Getting on the propane train
Local firm leads way with how-to classes on converting engines and gas stations to eco-friendly propane
Most discussions about alternative automotive fuels revolve around hybrid, electric or other emerging, expensive technologies, but Bill Gaines believes there’s a better answer the general public may not be aware of—propane.
“It’s the low-hanging fruit of all the alternative fuels,” Gaines said, and he should know—he is a senior engineer (and co-founder) at Transfer Flow Inc., a Chico company that manufactures fuel-tank systems. “But you never hear about it. It’s just mind-boggling to me that all the press is about CNG [compressed natural gas], about hybrid, about electric—all extremely expensive conversions.
“Propane’s not that way at all; it’s a positive ROI [return on investment].”
Gaines is passionate about liquid propane’s application as “autogas” (as opposed to conventional gasoline, which is about 35 percent higher in CO2 emissions) and eager to extol its virtues. According to him, propane autogas outpaces other alternative fuels in most every area: It’s cheaper and cleaner, has no negative effect on a vehicle’s range and power, and can extend the life of an engine. It fills tanks at a rate of eight to 10 gallons a minute, just like gasoline, and 90 percent of the world’s supply is produced in the United States.
Gaines believes a recent chain of events likely will lead to propane’s higher profile: In 2009, Ford Motor Co. began offering the hardened valves and valve seats necessary to run propane fuel systems as an option on new vehicles, and ROUSH CleanTech started manufacturing a system to convert Ford gas engines to propane. ROUSH, Gaines explained, is the powertrain arm of Ford responsible for emissions testing, as well as the manufacturing of engine and vehicle control modules, and the software that runs them. He said other companies are developing similar products for General Motors vehicles.
Gaines acknowledges the importance of other alternatives, and Transfer Flow also focuses on these. “We’ve been looking for some time at what are the best choices for alternative fuels,” he said. “We’ve been in the hybrid business since 2004. We currently build a hybrid fuel system for heavy-transit buses; we have 200 of them in Long Beach. We’re involved with another company that’s converting F-150s to hybrid.”
Transfer Flow is also familiar with ethanol-E85, an ethanol-gasoline fuel blend, and has been testing its fuel systems with it.
“There’s a lot of good reasons for CNG, too—but further down the road,” he added, arguing that propane’s cost and availability make it best in the short term. While the California Air Resources Board (CARB) keeps pushing back deadlines for other low-emissions alternatives to work out the kinks and costs, he explained, propane technology has already arrived. There’s no need to build expensive filling stations (CNG filling stations, Gaines noted, cost around a million dollars) because existing propane dealers can adapt.
“You’re going to have a [low-emissions]-compliant vehicle coming in that can use propane,” he postulated. “You’ve got the infrastructure, because all of these small propane dealers throughout the North State can convert to fuel automobiles for $15,000, by simply installing a larger pump.”
Gaines said the cost of converting a vehicle to propane is about $11,000 compared to $16,000 for CNG and $40,000 for hybrid conversions. “And that’s depending on the vehicle—converting a bus to hybrid can cost more than $150,000.”
He explained niche-market fleets like ambulances and other utility vehicles are Transfer Flow’s primary objective and stand to gain the most from converting to propane.
The only thing lacking is people who know propane, he said, and here Gaines sees opportunity: “We’ve got the infrastructure, we’ve got the vehicles, but we have no training. First-responders don’t know what to do with a propane system, neither do the mechanics, or the educators. There’s no curriculum.”
To solve this lack of propane curriculum, Gaines’ company has been working with other companies (ROUSH, Ferrellgas, Ford, etc.) as well as the California Energy Commission—which oversees the use of propane in the state of California—to develop one.
On May 26, Transfer Flow hosted an open-house event to launch its Propane Conversion and Installation Training Program, which included the opportunity for members of the public to ride in a propane-powered vehicle. The first of eight week-long classes will begin July 18.
“We want to train the trainers first,” Gaines said. He hopes the first session will attract first-responders, educators, fleet mechanics and people who are already knowledgeable about alternative fuels. All interested parties are welcome as long as they meet the basic requirements: U.S. citizenship, California residency and a high-school diploma.
The training program will include an overview of alternative fuels and advanced-technology vehicles, basic propane-vehicle skills (filling the tank, etc.), and hands-on installation of a liquid propane-autogas system. The program is funded by the California Energy Commission’s Alternative and Renewable Fuel and Vehicle Technologies Program.
“It’s going to be a lot of hands-on training,” Gaines said. “I’m a big believer in that, and not of PowerPoints and lectures. I want people to see what an injector looks like, what an injector rail looks like, what a pump looks like, and to come away with more than just a passing knowledge.”
So far, 29 people have signed up for training, with Transfer Flow hoping for 170 total students in all eight classes.
Gaines hopes these training sessions are just the beginning.
“We’ve been working with Butte College,” he offered. “What we’d like to see them do is take that training curriculum, which we should have pretty well-honed by the eighth class, and make it part of their automotive curriculum.”
“It’s here, it’s time,” said Gaines. “We need to teach it.”