Propane Cures School Bus Winter Woes

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Across the nation and in all types of wintry weather and driving conditions, hundreds of school districts are saving money by using a less expensive fuel. This makes drivers and passengers more comfortable with propane buses.

Diesel school bus drivers in Minnesota’s Proctor Public Schools district cover themselves with blankets, in order to endure cold cockpits in winter. Frost lines the bus floor, and unless the buses are plugged in overnight to a block heater, they won’t start in the region’s brutal winter temperatures.

School districts in a wide swath of the U.S. and Canada deal with driver discomfort, cold-start issues and uneven bus heat, every time the temperatures dip. But school buses that include propane autogas-fueled buses describe a different situation.

Perhaps the most notable difference is propane buses’ disregard for frigid weather. “Our propane buses perform flawlessly,” said Brian Swestka, director of transportation for the Howard-Winneshiek Community School District in Cresco, Iowa. In his district, winter is extreme, with temperatures bottoming out at negative 30 degrees. Even then, his district’s propane buses have no cold-start issues.

With the Blue Bird Vision Propane school bus, propane remains in a liquid state until it reaches the cylinder. This cutting-edge technology has alleviated cold-weather start issues that are associated with vapor technology propane systems of the past. In fact, the fuel system provides for unaided cold-weather starts to minus 40 degrees, saving both time and money.

Once they’re running, the propane bus interiors offer more comfort to drivers and passengers. “They warm up substantially quicker than our diesel buses,” Swestka reports. “The propane buses are ready to go in just a few minutes, compared with at least 20, sometimes 30 minutes for diesel to warm up.”

Since their district purchased propane buses, the drivers in Proctor, Minnesota, don’t drive bundled up in blankets. “Our drivers love how warm the propane buses get,” says Curt Benassi, the district’s transportation supervisor. “From front to back, the temperature remains at a consistent 70 degrees. Students sometimes tell the driver to turn the heat down, which never happens in diesel. Compare that to the front of the diesel bus that might be only 30 degrees—throughout the entire bus route.”

In addition to saving time and money in heating engines overnight and staffing up for early morning warming of diesel buses, districts that operate propane buses also report wide-ranging cost savings.

School districts in every climate note decreased maintenance costs when replacing diesel buses with those that are fueled by propane. In central Georgia’s Bibb County, the school district operates a 200-bus fleet, 73 of which are propane. The district’s director of transportation, Anthony Jackson, says the district saves $3,000 per service for its propane fleet.

A propane bus oil change requires seven quarts of oil, while the diesel buses in his fleet take 20 quarts. Filters for propane buses cost the district less, too, and propane burns cleanly without the fuel additives that diesel requires. Tune-ups for propane buses also cost less, Jackson says.

No matter where propane school buses operate, their fuel costs are lower. The Boulder Valley School District in Colorado spends $0.48 per mile on its propane buses versus $0.67 per mile to operate diesel buses.

Although the initial cost of a propane bus is higher than diesel, the return on investment tends to happen quickly. Bibb County School District will recoup the purchase cost of a propane school bus in approximately three years—and that’s not even a district with constant cold-weather concerns.

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