HOUSTON, Texas — When Saddle Creek Transportation brought together drivers to introduce them to the company’s new fleet of natural gas trucks, director of transportation John Erwin stood at the back of the room where he could hear the grumbling.
Drivers were wary of sitting on “time bombs” that could explode at any minute. Erwin decided to dismiss the formalities and instead turned to YouTube, where he found videos to show his drivers of natural gas fuel tanks being shot with rifles, set atop bonfires, and all manner of other silliness that shouldn’t be tried at home, but nonetheless makes a compelling case for the safety of the system.
“It helped drivers ease some fear,” Erwin told delegates at the Natural Gas Fleet Vehicles North American Congress. “Safety was a big factor.”
So, how safe is natural gas? It doesn’t ignite until 1,200 degrees F, which is well above the flash point of diesel. The storage tanks are nearly impenetrable. Liquefied natural gas (LNG), in fact, is so clean that spills are harmless. Dave Jaskolski, manager of Pivotal LNG, said any LNG that escapes the tank immediately vaporizes.
“LNG is not corrosive, it’s not toxic, it’s not even flammable,” Jaskolski explained. “It has to return to gas and be in a 5-15% concentration to air (to become flammable). If you spill it, it vaporizes into the air, it doesn’t spontaneously combust. It doesn’t pool, it won’t go down into the sewers. If anyone has ever had a diesel spill, it’s not the same thing.”
Fuelling with LNG requires additional training and equipment, namely gloves and a face shield. But Jaskolski noted that’s just because it’s cold, not because it’s harmful.
LNG is stored at -260 F (-160 C), which is about as cold as the oil in a deep fryer is hot.
Fleets looking to make a large-scale transition to natural gas and do their maintenance in-house may require some costly shop modifications. For fleets in temperate climates like Florida-based Saddle Creek, that consists of as little as keeping shop bay doors open during the day and parking the trucks outdoors at night.
Fleets working with LNG, on the other hand, may be required to install methane detection systems. Chris Nordh, senior manager, alternative fuels and finance with Ryder, said his company has upgraded six shops, each costing between $50,000-$150,000.
“Ryder is very conservative when it comes to safety and goes beyond what is required by code,” he noted.
Ryder’s systems can completely exchange all the air in the shop within seconds and automatically open the doors while sounding alarms and flashing lights to warn people to exit the building.
Paper Transport calls on its local Cummins dealer to service its natural gas engines, so it didn’t have to make any modifications to its shop.
Chuck Diehl, trucking fleet manager with Smith Dairy, said his company installed a methane detection system, valves off the fuel systems before bringing the trucks inside and parks them outside overnight.
As early adopters of natural gas, fleet managers speaking at the Congress said it’s important to bring local fire departments and first responders into the shop and to provide training.
“Three weeks ago, the Fire Marshall for the state of Ohio brought in 25 fire chiefs to our site and my youngest technician trained all of them,” Diehl said.