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Propane power

Bruce Smith July 7, 2009
Roush propane F-150

With gas prices steadily creeping up again, is it time to consider an alternative fuel for your truck?

 

By Barbara Cox



Although its debut in the automotive industry occurred more than 80 years ago, propane continues to spur interest through products such as Roush Performance’s propane-powered Ford pickup trucks and vans. Lending its clean-burning properties, propane offers the same performance, towing and torque capabilities as conventional gas-powered vehicles, while emitting 18 percent fewer greenhouse gases, 20 percent less NOx and 60 percent less carbon monoxide.

Transported and stored as a liquid but used for fueling purposes as a gas, propane has a higher octane rating, which allows it to burn cleanly without as many contaminants as traditional fuels. It’s also affordable, making it a viable competitor in today’s search for alternative fuels.

“Those who want to promote a greener image are often faced with economic challenges, but propane presents an affordable change,” says Brian Feehan, vice president, Propane Education Research Council.

Purchasers of Ford F-150s, F-250s, F-350s and the soon-to-be released Ford E-Series vans equipped with Roush’s Liquid Propane Injection kits may be eligible to receive up to a $5,000 tax credit (dependent on GVW) from the IRS, in addition to a 50-cent tax credit per gallon purchased when filed with the IRS. Owners can elect to file gallons purchased on a quarterly basis and receive their credits quarterly, or extend their filings to a later date.


A certified propane professional must refuel propane-powered vehicles.

Crunching the numbers

Equipment World had the chance to test drive a 2008 Roush propane-fueled Ford F-150 with a 5.4-liter V8 engine, and found the truck to be quiet with little difference in starting, except to turn and hold the key momentarily to give the propane time to ignite.

The in-bed propane kit for the F-150 costs $7,795 ($9,995 for the F-250 and F-350) plus a $1,000 installation fee if you go through Roush. Customers can install the propane system themselves, but Roush recommends an ASE-certified technician perform the work. The in-bed propane tank takes up 23 inches lengthwise from the back of the bed and consumes less than 300 pounds payload from the total 1,680 pounds. An under-bed option is also available for those who need more room in the back.

To incorporate the propane kit, Roush stripped the gas tank and mounted a 59-gallon propane tank in the bed of the truck. The tank includes an overfill protection valve, which leaves 20 percent room for expansion, so the tank holds roughly 40 gallons total.

Roush replaced the fuel rail system with an aluminum one and integrated stainless fuel lines while maintaining normal routing. Other enhancements include new fuel injectors, an air inlet valve and recalibration of the power control module (or PCM) to operate efficiently on propane. Roush says any Ford dealer’s existing scan tools will still work should a problem occur.

Right now, propane averages around $1.50 a gallon across the country, but when test-driving our demo, we were able to fill up for $1.33 per gallon at a local U-Haul. And with the in-bed tank, the truck has an estimated 500-mile range.

There was a slight drop in fuel economy, however. We averaged around 10.2 mpg in city, while the EPA estimates fuel economy at 11 mpg in city and 15 mpg on highway – a decrease from the 14/19 mpg a gasoline-powered truck achieves. This 10-percent drop in fuel economy can be attributed to propane’s reduced number of BTUs.

But Roush sticks by its trucks, stating propane users can still save up to six cents per mile. “Customers averaging around 20,000 miles per year should see payout between 15 and 18 months with our propane trucks,” says Todd Mouw, director of marketing, Roush Performance. “Afterwards, they will experience significant savings – about $3,000 per year – in fuel costs. Many owners will also see a reduction in maintenance by way of less oil changes.”


Fill’er up

Roush’s propane kit is available with an in-bed or under-bed tank.

Perhaps one of the most compelling arguments for using propane rests in its domesticity – 97 percent comes from the United States and Canada – a major plus for those interested in lessening this country’s dependence on foreign oil. Currently, there are approximately 2,500 public refueling stations in the United States and around 6,000 U-Haul stations that provide propane. (Check out the Alternative Fuels and Advanced Vehicles Data Center website at http://www.afdc.energy.gov/afdc/locator/stations/ to find a fueling station near you.)

Be sure to locate a supplier whose employees have completed a PERC training course on how to properly handle and fuel propane vehicles. And if you intend to educate your employees about propane fueling, talk to your supplier about available training courses or visit www.propanesafety.com.

As we found out when we waited 50-plus minutes for a propane fill, a trained professional must enable the overfill protection valve to allow room for expansion of the fuel and lessen fueling time. When done properly, the whole process should take around seven minutes, but individual owners cannot fuel the truck unless they’ve been certified to do so.

For large fleets and owners interested in their own private fueling stations, PERC’s Feehan suggests a few options. “Propane is extremely portable, so it doesn’t have to be constrained to any particular grid system. Users could have a temporary skid station set up in a matter of weeks by contacting suppliers, and later decide on a more permanent fueling station.”

The skid station proves valuable to fleet owners who must remain flexible. “It can be moved from jobsite to jobsite, so users are never without propane,” Feehan says.

If you don’t want to purchase a skid, check with your propane provider about leasing or for something long-term, ask about drawing up a contract with a predetermined propane price for a set period of time.

To calculate the possible savings you could gain from a propane fleet, check out PERC’s fleet calculator at http://www.propanecouncil.org/fleetcalculator/ and weigh the options against your current fleet. EW


How safe is propane?

Propane vehicles have been operating in United States since 1927, according to the Propane Education and Research Council. Most recently, Texas put 2,800 propane-powered school buses to use with no incidences to date.

Unlike gasoline, propane has a low flammability range. In addition, Ford and Roush rely on ASME-approved tanks made up of a quarter-inch thick steel for their propane trucks. “Like any fuel, it must be handled carefully and properly and suppliers must take part in extensive training programs,” says Brian Feehan, vice president, PERC. The council offers on-line training courses.

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