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Running an all-fuel shop

March 13, 2015
You need to examine maintenance practices when adding alternative fuels

There are many different alternative fuels being deployed in the truck world these days—natural gas, propane, dimethyl ester (DME), hydrogen, and electricity, just to name a few. By their very nature, each of those fuels will require changes to fleet operations and vehicle maintenance both in terms of facilities and protocols.

Yet overhauls to maintenance procedures and shop infrastructure might not always be as extensive or costly as many fear, explains Mike Britt, director of maintenance & engineering international operations-ground fleet for UPS.
“We have been in the alternative fuel business long before regulatory guidelines were established,” he says. “And, in fact, our first locations did not require any shop upgrades.”

Currently, “Big Brown” operates over 4,518 alternative-fuel vehicles (AFVs), including natural gas, propane and hybrid propulsion systems. Since 2000, the company says its AFVs have logged over 350 million mi., saving 34.5 million gal. of conventional gasoline and diesel fuel.  And UPS remains on track to achieve its goal of driving 1 billion mi. by the end of 2017.

Britt notes that while there are many federal guidelines and local ordinances to obey in order to safely accommodate the maintenance needs of such a wide variety of AFVs, the best place to start is with the local fire marshal.

Scott Perry, vice president of supply management and global fuel products for Ryder System, adds that the fire marshal is the key person to bring to the table when a fleet is considering the addition of AFVs to its operation.

“It’s the local ordinances that change the most from location to location,” he explains. “We’re in 15 different markets [in the U.S.] where we upgraded our facilities to handle alternative fuels, primarily natural gas. Even if you don’t think you’ll need to make changes, it is always good to bring the fire marshal into the discussion as they will be communicating what you are doing—and why what you are doing is safe—to the local community.”

UPS’s Britt adds that, based on Big Brown’s experience, fleets intending to deploy trucks powered by liquid natural gas (LNG), compressed natural gas (CNG) or fuel cells (which require hydrogen) will face the biggest investment costs in terms of shop upgrades for fire notification, fire protection and air exchange systems.

“But LPG [propane] does not require any shop upgrade,” he stresses.

First steps

The experience of David Voiles, transportation fleet manager with Oregon’s Bend-La Pine School District, provides a case in point. Out of 134 total buses in Bend-La Pine’s fleet, 54 are propane-powered with the remainder running on diesel. Voiles says the school district actually made the decision to switch over to propane in 2009 largely due to uptime issues related to exhaust gas recirculation (EGR) and diesel particulate filters (DPFs) used on 2007 model-year diesel-powered units.

"Propane expands rapidly when exposed to air, so technicians working on the propane fuel system wear protective gear such as gloves and a pull-down face mask." —David Voiles, transportation fleet manager, Oregon’s Bend-La Pine School District

“We lived with them until 2009 when second-generation technology propane buses came along,” he explains. ”My supervisor asked me if I wanted to test-drive one, and I was surprised by the amount of power the engine produced and how easy it was to drive.”

The clincher proved to be the opportunity to actually lessen his fleet’s maintenance needs by switching to propane.

“It’s actually cheaper and easier for us to get engine parts as these buses run on regular General Motors V8 or Ford Motor V10 gasoline engines modified for propane fuel,” Voiles points out. “So, we can just go to the local GM or Ford dealer or a NAPA parts store if we need something. We don’t need to keep them on our shelves and that saves on inventory.”

New twists

Voiles adds that most of the technicians are quite familiar with gasoline V8 and V10 engines, so extra training was only needed on propane-specific components. “In many ways, they are no different than what’s powering their cars,” he points out.

“We spent under $500 on some new tools and ran a two-day training session on the new fuel system,” Voiles continues. “All in all, it’s a fairly easy setup to diagnose and maintain.”

Propane does not produce particulate exhaust, so there is no need for DPF cleaning. “We can extend our oil drain interval because they run so clean,” he notes. “We also don’t have to use any special engine oils, just the same 5W-40 synthetic winter-rated blend we use for our diesels.”

The propane buses start just fine in cold weather, alleviating the need for engine block heaters, he adds. This is another maintenance item that is removed from the checklist.

In terms of maintenance protocols, though, a few things needed to be altered, Voiles emphasizes. As a heavier-than-air gas, propane will congregate in shop “low spots” such as inspection pits. “However, it’s very hard to light, with an ignition temperature of 900 deg. F,” he stresses, higher than either diesel or gasoline fuels. “There’s also a strong odor so you will smell a leak.”

Working with the local fire marshal, it was determined that Bend-La Pine’s shop would not need any upgrades in order to work on propane buses, Voiles says.

Propane expands rapidly when exposed to air, so technicians working on the propane fuel system wear protective gear such as gloves and a pull-down face mask, he notes.  All “hot work” such as welding is kept well away from where bus fuel system work occurs, but that’s no different than what’s done for the fleet’s diesel buses.

Yet, not every alternative fuel proves as easy to integrate from a maintenance perspective.

Russ Musgrove, managing director for global vehicles at FedEx Express, a subsidiary of FedEx Corp., emphasizes that each alternative fuel /drivetrain can potentially create the need for facility upgrades based on several critical metrics: regulatory codes, parking considerations, and maintenance profiles.

“These upgrades can include ventilation equipment, detection equipment, electrical modifications, and structure considerations,” he points out. “When considering investing in a new [AFV] technology, it is critical that you understand the infrastructure necessary to support and operate it.”

As of the end of FedEx’s 2013 fiscal year, the company operated a total fleet of 709 alternatively powered vehicles: 363 hybrid-electric delivery trucks; 214 all-electric trucks (which include 97 all-electric forklifts); 45 LNG- and CNG-powered trucks; 41 propane trucks; 40 hydrogen fuel cell vehicles; and six hydraulic hybrid trucks.

When operating such a wide assortment of AFVs,  Musgrove says it is critical to conduct an assessment of maintenance facilities. That assessment should consider any modifications plus the estimated cost of those modifications to allow for the operation and maintenance of AFVs alongside diesel- and/or gasoline-powered equipment.

Unique needs

“That’s the first step in the process,” he says. “Each alternative fuel/drivetrain brings a set of unique maintenance practices that need to be adapted to your company’s specific duty cycles.” Musgrove also explains that permits and regulatory requirements vary by city, so fleet operators seeking to deploy AFVs need to find and work with the primary permitting and regulatory agency.

"Each alternative fuel/drivetrain brings a set of unique maintenance practices that need to be adapted to your company’s specific duty cycles." —Russ Musgrove, managing director, FedEx Express

That’s part of what falls into the “asking the right questions up front” category, according to John McNichols, product director for hybrid-electric propulsion system maker Crosspoint Kinetics.

“That includes clarifying your deployment objectives, [as] facility infrastructure and maintenance costs often outweigh system unit cost considerations when choosing an alternative fuel approach,” he explains.  “Fleets that can clearly identify their operating environments are more likely to be adequately prepared to implement and maintain systems that meet their objectives,” McNichols notes. “Ask questions of potential manufacturers and providers of these systems regarding authorized service centers in your area, spare parts availability and accessibility, documentation, available training, service support and response times.”


When it comes to taking care of all-electric vehicles (EVs) and hybrid electric vehicles (HEVs), the electric drivetrains are typically completely sealed components, thus serviced as a replaceable unit. 

Battery time

“Electric drive components typically have fewer moving parts than an internal combustion engine, so they last the life of a vehicle,” he adds. “Control components and batteries are usually handled as modular components for replacements and troubleshooting.”

In the EV and HEV world, battery management typically is the main maintenance issue. “Environmental control and battery chemistry are major issues in maintaining these systems,” McNichols emphasizes. “Battery life expectancy is a critical issue and manufacturer-recommended inspection and replacement intervals should be followed in addition to close performance and environmental monitoring.”

Alternative energy storage systems such as ultracapacitors, however, are less susceptible to these issues but need close monitoring for maximum performance.

“Unlike batteries that degrade in performance over time and cycles, ultracapacitor systems offer much longer life and charge/discharge cycles without major degradation or needing replacement,” McNichols notes. While EV and HEV systems do require specific training, they are typically not any more difficult to maintain than the petroleum-fired engines ubiquitous to the trucking world. 

“EV and HEV system manufacturers typically offer initial training to fleet technicians as part of the purchase and implementation and often offer ongoing and advanced training for a fee,” McNichols says. “These systems are usually maintained using a computer-based or onboard diagnostic and maintenance system.  Fleet technicians are typically accustomed to such tools, and most can be run on available computers and tablets.”

The need for special tools or diagnostic equipment should be identified up front and costs should be considered as part of the total cost of ownership, he points out.

Drew Cullen, senior vice president of fuels and facility services for Penske, stresses that the “absolute number-one consideration” for fleets contemplating the addition of AFVs is to determine up front, well before any AFVs are targeted for acquisition, what fuel works best for their operation.

“You’ve got to look at range, operating characteristics, refueling needs, maintenance needs, etc.,” he emphasizes. “All of that must be evaluated beforehand.”

“Measure twice/cut once” is an old-school maxim from the construction industry that Cullen says exemplifies why such due diligence is critical on the front end.

“It really comes down to the type of fuel. That’s what will drive the building codes, shop changes, and new maintenance procedures you’ll need to adopt,” he points out. “And if an alternative fuel you are exploring is not a good fit for your operation right now, use that process to figure out what levers may make it fit down the road.”

Proper perspective

When it comes to DME, that down-the-road perspective is important, as that alternative fuel is still in the prototype-testing stage.

Frank Bio, director of sales development, specialty vehicles and alternative fuels for Volvo Trucks North America, notes that DME truck engines should have the same maintenance schedule as today, but because DME-powered equipment is not yet commercialized in North America, that may change.

“Until then, we may find engine items that need to be added to the schedule, [though] we do not expect any,” Bio says. “Beyond the engine, however, the truck may require maintenance for the DME tanks and the supply system to the engine. Maintenance items may include additional filters and filter changes.”

DME is a synthetically produced alternative to diesel for use in specially designed compression ignition diesel engines. But it may not require costly DPFs to meet exhaust emissions standards. Because of its high oxygen content and lack of carbon-to-carbon bonds, there is virtually no particulate matter formed during combustion, Volvo notes.

As it requires about 75 lbs. per square inch (psi) of pressure to be in liquid form, DME’s handling requirements are similar to that of propane. Both are required to be kept in pressurized storage tanks at ambient temperature.

"That’s probably the most important lesson we learned: Do your homework. There’s really no one standard set of blueprints for shop upgrades like this; no one-size-fits-all implementation process." —Scott Perry, vice president Ryder System

Yet, DME has only about half the energy density of diesel fuel, notes Volvo, meaning that fuel tank size must be doubled for a DME-fueled truck to travel the same distance as a diesel-powered truck.

Bio says that’s just one of the findings from a pilot demonstration of DME trucks that Volvo has been running in North America since 2013. There are also some maintenance-related changes that would be needed as well.
“Operators should expect that they will need to inspect DME tanks and the supply system just as they need to inspect diesel tanks and diesel fuel supply today,” he adds. “The scope of work and certification, if needed, would be more like what is required for diesel than what is needed for the engines and fuel systems currently used for CNG and LNG engines.”

And fleets selecting CNG- and/or LNG-powered vehicles face some of the highest costs when it comes to maintenance facilities and practices.

Leo Thomason, co-founder and executive director of the Natural Gas Vehicle Institute (NGVi), notes that there are four primary fire codes that must be followed when a shop seeks to work on natural gas-fired trucks:

  • The National Fire Protection Assn. (NFPA) 52 Vehicular Gaseous Fuel Systems Code  
  • Number 70 National Electrical Code
  • The 30A Code for Motor Fuel Dispensing Facilities and Repair Garages
  • The International Fire Code 

“Those codes address the lighting, heating, ventilation, and internal building structural systems of vehicle maintenance facilities,” he explains in an NGVi white paper.

“Existing vehicle maintenance or repair facilities have been designed to meet safety code requirements for gasoline and/or diesel, [but] both the liquid and the vapors from those fuels are heavier than air,” Thomason points out.

One example of the different challenges natural gas presents is when it comes to the definition of “hazardous areas.”  In gasoline/diesel vehicle maintenance facilities, the defined hazardous area is from the floor 18 in. up, Thomason points out, meaning there cannot be any ignition sources in this space. Thus, ventilation flow is introduced at the ceiling level and exhausted at or near floor level.

“Conversely, since natural gas is lighter than air, the defined hazardous area is from the ceiling 18 in. down,” he says. “There can be no ignition sources within this defined space, which is the opposite of the design for most existing gasoline/diesel vehicle maintenance facilities.”

As a result, the ventilation flow in natural gas vehicle (NGV) maintenance facilities should be introduced at the floor and exhausted at or near the ceiling.

“What fleet managers must understand is that even if an NGV vehicle requires routine maintenance, such as an oil change or tire rotation, the maintenance facility must be able to safely accommodate the lighter-than-air fuel,” Thomason stresses. “However, there are administrative procedures that can be implemented to accommodate maintenance and repair of non-NGV fuel system components. For example, an NGV may be parked inside an unmodified maintenance facility for non-CNG fuel system maintenance under certain circumstances and conditions.”

Paper trail

Those administrative procedures include protocols such as leak checks prior to bringing the NGV into the shop, turning off the fuel supply, and ensuring adequate ventilation. Also, without further modification of the facility, NGV vehicles cannot be parked inside the maintenance facility overnight and/or when no technicians are present.

Ryder dealt with all of this firsthand as part of a $38.7-million project launched with the San Bernardino Associated Governments back in 2011 to deploy 202 heavy-duty NGVs as part of a truck rental and leasing program in Southern California. Ryder’s Perry notes that it required the company to upgrade three existing maintenance facilities in California (located in Rancho Dominguez, Orange, and Fontana) for “indoor servicing” of NGVs as well as plans to build two natural gas fueling stations.

“The physical infrastructure cost of those upgrades was quite significant,” Perry notes, although Ryder declined to cite a specific dollar figure. “For a shop with one [maintenance] bay, the cost of installing methane detection systems and an air handling unit [to quickly vent any natural gas out of the shop] would not be as much; however, most of our facilities contain multiple bays so that expense was higher.”

Ryder found getting its technicians up to speed on the nuances of natural gas-fired engines proved to be simpler than expected.  “We found that to be the relatively easy part of the process,” Perry says. “It’s straightforward that technicians would require training, but [since] ours constantly receive training on an ongoing basis regarding any number of truck components, they are used to that process.”

Ryder also had to deal with upgrading and, in some cases, completely changing the parts inventory at each of its facilities tagged to handle natural gas-powered trucks. “Those vehicles require new and different parts—from injectors to fuel hoses—so we needed to add those to inventory shelves,” Perry explains.

“It’s just one of those things you must consider when you are doing your homework prior to a shop upgrade,” he stresses. “That’s probably the most important lesson we learned: Do your homework. There’s really no one standard set of blueprints for shop upgrades like this; no one-size-fits-all implementation process.”

Mike Hasinec, Penske’s vice president of maintenance systems and support, though, adds this final thought to the mix: Fleets won’t find the level of maintenance training and parts inventory shifts required for AFV adoption to be as involved as the transition to 2010 emissions-compliant equipment.

“At the end of the day, transitioning to take care of natural gas-powered trucks really mirrored the process we went through to adjust to EPA 2010-compliant equipment,” he says. “Any time you bring new technology into the fleet, you’re going to work closely with your OEMs, suppliers and dealers for support. You’re going to figure out what you need and stock up on it until you get over the hump. It’s really not a whole lot different from a maintenance process perspective.” 

About the Author

Sean Kilcarr | Editor in Chief

Sean previously reported and commented on trends affecting the many different strata of the trucking industry. Also be sure to visit Sean's blog Trucks at Work where he offers analysis on a variety of different topics inside the trucking industry.

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