Will 'propane' power town vehicles?

Conversion could be $5,500 per car, or more for some of the town’s larger trucks.

While already converting as many buildings as possible to natural gas, the town is toying with the idea of switching some of its fleet to propane.

“We live in a country, in a world, where oil is expensive. Gasoline comes from oil,” said Selectman Andy Bodner, who passed a proposal from Rye Brook, N.Y., based Paraco Gas to convert some town vehicles on to First Selectman Rudy Marconi.

“We have abundant natural gas supplies,” Mr. Bodner continued. “As a matter of fact there’s a forecast that there’s a hundred years’ supply of natural gas in this country.”

“Natural gas” is different from propane, though the two are often used interchangeably. Natural gas is a naturally occurring mixture of gases that includes propane.

“More and more in Europe, Canada… large commercial fleets — buses, trucks, the vehicles” are run on these alternative fuels, Mr. Bodner said. “Hundreds and thousands of cars that work for utilities. The UPS trucks are moving to this cheaper, abundant fuel.”

Propane generally offers less fuel efficiency but can mean better performance than gasoline, since the propane has a higher octane rating. It also costs less per gallon and burns “cleaner” — releasing considerably less greenhouse gas.

Discuss this on The Ridgefield Forum.

Propane industry spokesmen say propane cuts greenhouse emissions over 20%. The Department of Energy reports that a study factoring in extraction and delivery methods, as well as how much carbon comes out of the tail pipe, put that figure at around 10%. Environmental Protection Agency standards require converted vehicles to have as good or better emissions, but the Department of Energy reports that an improperly done propane conversion can produce worse emissions than gasoline.

The make or break question is probably going to be: Can this idea it save the town money?

Paraco Gas belongs to a national network of companies that offer propane vehicle services, called Alliance AutoGas.

In an article in The New York Times, a North Carolina police department that used an Alliance company to convert to natural gas reported major savings on fuel — around 40% to 50%, according to the sheriff there.

There would be an upfront conversion cost — which the North Carolina department covered in part with money from drug seizures and a grant — to make the town’s cars or trucks run on propane, and possibly a conversion back to gasoline-only if the town wants to sell a vehicle. The conversion would be to a “bi-fuel” system, where the vehicles could still run on gasoline. It includes installing a separate tank, feeder lines and injectors, control hardware, and a dashboard switch to choose fuel type, according to Paraco Vice President Mike Gioffre.

It would also require a pumping station to be installed in town, which operates like a gasoline pump, which Paraco would install and maintain.

Conversion could be $5,500 per car, or more for some of the town’s larger trucks.

Buildings also have an upfront cost, but since the town tends to hang on to buildings longer than vehicles, building conversion can justify a longer “payback period.”

The town’s cost of gasoline is considerably lower than the average consumer pays at the pump — around $2.90 compared to about $4 per gallon in Ridgefield this week —  the town doesn’t have to pay taxes on the fuel. Still, propane costs the town about $1.25 less per gallon.

What about safety? Isn’t propane highly explosive?

Yes it is, Ridgefield Assistant Fire Chief Kevin Tappe said, but all sorts of cars — gasoline, diesel, electric, even hydrogen — are on the road, and they each have their own safety challenges and systems to address those challenges.

Propane has been used to power vehicles for three decades, and both propane (called Liquid Petroleum Gas, or LPG) and natural gas (Liquid Natural Gas, or LNG) tanks are built to withstand serious abuse,   Chief Tappe said.

“Since LPG and LNG are compressed gases, they must be stored in a  cylindrical container that is tested and rated for the pressure involved. There are government or industry standards and regulations that pertain to the design, structure and breaking strength of the cylinders.  In the many years that LPG and LNG powered vehicles have been in use, I cannot remember even one report in the country of an explosion, fire or other catastrophic release.

“There was one release in the Midwest a few years ago but it was the result of the LPG car being subject to a fire underneath the car.  The pressure tanks for LPG and LNG are also built with relief valves that release excess pressure if the pressure should rise in the cylinder for some reason such as exposure to high heat.

Each fuel type presents its own challenges in emergencies.

“The flammable properties of gasoline, propane and natural gas are similar but propane and natural gas pose a more serious risk in that they are gases and expand as they are being released creating a flammable cloud of vapor that could ignite easily whereas gasoline, being a liquid, also gives off vapors but the liquid doesn’t disperse into the air but rather flows along the ground,”  Chief Tappe said. “The flowing fuel makes it easier to predict where it is headed while a release of LNG or LPG is more difficult to predict.  Both the vapors from gasoline and LPG are heavier than air and will seek low areas: Storm drains, basements, etc. LNG, on the other hand, is lighter than air and will dissipate in the breeze easier since it tends to rise.

The Fire Department has to prepare for other alternative fuel uses and electric and hybrid cars.

Hydrogen-powered cars are being tested by General Motors within 200 miles of White Plains, N.Y., so Assistant Chief Tappe attended a training seminar where some of the safety features were demonstrated.

“Hydrogen is the most flammable and explosive gas known to man — think the Hindenburg disaster…

“Of course, our main concern was the safety of the hydrogen cylinders, possible explosion or fire, etc. GM showed us the test results on the cylinders.  They had shot at them with rifles, dropped them out of airplanes and run them over with tanks, and the cylinders did not fail.

Electric cars are another challenge, Mr. Tappe said. The high voltage systems are relatively simple to make safe if the car’s 12-volt battery can be accessed, but that is not always possible in a crash.

“We carry an entire booklet on our apparatus showing the location of high voltage batteries, 12 volt batteries and electric line placement for all makes and models of hybrid vehicles through 2012.  Obviously, this reference material requires updating annually as new models are released.”

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  • rdg-oldtimer

    Will a qualified person PLEASE step forward and de-throne RM! It is financially difficult living in this burg and costantly gets worse!

  • CMcQuilken

    Short response:

    Propane powered cars wouldn’t make economic sense for Ridgefield. They would cost more in the long run than our current fleet of gas powered cars.

    Longer response:

    * Propane costs $2.90 per gallon. But it has 10% less energy. So tack another 10% on the price to make it equivalent to gasoline. Propane = $3.20 per gallon (essentially).

    * Say a typical car gets 20 mpg and travels 20,000 miles per year That’s 1,000 gallons of fuel. For gasoline, that’s $4,000. For propane, that’s $3,200. Savings using propane is $800 per year.

    * Cost to convert cars is $5,500. At savings of $800 per year, the propane conversion would pay for itself in 7 years. OR AFTER THE CAR HAS BEEN DRIVEN 140,000 MILES. We don’t drive Ridgefield municipal cars 140,000 miles. We replace town police cars at about 60,000 miles. We replaced a fire truck at 16,000 miles. We were looking to replace the animal control van at 35,000 miles. Over the years I’ve heard of many town vehicles being replaced, but I don’t remember any over the 100,000 mark.

    This means we don’t keep the cars long enough to make the propane conversion economically worthwhile.

  • CMcQuicken – I would like to inform you of some facts about Propane. Our company manufactures a system that can upgrade a vehicle to run on Propane or Compressed Natural Gas. I can tell you that I do not have a customer that is paying anywhere near $2.90/gallon for Propane. Fleets get a much better discount because they fuel year round, and use much more fuel than a house. To base it on the heating fuel cost is to be uninformed. Our customer pays on average of $1.79/Gallon nationwide. You can get this price easily from any of the national providers, and can often do better from local suppliers.

    In addition, if you are getting 10% less efficiency, you are using an outdated system. Many systems, including ours, get on par mileage with Gasoline.

    Our average Return on Investment is 1-2 years. If a vehicle uses our system, and burns 1000 gallons of fuel, generally the ROI is going to come in at about 2.2 years. We do not recommend that fleets or individuals switch a vehicle to Propane unless they are using 1000 gallons or more.

    Hope this helps bring some new things to light. If you are using heating fuel numbers, and the older systems – then yes, Propane would be a waste of time. With the right supplier of both fuel and hardware, you can save a lot of costs.

  • CMcQuilken

    A few thoughts:

    1) You are in Michigan, where the average price of gas today is $3.51 per gallon. We are in Ridgefield, Connecticut, where our local shell station has a price today of $4.15 per gallon. Different worlds, if not different universes. I’m envious. 🙂

    2) You are correct about the $2.90 price per gallon for propane being too high. My mistake. I misread the article. But since we are talking about a difference between the two fuels, gasoline and propane, and Ridgefield doesn’t pay a gas tax, the bad economics work out to be the same anyway.

    Your website says the cost of propane is 25% to 40% cheaper than gasoline. Using the midpoint, by your numbers, this would make the cost of bulk propane in Ridgefield $1.95. Still have to bump it up 10% to $2.14 because propane doesn’t contain as many BTUs as gasoline. That’s just the facts. This 10% adjustment is quoted in many places, including a mention by a propane industry spokesperson.

    Cost of 1,000 gallons of gasoline per year: $2,900
    Cost of 1,000 gallons o propane per year: $2,140

    Same economics. Switching to propane will save Ridgefield about $800 per year and the $5,500 conversion will pay for itself after 7 years, or after the car is driven 140,000 miles. And we replace our municipal fleet of vehicles long before 140,000 miles. I just don”t see the economics working.

    And again, this is calculated using the fuel savings numbers from your website:


    “Save 25% to 40% on fuel Costs”

  • williamc

    The $1.95 price you are using is still too high for a city that is going to put out a request for bids.

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