A natural progression

by James Menzies

TORONTO, Ont. — Representatives from two of Canada’s most experienced liquefied natural gas (LNG) truck fleets opened up about their experiences with the technology during a candid conversation at the first annual Natural Gas Vehicle Infrastructure Canada conference.

Both Trevor Fridfinnson, senior vice-president with Bison Transport, and Yves Maurais, engineering manager with Robert Transport, were refreshingly honest when discussing how well, or not, LNG trucks have worked for them.

Robert currently runs 115 LNG Peterbilts and is two years into its project, while Bison deployed 15 LNG Petes early this year and is approaching its first million miles.

Bison is running its LNG trucks in its long combination vehicle (LCV) fleet between Calgary and Edmonton. When the project was launched, the company envisioned a two-year payback. Fridfinnson now admits that won’t happen.

“It’s not going to be possible to hit that timeline,” Fridfinnson said. “Where it ends up, I think that remains to be seen because we think there are further efficiencies that can be drawn out of this particular model, but suffice it to say, it is an extended timeframe.”

Bison normally runs tractors in its LCV fleet for just five years, which is why a quick payback was hoped for. However, fuel economy and maintenance costs have derailed those initial ambitions.

Fridfinnson said Bison went into the project expecting a fuel economy degradation of about 10% when moving from diesel to natural gas.

“Today we’re tracking at just around 5 mpg on the LNG tractors and around 6 mpg on our comparable diesels, so we have a difference there that’s 17-18% as opposed to the 10% we were targeting,” Fridfinnson said. He remains hopeful that the considerable gap can be cut in half as the company familiarizes itself with the technology and realizes further efficiencies.

One of the problems is that the LNG fuel tanks eat up a lot of frame rail space, requiring a longer wheelbase and larger trailer gap, which hampers fuel economy. Bison has added some tractor fairings in hopes of addressing that issue.

Bison also has learned that its LNG tractors aren’t getting the 550-mile range they had predicted. Instead, they are achieving about 450 miles.

“For our purposes, it mostly works,” Fridfinnson said of the range. “But there are times in less optimal operating conditions where we can run closer to the line than we want to be.”

Maintenance costs have been another unpleasant surprise. Diesel-powered LCV tractors in Bison’s fleet normally incur maintenance costs of three to four cents per mile, Fridfinnson said.

“These (LNG) trucks have had an inordinate amount of issues,” he admitted, noting their maintenance costs have run about seven to eight cents per mile – or double their diesel counterparts.

The biggest problems have involved sensors, gauges and software related to the LNG fuel system.

“I will say, those things have moderated over time and I will give props to our supplier partners for their attentiveness, to make sure we’re not out there on our own trying to deal with these types of things,” Fridfinnson said.

Bison is still committed to the project, he added, but enthusiasm – even among customers – seems to have waned in the face of so many disappointments. Fridfinnson said he’s confident there are opportunities to improve fuel economy and reliability, but was non-committal about adding more LNG trucks.

“Certainly we’ve run into more obstacles than you ideally want to face in the initial rollout, but we remain strongly committed to the concept and to exercising it fully,” he said. “Whether or not we expand it is yet to be determined. We’re nine months in, so we still have room to do some fine-tuning.”

Robert Transport, which has been running its LNG tractors for two years, had a markedly better story to tell, though blazing the LNG trail hasn’t been without its challenges. Maurais said Robert was surprised by how much diesel the 15L Westport GX engine consumed. Because it’s compression ignited, it requires diesel to initiate the combustion cycle. Robert expected the diesel consumption to be about 5% of total fuel consumed, but it has turned out to be closer to 10%, Maurais noted.

One of the biggest issues Robert encountered was the additional weight the LNG tanks contributed. The first of its trucks were overweight by US standards on the steer axle the first time they were fuelled up. A day cab with one LNG tank added 546 lbs compared to a diesel equivalent and a sleeper cab with two LNG tanks weighed 1,149 lbs more than a diesel.

Another issue was that the in-cab methane detectors sucked power, requiring additional batteries – and more weight – to be added to the vehicles. Not to be deterred, Robert has begun adding solar panels to the roof fairings to power the methane detectors and air-conditioning systems.

The tanks – for diesel, natural gas and diesel exhaust fluid – competed with APUs for frame rail space, requiring a longer wheelbase and adding to the trailer gap.

“Using sleeper trucks, it’s very hard, almost impossible, to get the truck shorter than a 220-inch wheelbase, so it makes for a very long truck,” Maurais said.

On the plus side, Robert has substantially reduced its greenhouse gas emissions. Maurais said GHG has been slashed by 58% in LCV applications when compared to pulling two trailers with two diesel-powered tractors. And unlike Bison, Robert is getting fuel economy that’s nearly equal to its diesels.

Maurais pointed out that the Westport GX uses the EPA07 generation Cummins ISX as its base engine. Therefore, comparisons should be made against the EPA07 engines – not the more fuel-efficient 2010s.

The GX engines in Robert’s fleet are getting fuel economy equal to its trucks with the EPA07 Cummins ISX15 diesels.

“These trucks have been in service now for 18 months to two years, so we’re figuring out that the break-in period of these engines is a lot longer than a regular diesel engine,” Maurais said. “It could be up to 200,000 kms before we get optimal fuel consumption.”

He believes the Westport GX engine can equal comparable diesels for fuel economy.

How to implement a natural gas program

If you haven’t been deterred by the less-than-glowing reports coming from some early adopters of natural gas trucks, then there are steps you can take to make the transition less painful.

Trevor Fridfinnson, senior vice-president with Bison Transport, said the it’s important to involve drivers in every step of the implementation process.

“Make sure you spend ample time on the driver component,” Fridfinnson said. Bison did this at the outset, providing classroom, online and physical training for drivers, but even that wasn’t enough, Fridfinnson now believes.

“We got a lot of good uptake with it, however when you run into issues, as you do with any project rollout, it’s very quick for momentum to turn on those things if you’re not on top of it,” he explained.

Bison began assigning driver mentors who were experienced and comfortable with the natural gas vehicles, to pair up with neophyte drivers who had questions or were uneasy about the technology.

“We have them participate in a ride-along before the driver gets assigned a truck, and cut off some of those fears that come along with something like this,” Fridfinnson said. “It can die on the vine if you don’t get that buy-in.”

Bison also has involved its Driver Advisory Board in the discussions about natural gas. The company learned many drivers had concerns about safety, range, fuelling complexity and performance. Drivers who were among the first to pilot the LNG trucks were brought in to address the advisory board and debunk some of the myths that were circulating.

“Those exercises were pretty important to us, to help get a sense of confidence and buy-in to what we were doing,” Fridfinnson said.

Yves Maurais, engineering manager with Robert Transport, said it’s also important to do your homework and understand the various types of natural gas that are available.

“Know your fuel,” he stressed, noting there are even differences between warm and cold LNG, not to mention CNG.

He also said fleets should focus on “Training, training, training.” To maximize the benefits of running LNG, Maurais suggested deploying the trucks into the highest-mileage routes possible.

“If you can give them double-shifts, LNG trucks are perfect for that,” he said.

Finally, Maurais said to keep expectations realistic and to “expect some downtime.”



When considering this project and how to do it, make sure you spend ample time on the driver ocmponent of this iteration, everyone looks at the transport and says this is natural transition gogta make sure you have end user in mind in terms of buy-in.

Rolled out classroom training, online training, physical training and got lot of good uptake with it, however when you run into issues as ou do with any project rollout very quick for momenturm to turn on tose things if not on top of it

Learned to have driver mentors, indies at driver level who are experts on what this is, how it works, how it plays outin business, have them participate in ride-along before driver gets assigned truck and cut off some of those fears that come along with something like this.

It can die on the vine if you don’t get that buy-in.

Driver advisory board, 30 or so of our drivers, meet with them 3-4 times a year. Earlier this year asked about nat-gas what does t mean to you? Dialogue: less power? Dangerous? Harder and longer to fill? Might run out of fuel?

It’s important to understand basic presumption that might be out there and how you deal with it.

How we dealt with it is one member of DAB was drive mentor, been driing truck 3 months, he realated his personal experience. Commodity is safe, methane detection system in truck. Takes only 10 minutes longer to fuel.rides quieter. Those were eercises pretty important to us to help get sense of confidence and buy-in to what we doing

Shell Fying J in south of Calgary opened in april 2013. Found I necessary to get secondary site to take care of any range considerations that came up. 3P provider in red deer we tapped into. Secondary source of fuel is same temporary fuelling orca in our yard in Edmonton. Three sources of fuel.

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