FRISCO, Texas – Three transportation contractors shared how they are integrating propane into their school bus operations and the resulting financial benefits they are seeing.
Crosby-Ironton Transportation provides contracting services for school districts in rural Minnesota. Owner Josh Schiffler relayed during a Friday TSD Conference session presented by the Propane Education & Research Council (PERC) that half of the company’s 24 buses are propane and run well even in cold temperatures as low as 40 degrees below zero.
He shared that a local vendor initially provided them with a fueling station and as their propane fleet size increased, infrastructure was scalable as well.
Meanwhile, GoldStar Transit based in Austin, Texas is a Student Transportation of America company. General Manager Terry Gleaton said that of 67 total buses, 57 operate on propane. Infrastructure includes an 18,000-gallon tank.
Performance-wise, he said propane buses accelerate better than diesel. “They get you where you need to go,” Gleaton quipped.
Chicago-based Cook Illinois Corporation, the largest family owned and operated school bus contractor in the U.S., is running about 1,800 school buses, 350 of which are powered by propane.
President and COO John Benish said that the company used propane heavily from the late 1970‘s to early 1980’s, after which “diesel started to dominate the market. We started to convert back over about 10 years ago.”
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All three companies run school buses in cold weather and attested to propane’s responsiveness in those conditions. “Propane loves cold weather,” commented Stephen Whaley, director of autogas business development for PERC.
Schiffler addressed bus heating in cold temperatures, saying that propane buses heat almost immediately but diesel buses must idle or be run for upwards of 20 minutes before they heat.
This was also a positive for Benish in Illinois. “We were starting to have issues with diesel engines. The 11th commandment is “love thy bus driver,” he shared. “Bus drivers love the propane buses. They heat up fast. We had a lot of bus drivers that were older,” he explained.
Audience questions touched on the lifespan and replacement costs of the propane tanks on the buses, which were anecdotally verified to last the approximately 20-year lifespan of the bus with proper maintenance.
One attendee, who runs rural, hilly routes in Arizona, questioned fuel efficiency compared to diesel.
Whaley mentioned that Kay Cornelius, who is the director of transportation for St. Louis County Schools in Minnesota and shared her experience with propane in an STN EXPO Indianapolis session this summer, regularly travels rural roads with propane buses.
“When it comes to miles [traveled in a single tank], that was one of my early concerns,” acknowledged Schiffler. He shared that Crosby-Ironton is luckily centrally located within its service area but also makes up to eight-hour or 400-mile round trips with no problems.
Making Financial Sense
Because diesel currently dominates the market, any alternative fuel must be cheaper, cleaner, plentiful and work just as well, noted Whaley.
There is no such thing as a zero-emission vehicle today when considering the entire lifecycle. Still, Whaley pointed out that propane has numerous benefits for school bus operations, both health wise and for the district’s bottom line. For starters, today’s propane engines meet the 0.02 grams per brake horsepower-hour nitrogen oxide (NOx) emission standards and require no maintenance facility upgrades.
Propane buses are readily available from major manufacturers, and about 20,000 are on the road today, Whaley said. Each one costs around $150,000, while fueling infrastructure costs for 20 buses runs about $50,000. Comparatively, he said, infrastructure for a CNG or electric fleet of the same size could run $700,000 or $900,000 respectively.
As all three panelists are businessmen, Whaley questioned how propane is helping them financially.
“One of the main [benefits] is the fuel savings,” Gleaton verified. He said propane costs him a third of what diesel does. Maintenance is also cheaper. “Propane is similar to a gasoline engine, so it doesn’t take the skill of a diesel mechanic,” he added.
Benish related the story of how propane buses made his drivers happier, since the vehicles heat much faster than diesel buses on cold days. “We have so many problems in the bus business on a cold day, but they don’t have to think twice about the bus starting up. Heat on the bus equals [fewer] problems. Makes financial sense,” he declared.
The cost fluctuation of diesel fuel, along with DEF treatments and additives, were main reasons for his shift to propane, Schiffler said.
“When we first got into this, we knew [propane] would be more cost effective in the long run,” he confirmed.