The county will soon find out if the gas is greener on the other side.
The Sampson County Board of Commissioners has unanimously agreed to pursue an agreement that would see 24 Sheriff’s Office vehicles equipped with propane autogas conversions, a move that could save $25,000 a year and lead to similar conversions in other county departments.
Representatives with Parker Gas Company and Raleigh Police Department met with county staff and commissioners during a special meeting early Monday to give a more in-depth presentation on an issue initially brought to the board last month.
The board held off on a vote early Monday, but ultimately gave its authorization at its regular meeting Monday night to enter into the agreement. The total cost of 22 units would be valued at $127,600, a cost of $5,800 per vehicle, with two additional units thrown in free of charge.
Parker Gas Company co-owner David Parker and company representative Mark Burke, along with Raleigh Police Department Cpt. Doug Brugger, spoke to commissioners early Monday, singing the praises such a conversion has been economically and environmentally.
Raleigh police have been running a number of converted cars for approximately one year and, not only have they not experienced any problems or maintenance issues with the system, they intend to convert more cars in the coming year. The savings came quickly: with those first 10 vehicles alone, Raleigh reportedly saved $30,000.
There are 25 other law enforcement agencies in the Southeast that are undergoing similar conversions — the Sampson County Sheriff’s Office is now another.
Burke took commissioners through a slide show detailing the numerous law enforcement and other agencies across the country and state that have undergone similar conversions, and the subsequent savings they experienced. Parker said, while propane is newer to the general populous, he was very familiar with its merits as a viable fuel.
“Our company, we’ve been running propane vehicles since I was a little boy,” said Parker. “It’s a proven product. It’s a good product. The technology is there. It’s a money-saver. I wouldn’t be involved in it if it wasn’t a good product. The reputation of our company means enough to me, we wouldn’t be trying to sell this product if I wasn’t convinced about it myself.”
“Propane is a much, much cleaner gas,” Burke said.
Along with being non-pollutant, propane provided a lower cost, ease of use and reduced maintenance,Parker noted.
“Green is great,” said Parker, “but it all comes down to economics. If you can’t save some money, not too many people are interested in the green part of it. I don’t know many people that have money to spend just because it feels good. And you get a benefit other than economics.”
A study presented previously by Parker Gas Company, utilizing information about the sheriff’s vehicles mileage and gas use, showed potential savings that could be achieved by converting 24 cars to run on autogas.
According to those numbers, the 24 vehicles log 69,138 total miles in a given month, using 4,707 gallons of gas in the process. Multiplying that by 12 months, those vehicles consume about 56,480 gallons of gas each year. At $3.13 a gallon, that is a cost of $176,780 annually to fill up those vehicles alone.
Using calculations for liquefied petroleum (LP) autogas, Parker estimated there would be 62,127 gallons used over the same one-year timeframe, compared to the 56,480 gallons of regular gas. On average, running on LP gas reduces gas mileage by 10 to 15 percent per vehicle, he noted.
“The reason being there’s less BTUs per gallon of propane, less energy in a gallon — that’s the norm,” said Parker. “The fuel savings by far offsets any of that.”
While trips to fill up would be more frequent, the cost per LP gallon would be fixed at about half the current rate, or $1.52, as used in the analysis. At that rate, the total cost for the same vehicles would be $94,433 with LP gas, a savings of $82,346, the analysis showed. Factoring in the lease per year cost of $2,400 per vehicle ($57,600 total), the actual savings per year would be $24,746.
“In the 18 months that we’ve done it, there’s always been a savings,” said Brugger. “Has that gap narrowed a little bit? Sure it has, down to maybe 60, 70 cents a gallon.”
“Over the past five years,” Parker said, “the spread between gasoline prices and propane prices has been fairly constant. The supply of propane in this country is as high as it’s ever been. Nobody can predict the future, but I feel we’re safe to assume that at least for the foreseeable future we should be in a good position to save money.”
He said the ability is there to give the county a locked-in price for up to 12-18 months out.
“Then again, you never know what’s a good deal today….” said Parker. “It’s not a bad strategy. I always recommend to a customer if you’re going to do a locked-in price, do half. Don’t put all your eggs in one basket. Unfortunately, supply and demand don’t necessarily dictate price anymore. But if we can’t save you money, we don’t want to sell it to you.”
Parker said the company has used propane on its own delivery trucks. Those engines have been torn down after 300,000 miles and are “just as clean as they were new.” While using propane would not pay dividends for an everyday motorist, the benefits are definitely there for fleets of vehicles that are driven many miles a year.
Parker, Burke and Brugger also spoke to the safety of the product. Parker said the proper training would be provided to those using the equipment.
“I’ve been involved with running propane on vehicles my entire life, so it’s not anything new to me,” said Parker. “Everyone who thinks about propane thinks it’s so dangerous. It’s a safe fuel. It requires respect, yes, but the fueling process is as safe as gasoline. Most people assume that it’s dangerous because they have not had experience with it. This is not new technology, it’s not something that has been thrown out here haphazardly. It’s been tested.”
Brugger said before Raleigh PD went forward with the propane conversion, which they did two years ago, he had to be convinced of the product’s safety, reliability and ease of use.
“All three of those were able to be satisfied,” he said. “We put our first 10 cars in service May of 2011. We put our second 10 cars in service this past May. Those 20 cars have been involved in approximately 10 accidents, one was pretty significant. We have not had an issue with those tanks.”
He said the tanks are a quarter-inch thick enforced steel, and noted “it would take a very catastrophic event for one to rupture, then catch fire.”
“It’s 25 times safer than a gasoline tank,” Burke added.
The reduced maintenance would allow vehicles to travel “double or triple the amount of miles” between oil changes and some other regular maintenance. It won’t affect the warranty at all, said Burke.
“We remove no factory components whatsoever,” said Burke. “All of our components actually mirror the factory components.”
‘Bigger than just us’
Brugger took commissioners and county staff outside to show his patrol car and the propane system that had been installed. He explained the “bi-fuel system,” through which the vehicle starts on gasoline and immediately switches to autogas. It runs on autogas and when the level of the LP gets low enough, it switches automatically back to regular gas.
He attested to the car’s operationality and said many of the officers in the Raleigh department actually prefer the propane autogas vehicles to the solely gas-operated ones. Brugger said he typically only has to fill his patrol car up with five gallons of gasoline every six to eight weeks.
The cost of the conversion equipment will be accommodated in the existing budget, said Sampson County Sheriff Jimmy Thornton. The equipment will belong to the county at the end of the lease term and is designed to be transferred to new vehicles. Past the initial cost of the conversion equipment, the cost to transfer that equipment to other cars, once the patrol vehicles are taken off the road, is just $2,000, approximately $1,500 in labor and $500 in parts.
Burke said the equipment usually outlasts the vehicles themselves. Parker Gas will also provide the county with a propane filling station at the Sheriff’s Office at no additional charge.
The local company’s involvement in Alliance partners, a group of propane dealers across the country, allows the county availability and support. Parker said it is not just Clinton-based Parker Gas Company, but a group promoting the product — Parker said county officials would be hard-pressed to find a better deal.
“Can you find it cheaper, absolutely,” said Parker. “Will it be cheaper in the long run? No, I don’t think you’ll find a more cost-effective way in the long run. That’s the beauty of the Alliance partnership. It’s not just Parker Gas Company. I didn’t think Parker Gas Company could come in here and provide the support you needed for this conversion on our own. This way, we could have support beyond us. It’s bigger than just us.”
Chris Berendt can be reached at 910-592-8137 ext. 121 or via email at email@example.com.