Metropolis: Wednesday, July 16, 2003
‘I still think it was a good decision to go with propane.’
Alternate Fuel Reality

Lots of city vehicles converted to use propane are still guzzling at the gas pump.


Fox Broadcasting’s Hank Hill would have been proud. Back in 1994, Fort Worth kicked off an ambitious plan to convert its city-owned vehicles from gasoline to alternative fuel use — in particular, to Hill’s beloved propane. North Texas was quickly changing from Big Sky to Dirty Sky country — or, as the EPA said, it had been deemed a “moderate non-attainment area for ozone.” The Clean Air Act nudged vehicle fleet operators in such areas to start buying cleaner-running cars and trucks, to reduce emissions.

Unfortunately, the propane program that resulted in Fort Worth has been about as problem-plagued as a King of the Hill episode — but not as funny.

City officials decided on propane as the best alternative to gasoline for reasons both environmental — it burns cleaner than gasoline — and economic — Texas is a large producer of propane. Some officials also fretted about the threat that gasoline supplies might dry up if developments in international politics shut off the country’s petroleum imports.

The city received more than $1 million in federal transportation funds that year to cover 80 percent of the cost of converting gasoline-powered vehicles to run on propane. The money, from a program designed specifically to combat traffic-related air pollution, came via the North Central Texas Council of Governments.

The city began retrofitting its vehicles to burn both propane and gasoline, at a cost of about $3,500 per conversion. Others were bought with bi-fuel capacity already in place. City officials told council members that the alternative fuel would cause less wear on engines and reduce maintenance costs. By 1997, city officials planned to have about 800 of 4,000 vehicles running on propane.

But like anything that seems too good to be true, it was.

From the beginning, city workers have complained about maintenance nightmares and poor performance of the propane-fueled cars. Parts are increasingly hard to get — and repairs so expensive that higher-ups now routinely tell many employees to use gasoline rather than propane. Despite the expenditure of $7.2 million in federal, state, and city money on the program, only 425 city cars and trucks currently are equipped for propane — and less than half of those are actually running on propane. Since 1997, the fleet’s propane use has dropped by more than 50 percent.

Those numbers could cause more problems for the city than air pollution alone. In accepting federal funding to buy and convert the vehicles, the city pledged that those cars and trucks would be operated at least 90 percent of the time on propane. Since they are not, one city department head said, it’s possible that Fort Worth might have to repay part of the money — although the NTCOG doesn’t seem overly worried about it.

Several city officials acknowledged their frustration with the program. But they still describe it as a success. “I still think it was a good decision to go with propane,” said Terry Himes, supervisor of the city’s Harley Avenue Service Center, because propane provides better mileage than other environment-friendly fuels.

Himes said many of the maintenance problems occur because propane is not as combustible as gasoline and can be tough on ignition components such as spark plugs.

Don Walker, assistant superintendent of technical services in the city services department, said maintenance problems on older propane vehicles can cost anywhere from $800 to $1,600 to repair and can knock vehicles out of commission for up to two weeks.

Because of that, some department heads are telling employees to use gasoline when their vehicles won’t run well on propane, rather than get them repaired, said Tom Davis, director of city services.

“We are going to try and repair them if it’s possible,” Walker said. “But why would you spend $2,500 on something that’s only worth $1,000 when you can switch to gasoline cheaper?”

Himes said some problems are the result of many of the city’s older bi-fueled vehicles having been converted by a local company, rather than by the manufacturer. Because of those problems, Fort Worth since 2001 has built its propane fleet only through buying cars originally manufactured for that fuel

“When propane is put into a vehicle designed for gasoline, you have to make some allowances,” he said. “You don’t always get the best performance.”

Of 425 bi-fueled propane vehicles currently on the road, 130 were bought new from the manufacturer. The average age of the city’s bi-fuel vehicles is seven years. Only a handful run on propane only, without the option for using gasoline.

Himes also said that propane is an unpopular fuel among city workers because it’s inconvenient — and to some, scary. Most city workers who drive bi-fuel vehicles fill up their tanks with gasoline instead, he said.

Propane provides only about 75 to 80 percent of the miles per gallon of gasoline, meaning that workers have to refuel more often. And when they do, Walker said, “it tends to be more of a hassle” because the city has only six propane fueling sites.

“When the propane vehicle doesn’t run [right], a lot of people don’t bring it in or even mention it,” Himes said — they just switch to gasoline. “They smell the propane and think it’s going to blow up.”

But the biggest problem, Walker said, may be the limited availability “of what you can put the propane in.” Choices in vehicle types have dwindled to one. Ford Motor Company, Fort Worth’s propane vehicle manufacturer of choice, offers only one model, an F-150 pickup truck. “If I had more vehicles to work with, I’d be more willing to use propane,” he said.

Terry Baldwin, fleet manager for the city of Dallas, said most manufacturers have quit making the propane-fueled cars, in part because of a lack of demand. In contrast, Dallas in 1992 chose compressed natural gas as its alternative fuel of choice, and Baldwin said that program has been a success. Propane gets two or three times the mileage of CNG, he said, but there were other factors to consider.

“Propane makes more sense,” he said, “but the acceptance of propane is not there,” Baldwin said. “Convenience is a major argument, but you can’t really use that excuse when there are air quality issues and ozone alert days out there.”

His city’s program has succeeded in part because CNG-fueled vehicles do not have the gasoline option. “We know using [alternative fuels] is extremely inconvenient and puts a hardship on the operator and their ability to do the job,” Baldwin said. “But we took the choice of what they could use out of their control by buying vehicles that run on compressed natural gas only.”

Fort Worth considered CNG as well, but propane won out after a hurried review. “We were forced to make a choice without a whole lot of information,” Himes said, as the city rushed to comply with state and federal regulations.

T.C. Michael, who heads Fort Worth’s environmental management program, said propane burns cleaner than gasoline. It also costs about 30 cents a gallon less. Those considerations should take precedence over convenience, he said.

Michael has driven his bi-fuel propane vehicle since 1996. “I initially had lots of problems,” he said. “But we are trying to do something for the environment. I am a guy who preaches about the environment, and if I’m not practicing what I preach, then what’s the point?”

The city, however, isn’t practicing what it’s been preaching. From 1994 to 1997, the city’s propane use climbed steadily, peaking at 355,199 gallons, compared to 165,743 gallons of gasoline. Since then, propane use has fallen, to 163,689 gallons in 2002, compared to 232,552 gallons of gas.

The federal “clean fleet” program reimburses the city for 80 percent of conversion costs and of the difference in price between gasoline- and propane-fueled vehicles. The NTCOG-administered program requires the city to operate a vehicle for at least three years, for 25,000 miles on 90 percent propane, in order to get the reimbursement. Monthly reports show each city department head how much propane the department’s vehicles have used. Department officials sign affidavits agreeing to the NTCOG requirements.

However, Walker said the North Texas council does not receive copies of those reports. The city, in effect, is on an honor system, he said — but he acknowledged that the majority of its propane vehicles are not running on that fuel 90 percent of the time, as required. If NTCOG were to ask for those numbers, he said, then the city would have to return money received for propane conversions.

“I don’t suspect that would happen, though,” Walker said.

The council of governments doesn’t normally audit the city’s propane fleet statistics, but it could, said Mindy Mize, Clean Cities Coordinator for the council. “We can do an audit if that’s what’s happening, but it would be disappointing to learn that is true.”

Mize’s comments don’t mean that the regional agency is unaware of problems in propane use. The organization is considering abandoning funding for the retrofitting of bi-fuel vehicles altogether because of problems like this, she said.

“If we did find out [city departments] weren’t following the requirements, then we would have to sit down and have a serious talk with them,” Mize said.

Some Fort Worth city departments are currently pushing for the purchase of low-emission gasoline vehicles at an additional cost of about $3,000 to $4,000 per vehicle, as a replacement for the propane-fueled vehicles, Michael said. They don’t run as clean as propane, but they’re more reliable, he said.

Michael said the propane program can succeed, however, given enough time and enough education for employees.

“It’s a matter of commitment on the employees’ part,” he said.

Perhaps a training session with Hank Hill is needed.

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