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Saddle Creek building fourth generation natural gas Freightliners; now has 12 million miles of nat-gas experience

NAPA, Calif. -- To say integrating natural gas trucks into your fleet involves a lengthy learning curve is an understatement. Just ask Mike DelBovo, president of Saddle Creek Transportation, which is currently designing its fourth generation...


Saddle Creek is now running more than 100 natural gas Freightliners.
Saddle Creek is now running more than 100 natural gas Freightliners.

NAPA, Calif. — To say integrating natural gas trucks into your fleet involves a lengthy learning curve is an understatement. Just ask Mike DelBovo, president of Saddle Creek Transportation, which is currently designing its fourth generation natural gas trucks…since 2012.

Saddle Creek runs more than 100 natural gas Freightliner trucks and now has 12 million miles of experience with the alternative fuel. However, DelBovo is quick to add “We still don’t know everything.”

Saddle Creek dived into natural gas when it was trying to figure out what to do with a fleet of older trucks. DelBovo visited the Dakotas with the thought of launching a regional fleet there. Instead, he saw a ton of natural gas drilling activity and began to think it would be a big part of the future.

“We were astounded with what was happening with natural gas,” he told trucking journalists during a press event. “We said, let’s take our investment dollars and invest in this new technology that’s going to be here to stay.”

It took Saddle Creek nearly three years to design its first generation natural gas trucks with the help of Freightliner. It took delivery in 2012 of a fleet of Business Class M2s with the Cummins ISL 9 G engine. Saddle Creek became a big proponent of natural gas, even offering employees discounts on conversions of their personal vehicles.

Last year, the company spent $25 million on natural gas equipment, including fuelling infrastructure. It operates its own slow- and fast-fill fuel islands at its Lakeland, Fla. headquarters.

The company also launched a natural gas training program for drivers. Before any Saddle Creek driver pilots a natural gas truck, they must first pass a knowledge test after two days of training. They’re expected to answer questions from shippers and members of the public and each cab is equipped with a natural gas FAQ to help them.

“We had to overcome their worries about safety and range anxiety,” DelBovo said.

Saddle Creek learned some hard lessons along the way, including the fact that only about 80% of the compressed natural gas in a tank can be extracted and used.

“It’s really embarrassing to have to tow them back with a big diesel truck,” he admitted. He also found that idling is a definite no-no with natural gas if you expect to realize fuel savings.

Saddle Creek partnered with PeopleNet and TMW to track fuel performance.

DelBovo said the natural gas trucks are 10 times quieter than diesel equivalents and this has allowed them to gain exemptions from noise ordinances that forbid after-hours deliveries into certain communities.

The company also enjoys the peace of mind of knowing they’ll have a steady supply of fuel, even in the event of a hurricane. Previously, DelBovo said, Saddle Creek would park tanker trucks full of diesel so they’d be able to continue servicing customers after a hurricane.

“Most trucking companies down in Florida have all these tankers full of diesel just sitting there,” he said.

The first generation trucks had a range of 500 miles, and were fitted with 130 diesel gallon equivalent (DGE) of CNG capacity. The trucks were heavy, since the tanks were encased in a steel housing.

The Gen 2 trucks improved range to 600 miles. They had a 100 DGE tank capacity mounted to the back of the cab and another 40 DGEs along the frame. This time, a fiberglass cover and aluminum skin were used to reduce weight. The goal, however, was to reach a range of 700 miles. That will be accomplished with the Gen 3 trucks Saddle Creek is in the process of deploying. And it’s already looking ahead to the Gen 4 truck, which will incorporate aerodynamic fairings from the Cascadia Evolution.

Fuel savings are nice, DelBovo said, but the real goal is to reduce fuel consumption so that range can be improved.

Saddle Creek is seeing a payback in approximately 50 months, and is running the trucks for 10 years. The tanks will last 20, but DelBovo noted the tank technology is improving, so a secondary market for the tanks may not exist.

One of the challenges is determining who gets a cut of the savings. Customers, he said, are eager to lower their transportation costs. If they help fund the capital investment, a portion of the savings are shared with them.

DelBovo hopes to improve fuel mileage on the Gen 4 truck to 6.5 mpg from about 6 mpg today. Saddle Creek has deployed several LNG trucks in California, but DelBovo’s preference is for CNG, due to its simple fuelling process and the fact it’s less expensive and delivered by pipeline.


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