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Spec’ing Natural Gas Vehicles

Denise Rondini March 29, 2012

As natural gas powered vehicles gain popularity, you need to be ready to sell and service them.

By Denise L. Rondini, Executive Editor

drondini@randallreilly.com

“Natural gas has clearly emerged as the most realistic alternative fuel option for the trucking industry,” says Dan Ustian, Navistar chairman, president and chief executive officer.

Rising fuel prices coupled with an increased emphasis on the environment has caused fleets to look at purchasing alternative fueled vehicles. “The price of natural gas over the past three years has been consistently lower than diesel, in some cases by as much as $2 per diesel gallon equivalent,” says Andy Douglas, national sales manager for specialty markets at Kenworth Truck Co. “It’s no wonder why natural gas has drawn interest among truck and fleet operators.”

When a customer is interested in exploring natural gas options, there are several factors that need to be considered initially.

“Start with two primary considerations when spec’ing natural gas powered trucks ― first, the type of natural gas available in your (customer’s) operating area, and second, the operating range (his) trucks typically travel,” says Douglas.

One of the key considerations in the choice of compressed natural gas (CNG) or liquefied natural gas (LNG) is the availability of natural gas stations in the areas where your customers will be operating.

 “Currently, many local transit and government agencies use CNG to power trucks and buses, so that fuel source may be easier to find,” he says. “Meanwhile, the natural gas infrastructure available to the public is expanding at an accelerated rate across the United States and Canada along well-traveled transportation routes.”

For example, Clean Energy Fuels Corp. recently revealed a route plan for the first phase of 150 new LNG fueling stations. The company has identified 98 locations and anticipates having 70 stations open in 33 states by the end of the year. It is anticipated that many of those fueling stations will be at Pilot-Flying J Travel Centers.

 Navistar also announced a natural gas distribution agreement with Clean Energy in which the two will work closely with the Navistar commercial truck dealers and fleet customers on the deployment of natural gas powered trucks and a natural gas distribution support system. “This collaborative effort will benefit the transportation industry by helping accelerate natural gas acceptance and growth,” Ustian says.

 In addition to the availability of natural gas, dealership salespeople need to focus on the vehicle’s operating range. “In general, if the operating range is over 400 miles, it’s usually best to go with LNG. Under 400 miles, CNG can be an option,” Douglas says.

Another factor to consider is fuel tank selection. According to Douglas there sometimes is a tendency to overspec when choosing natural gas tanks since operators normally carry a two-to-three day fuel supply in a diesel powered vehicle.

“In many cases it is impractical to carry much more than a day’s supply of natural gas,” he says. “Natural gas fuel tanks also can be expensive, so (fleets) should consider carrying only enough fuel for a full-day’s work, plus a 10 percent reserve.”

Fuel tank placement will depend on the type of truck, chassis configuration, equipment specification choices and the amount of fuel that needs to be carried. “It’s important to carefully consider the possible impact of tank placement choices on wheelbase length, weight distribution and turning radius,” Douglas explains.

The increased availability of natural gas powered vehicles present salespeople with another option to offer to their customers.

“Natural gas represents a tremendous future for our industry,” Douglas says. “Knowing how to choose the right model, fuel, tanks and engine is important for truck fleets and operators looking at adding natural gas units to their operation.”

           

Don’t Overlook Service

Most dealership that will be selling natural gas powered trucks also will want to capture the service business from those trucks.

 Navistar is in the process of releasing facility guidelines for dealerships servicing CNG and LNG vehicles.

 According to Jim Krzmarzick, Navistar’s manager – network expansion, there are several things dealers need to do to ensure the safety of their technicians who work on these vehicles.

All shops servicing CNG and LNG vehicles must be modified to detect leaks, have sensors, alarms and comprehensive ventilation systems and need to be fitted with special heating and electrical fixtures to prevent ignition of gases.

 Krzmarzick believes safe working conditions and practices must be established and enforced so that when customers with these alternative fueled vehicles come to a dealership, technicians will be prepared to service them in a safe environment.

           

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