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Some financial facts about Canadian LNG truck ownership

BOUCHERVILLE, Que. -- As questions arise and numbers swirl about the costs associated with owning and operating liquefied natural gas-powered (LNG) trucks, we are learning more from early adopters in Quebec about what to expect.


BOUCHERVILLE, Que. — As questions arise and numbers swirl about the costs associated with owning and operating liquefied natural gas-powered (LNG) trucks, we are learning more from early adopters in Quebec about what to expect.

A Peterbilt equipped with the 15-litre Westport LNG engine will cost about $100,000 more than the equivalent diesel truck. Twin 119-gallon cryogenic tanks will account for $60,000 of this cost, according to Yves Maurais, technical director, asset management, purchasing and conformity, Robert Transport.

The upside is that LNG costs about 50 cents less per litre than diesel and Robert obviously expects to come out on top as it steams into the second calendar half of its program to purchase 180 LNG rigs; it currently owns 125 LNG trucks.

Carriers will ask about the cost of installing LNG safety systems in their garages. Depending on the size and age of their garage it could cost $25,000 to $40,000 to modify one long truck bay, or as much as $100,000 to modify a garage that holds 15-20 trucks, according to Maurais. The price range reflects different possibilities for modifications; ie., some setups provide more frequent air exchanges.

Given its large and growing LNG fleet, Robert chose to modify its garages in Boucherville, Quebec City, Megantic, Rougemont and Mississauga. Touring one of its Boucherville bays, the modifications are subtle. There are two methane detectors, vents in the roof, exhaust lines for drawing off any natural gas escaping through the vent stacks, a control panel and big red panic button.

Not visible are the new non-sparking door motors and insulated, Code 2 lights, automatic emergency systems that whip open the bay doors or even shut down the lights and power, depending on the size of a gas leak, or the pilot lights for the natural gas heating system that have been relocated to outside the building.

A new LNG truck owner, however, need not hurry to slap down bucks for garage modifications. St-Romuald, Que.-based Transport Y.N.-Gonthier has two LNG trucks, but other than doing its own greasing and oil changes, it is leaving all the mechanical work to Transdiff Peterbilt de Quebec. “We have not modified our garage for LNG work but we may do it later this year or next year,” says Yvan Gonthier, co-owner, Y.N.-Gonthier.

Another dealership, Camions Excellence Peterbilt also has facilities modified to service LNG trucks; in fact, it does the warranty work on Robert’s LNG fleet. It has 19 modified bays in Sainte-Julie, 16 more in Laval and will soon have bays ready in Drummondville. Excellence also has two certified mobile units, 20 mechanics between its Laval and Sainte-Julie shops and a parts inventory for the Westport LNG engines.

Speaking of parts inventory, it has been written that this is an expensive proposition. Not so, says Maurais. “We don’t stock spares. Excellence does. There is no issue getting spares. While the trucks are under warranty we are only stocking maintenance and wear parts.”

Maintenance costs have not been an issue for Robert either. “In our case we do the same maintenance as a standard diesel truck. After the first 50,000 kilometres we do a full inspection. After that we do an oil change every 40,000 to 50,000 kilometres. We change the fuel filter every 100,000 kilometres.”

Robert will find out this summer whether it will be able to extend its oil change intervals. “We are looking at oil analyses of our first LNG trucks, which have logged 300,000 to 400,000 kilometres already,” Maurais says.

The fairly low, 150-200 psi pressure of LNG tanks mean that inspections are no big deal, Maurais says. “We will inspect the tanks every 500,000 kilometres. Basically we will do a leak inspection, inspect the hydraulic pump and test the insulation performance of the vacuum. For that you hook up a sensor to a port. It is not a time-consuming or difficult task. It may take a day.”

As for any mechanical headaches associated with LNG technology, Maurais sums up the situation thusly: “We haven’t had major issues with the engines or their components. We have had some issues on two or three trucks, but we are in a preventative campaign in which Westport is coming in and changing the (offending) parts in all the trucks.”

Readers might ask, “What about the grumblings I’ve heard about weight penalties, fuelling times and special clothing?” Robert’s drivers have been fuelling their trucks to beat the band and Maurais reports that no one is squawking. “We ask drivers to wear visors, gloves, long pants and long sleeves. Fuelling takes about the same time as for diesel.”

There is a weight limit issue. Specifically, the LNG system adds 1,200 lbs to the tractor, compared to diesel. “Most of that weight is on the front axle,” Maurais explains. “The US front axle limit is 12,000 lbs, so we can’t drive LNG trucks in the US, since the weight on the LNG truck steer axles is 12,300 lbs. But cargo weight has not been an issue so far. Usually these trucks are pulling three- to four-axle trailers and B-trains, so there is usually lots of room for weight.”


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