Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Propane Buses: Environmentally and Financially Responsible

Isle of Wight County Schools recently ventured into a new era of student transportation with the purchase of our first propane powered school bus.  We began researching the possibility of adding propane buses to our fleet this past fall.  In March, a representative from Carter Machinery gave a presentation to our School Board on the benefits of using propane versus diesel buses.  Afterwards, we moved forward with acquiring the first propane bus for IWCS.  Currently, the bus is receiving some light use during this “trial run”.  It is currently being used to transport students to one of our regional programs, on a few field trips and as a substitute bus.  We’ll be investigating the addition of more to the fleet when we purchase replacement buses for next year.

I’m sure some of you are asking “Why propane?”    First, it is a much cleaner fuel than diesel.  As Transportation Coordinator Lee Livingston told me, diesel was never meant to be green.  A lot of money goes in to making a diesel bus run as “clean” as possible.  Propane buses use less oil and don’t require all the sensors and parts needed for a diesel bus to run.  For example, a catalyst in a diesel bus costs about $3,500 to replace, and this part will typically need to be replaced at least twice over the expected 15 year life cycle of a bus.  Plus, you have to factor in the labor involved, not to mention the bus being out of service during this repair.

Second, there are significant fuel rebates and tax credits from the state and federal government associated with using alternative fuels.  This makes the cost for propane fuel less then diesel.  We already have a contract with a local company for the small amount of propane used in our buildings.  With increased usage comes the opportunity to renegotiate our contract for a better overall price, further reducing the cost of propane.

A third benefit is the much quieter ride.  Bus drivers will be able to hear and talk to students without having to shout over the roar of the diesel engine.  This will increase safety on the bus and at loading/unloading zones.  There are other divisions throughout Virginia already using propane buses—Roanoke, Gloucester and Chesterfield are a few examples.  The drivers have compared the switch from diesel to propane as “going from a Pinto to a Cadillac”.  One division noted that the only complaint they received was from a parent whose child was missing the bus because they could no longer hear the roar of the engine as it was coming down the road in the morning. 
Propane buses do cost a little more than a diesel bus—ours was about $9,000 more than its diesel counterpart.  However, the cost differential will be covered by a grant through the Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy.  Because of the savings in maintenance and fuel, the total cost of ownership for a propane bus compared to diesel should save the division approximately $23,000 over the 15 year life of the vehicle.

Moving to propane buses is an innovative, cost-effective direction for the division. The quieter engine reduces noise on the bus, which allows the driver to focus on the road while being able to better hear what is going on around them.  Students can talk at a normal level and not have to yell over the loud engine.  In addition, the bus complies with all the safety features required of any school bus in Virginia.  Plus, the propane technology will result in savings over the life of the bus.  So keep your eyes open for our new propane bus. You will definitely see it before you hear it.