Busing the kiddies … with propane?

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You pay less for fuel, get longer oil change intervals, and the engine lasts longer because propane burns much cleaner. Those savings add up fast, especially for municipalities.” –Joe Allen, technical support, Rush Bus Center, a division of Rush Enterprises

Got a chance to sit down with Jacques van Heerdon and Joe Allen at Rush Truck Centers 2010 Technician Skills Rodeo this week to talk about propane-powered school buses – an appropriate topic for the two as they are, respectively, the operations manager and technical support chief for Rush Bus Centers (RBC); a division of Rush Enterprises dedicated to the school bus market.

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RBC is an authorized dealer for Blue Bird school buses so it’s not surprising that they were showing off not one but TWO different propane powered versions; a Vision model equipped with a GM 8.1 liter engine designed and engineered to operate on propane by Powertrain Integration using CleanFUEL USA’s liquid propane injection system, with the other a smaller “Micro Bird” model built on a Ford E-450 chassis using a 6.8 liter engine powered by a Roush liquid propane system.

Why propane power for school bus fleets, you ask? Well the big reason (no surprise here) is economics; at the end of the day, using all the tax credits available, school bus fleets will typically only pay 58 to 68 cents per gallon of propane. And it takes only five minutes or so to refuel a propane bus; almost equal to the time needed for refilling a comparable diesel- or gasoline-powered model.

More importantly, perhaps, is that propane refueling stations are a lot cheaper to build versus other alternative fuels – costing some $60,000 as opposed to $180,000 to $250,000 for a comparable natural gas refilling site, for example.

Add to that an existing resupply network for liquid propane gas or “LPG” as its formally known – largely for the tanks required by gas-fired BBQ grills as well as home heating systems – and propane begins to make a lot of economic sense for school bus operators, noted RBC’s Allen.

[Here, Allen shows off Blue Bird’s propane-powered Vision model school bus.]

“The important part, I think, is that these buses are delivered ‘propane ready’ right from the factory,” RBC's Allen told me. “The propane-ready engine is dropped in, the propane tanks and refueling neck are added between the frame rails, and it’s ready to go – no aftermarket upfitting required.”

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And as school buses typically operate on short, fixed routes every day, propane’s lower miles per gallon rating doesn’t really affect operating patterns very much – especially as they can be refueled fairly quickly. That’s one reason why San Antonio’s Northside school distinct put in an order for 50 of these propane-powered yellow buses this year.

But why should truckers care? I mean, for most over-the-road operators, propane isn’t a workable solution as of yet. But the critical point, I think, is this: fueling school buses with something other than diesel or gasoline makes more petroleum available to freight haulers.

Thus, removing petroleum demand from the transportation market could prove to be the biggest ripple effect of school buses switching to propane. Only time will tell, though. We’ll just have to see how it all plays out.

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