percent of its fleet on electricity, as it expects another 18 electric buses this summer to bring the grand total to 48. He said when it comes down to it, an electric school bus is still a school bus, with the same suspension and tires, adding the interiors are also pretty much the same. However, he said he did need to sell his mechanics on the electric vehicles at first.
Manalo said originally the mechanics didn’t think they were going to have work to do because electric buses have a handful of moving parts compared to hundreds in a traditional internal combustion vehicle. Yet he reminded his staff that there are still inspections and after-market systems like cameras to maintain. He added that there has been no shortage of work for his staff.
Stow echoed that statement, explaining that his staff, too, has inspections to perform, so there remains consistent vehicle upkeep. He added that kids will be kids, and no bus will ever be student or driver proof, which will always result in maintenance work to be done.
The biggest difference between electric and diesel buses, Manalo observed, is the electric drivetrain and the composite bodies utilized by two of the manufacturers. He said that while Twin Rivers doesn’t have experience with road salts, the composite bodies are going to help with rust prevention. Composite bodies also make the buses lighter. He added that all the OEMs have done a really good job taking care of the electric drivetrain, but he still wants his technicians to know how the vehicles operate.
Manalo said for years fleet training at Twin Rivers was left by the wayside, so the technicians don’t have as much experience maintaining older buses. However, that is something he is trying to avoid with the electric vehicles. Manalo added the district is writing diagnostic software and requirements for specific hours of training into their purchasing contracts.
While he added that while district technicians are not actively repairing the electric systems, knowing all the intricacies will better prepare them to address any issue that does arise.
Manalo added that the district also sends its technicians to conferences so that they are educating themselves in another environment with new people. He said this way, they can talk to peers with different experience levels and then call them up later down the line if needed.
Stow also advised mechanics to reach out to local and state associations, to start up conversations, network and obtain more knowledge. In addition, he advised getting involved on social media forums. He said if there’s a problem a technician can’t fix in the shop, post the scenario on various forums. Share the bus type and problem, and people will respond with solutions, he said.
Stow added that Fulton County purchased its first electric school bus this year and had engineers from Blue Bird train his mechanics. He added that because of the district-wide travel ban due to the pandemic, he’s been working on bringing trainers to his shop to train on-site.
“It gives us opportunities to provide training that we wouldn’t have been able to do before,” Stow added.
He noted that while nothing beats hands-on training, virtual training is another option. He said virtual sessions can tackle a lot of information and have opened a new world of topics. Stow advised attendees to reach out to vendors and suppliers and see what they can offer in a virtual platform.
Growing Technicians from the Ground Up
Manalo said that it’s hard to find good mechanics right off the bat. However, Twin Rivers’ strategy is identifying candidates with good foundational skills and teaching them what they need to know to succeed with school buses.
“We had to grow our own technicians,” he explained.
Related: Selecting the Fuel that Makes Cents for You: Renewable Diesel
Related: Selecting the Fuel that Makes Cents for You: Propane
Related: Selecting the Fuel that Makes Cents for You: Electric
Related: The Ins and Outs, Do’s and Don’ts of Writing Grants
Related: Award Winners Represent Nearly 1,300 Green School Buses Across North America
Stow added another good strategy is reaching out to people in the community or schools to train students in high school. He said if districts start training the students now, they can work their way up in the program and upon graduation be potentially hired full-time.
However, Stow noted that one of the biggest challenges was the technical aspect that now comes with the job. He explained that not everyone can pick up a tool and know what to do with it, which is similar to a software system. Stow said techs aren’t as accustomed to using diagnostic software and get a little scared of it.
Instead, he advises his mechanics to actually get into the system and play around with it. Stow said it’s all about working with people and giving them the time to experiment. If they mess something up, Stow said, there is usually a fail-safe to avoid any serious damage. So, working with people on their apprehensiveness to try new things is huge, he concluded.