Three school transportation directors shared the environmental and economic benefits that they have experienced after introducing propane school buses into their fleets.
During a Feb. 3 webinar hosted by the Propane Education and Research Council (PERC), Director of Autogas Business Development Stephen Whaley reviewed current statistics of propane-fueled school buses, which includes over 22,000 propane autogas buses on the road that transport 1.25 million students nationwide.
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Whaley continued that PERC’s “Path to Zero Emissions” has resulted in a significant reduction in tailpipe emissions, specifically a 96 percent reduction in oxides of nitrogen (NOx) compared to the best in equivalent clean diesel buses. He also pointed out that propane eliminates the need for expensive ventilation systems in maintenance facilities. Another benefit is that diesel exhaust fluid is no longer needed, as well as numerous other equipment including particulate matter filters.
Whaley cited multiple ways to handle infrastructure and fueling without incurring major changes to current infrastructure, including fuel trucks, temporary mobile refueling, and different levels of private stations depending on the size of the fleet.
Whaley also encouraged districts to explore federal funding and resources to maximize the benefits of switching to propane.
“The [Volkswagen] settlement money is so good for propane because we have a right-side-up equation for replacing diesel buses,” he noted.
Amy Rosa, director of school safety and transportation at Wa-Nee Community School Corporation in Indiana, joined the webinar and spoke highly of the ability of her fleet of propane = to withstand colder temperatures. The fleet of 55 school buses includes 11 propane-powered buses, with an annual purchase of an additional four propane buses. They were in operation during the webinar despite a local snowstorm.
“I walked up to those [propane] buses confident they were going to start even after they were down during the few days of school closure,” she stated.
Although the propane buses have a slightly longer fueling time, Rosa said her drivers can do other tasks while filling up because the connection is safe enough for them to walk away from the pump. Whaley further explained this is because of safety nozzles on propane fueling stations that stop any dangerous fuel drips and automatically lock to prevent over-filling.
Rosa continued that since the propane buses were introduced at her district in 2019, she has received positive feedback on the smooth transition, ease of maintenance, and quicker and more cost-effective service.
“Honestly, incredibly smooth transition is the overall statement I can make about propane. We were excited to go green. I was super-pleased, top to bottom, from education to implementation here in Wa-Nee,” she shared.
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Newport News Public Schools in Virginia provided a live demonstration of a propane-powered bus that Director of Transportation Shay Coates said was very helpful for drivers, maintenance staff and district leadership.
He stated that after the superintendent rode the bus and “was able to have a conversation without yelling,” she wanted to move forward with the implementation process. He also said that drivers have specifically requested the propane buses because the quieter systems improved student behavior.
Coates continued that the local propane dealer was a “tremendous proponent” in helping break down the details of infrastructure as well as expanding and changing operations.
“The most important thing is having someone who is very passionate about what they do,” he stated.
While there are many grants available to help districts change their fleets over to propane with different requirements involved, Coates said it’s worth it to explore and utilize all options because the extra money could mean an additional one to two buses.
“We’re coming up on five years with propane buses. We started with 18 buses and we’ve been incrementally changing the numbers based on funding. We’ll be at 125 propane buses at the end of this month,” he shared.
Cypress-Fairbanks Independent School District (CFISD) near Houston is the largest student transporter in Texas, but Director of Transportation Kayne Smith said during the webinar that starting small with 13 propane buses in 2017 was a good trial run.
“We started seeing immediate success: decreased cost of ownership, lower fuel costs, and positive driver feedback on the noise levels, ease of maintenance and drivability,” he explained.
Over the past four years, CFISD has grown from 13 to 336 propane buses spread across five transportation centers in the district, with propane fueling pumps added to the regular diesel stations. Smith said that the 100-gallon tanks on his district’s propane buses allow drivers to go almost a whole week before needing to refuel.
Smith also spoke on the importance of community support and sharing the benefits of propane buses, which encompass everything from lower costs to improved student behavior.
“We are paying a $1.20 less per gallon of propane versus diesel or unleaded, and 60 cents less per mile to operate,” he said.
Smith added that no modifications have been made in the maintenance shops, so the district has been able to continue operations with the same tools and equipment.
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PERC’s Whaley emphasized the importance of looking at not just the miles per gallon, but the cost per mile to accurately determine the benefits of switching to propane.
When asked about the process of moving forward & exploring other green options, Coates said that Newport News Schools believes that propane works best for their current routes and number of schools in the district. Rosa in Indiana echoed Coates’ sentiment, saying that because of the longer ranges and cold weather in Indiana, they’re “happy with propane for this setting.”
All three of the transportation directors shared similar maintenance intervals and cost reductions for their propane buses (i.e., using seven quarts of oil versus the 17 to 30 quarts needed for diesel engines).
In response to a question asked by a webinar audience member about the possibility of expanding propane to Type D buses, Whaley confirmed that PERC is working with OEMs to explore that route.
Whaley also explained that while propane and CNG are very similar, propane is easier to implement, especially when adding to existing diesel operations.
“What’s hurt the durability of diesel are the after treatments,” he said. “When you have to replace a diesel engine, it gets very expensive. It’s less expensive to purchase a new propane engine than it is to maintain a diesel engine.”
Whaley concluded the presentation by encouraging districts to share their stories, especially given that student transporters can capitalize on the most federal funding ever seen in the industry.
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