Kentucky School Advocate
By Vickie Mitchell
In mid-2013, the Crittenden County school district became the first school system in Kentucky to test a propane-powered school bus. A few weeks from now, the district will take delivery of its eighth propane bus, evidence that Crittenden County is sold on the alternative fuel.
“When you run the numbers, it is a pretty easy decision. You’ll never look back,” said Wayne Winters, left, a Crittenden County transportation official and vice president of the Kentucky Association for Pupil Transportation.
Winters discussed the district’s experiences in a clinic session during the KSBA annual conference, along with Michael Taylor, director of autogas business development for the Propane Education and Research Council (PERC), a propane industry group.
Propane autogas is propane that is used to fuel vehicles. It is the third-most popular fuel in the world, but it is not used as widely in the U.S. as in other parts of the world.
Although propane-powered school buses are new to Kentucky, they are not new in this country, Taylor said. The Portland, Ore., schools have used them for 32 years. But technological improvements in fuel systems, in part funded by PERC, have made propane more popular, and today, 6,000 propane school buses are on the road, according to Taylor, and the number continues to grow. The four major school bus manufacturers all have propane models.
Other Kentucky school districts are following Crittenden County’s lead. Some 30 propane school buses are on order across the state, according to Winters.
Within months of putting its first propane bus on the road, the Crittenden County school board authorized the purchase of additional propane buses, Winters said. “Our first bus saved $5,800 the first year.”
According to Winters, the savings went beyond low up-front fuel cost. Like other school districts in the U.S. that have moved to propane-powered buses, Crittenden County found that its propane buses cost less to maintain. For example, in cold weather, unlike diesel engines, they didn't need fuel additives, they didn’t have to be warmed up and they didn’t have to be plugged in to block heaters.
“We keep about 26 buses plugged up, so it costs us $800-$1,200 a month to run the block heaters,” said Winters.
A propane engine also requires less oil than a diesel, seven quarts compared with 32 for diesel. Propane engines don’t have a limited idling time as diesel engines do. Bus mechanics across the country have reported that propane engines are easier to work on and require less maintenance.
When Winters calculated all costs, he found that his district’s propane buses cost 23 cents a mile to operate compared with 56 cents a mile for its diesel buses.
Propane is also a healthier and safer fuel choice, Winters and Taylor said. It is considered a clean fuel and unlike diesel, it does not contaminate the air, the ground or water.
“As our superintendent and board members showed, this is how to save money while creating a safer environment for the students and the community,” said Winters.
“We do hear one complaint,” said Taylor. “We have districts that tell us, ‘we could hear diesel school buses coming. The propane buses are so quiet that they are by before we realize it, and the kids have missed their bus to school.’”
About the only disadvantage Winters has found is that “you can’t always use propane buses on a field trip.” Propane-powered buses have a range of 350-400 miles, but for trips longer than that, the limited number of propane fueling centers makes using them a challenge. Taylor and Winters believe that as propane autogas becomes more popular, major gas station chains will add propane fueling stations.
For now though, Winters believes that a fleet that relies on more than one type of fuel makes the most sense. “Will we go 100 percent propane? Probably not,” he said.
But, he says, propane is and will continue to be part of the mix for his school bus fleet.