TORONTO, Ont. – Running a natural gas fleet involves more than just buying the trucks and fuelling them up at the right station. There are a lot of human and environmental considerations that come into play as well.
Mike Britt, director of maintenance and engineering international operations for UPS Inc.’s ground fleet, made that case at the Natural Gas Vehicles Canada conference in Toronto. As one of the fleet presenters, he told the audience about some of the non-mechanical issues that must be addressed if a natural gas fleet is to be successful.
Britt said that one of the major factors was convincing drivers that these are trucks they want to drive, and then teaching them how to drive them.
“The biggest thing is driver training and acceptance. Once those drivers understand how to operate the equipment. With a 15L Cummins if you are shifting out of range, you’ll get 4.5 mpg. Drivers have to be trained how to shift those. Especially after driving a truck for 30 years, they have that ear. They are going off the RPM of the engine. They don’t understand torque curves. They don’t understand how nat gas engines operate.”
He said not only do the drivers need to be trained, so do the technicians, because the “drivers are going to go to the mechanics with their issues and once the mechanics understand, they spread the word out pretty quickly.”
Of course with the automated transmissions this is becoming less of an issue, he added.
Britt also spoke of the challenges in running in taxing environments. For example wind is a consideration for UPS’ Utah Kenworth T800 15L Wesport Cummins fleet.
“We run triples outside of Salt Lake City, so 105,000 lbs. Salt Lake City is 5,200 ft. above sea level and you have 7% grades from Beaver, Utah up to Salt Lake City. We run up the hills. Those of you who know that part of the country, there are huge, huge headwinds and sidewinds that take our diesel fleet down to about 5.4 mpg. So they take the LNG fleet down to just under 5 mpg. So the range is really, really an issue, but a very, very strong power plant, and there are no issues at all.”
He added then when the company bought the first trucks to travel this route, “we were landing about 30 miles short on those days when we had heavy winds, heavy loads, uphill. So we had to tank them up. We went to larger tanks on all of our KW products.”
The way natural gas has been viewed by regulators and governments has also changed over the years. More restrictive rules are now in place compared with what existed in 2001 when UPS first launched its LNG fleet in Ontario, California.
“I happened to be the chief engineer there at the time. My only requirement was a fan and a US$29 methane detector from the Home Depot. So it was pretty simple. It wasn’t an issue at all. Now today it’s in the US$100,000 and that’s at the fire marshal’s discretion. It can get even higher than that. They might ask for a higher number of exchanged air. They might ask for heaters to be further away. There are a lot of things that go on with the shop requirements.
“We advocate for this and we talk with the folks that could possibly incentive us: Don’t forget about the shop requirements because the technicians need to be able to work on equipment, and when it’s a little bit chilly six months of the year, they’re not going to work on it outside. They need to work on it inside. And even if you have a return-to-base operation going from Toronto to Montreal, and the vehicles are housed in Toronto, they still might have to work on them in Montreal. So you’ve got to spend $100,000 in Toronto and $100,000 in Montreal. Then you talk about a hub operation. The ones in Toronto may need support in five or six different areas depending on related distance or frequency. Now you’re talking about $500,000 or $600,000 which is significant.”
Even physical and structure limitations may hamper a fleet’s ability to adopt natural gas technology. Britt said that UPS building were designed with a specific turning radius that can’t be altered. LNG and CNG trucks have what he Britt described as weight and real estate penalties due to the need to carry large tanks and the natural gas systems, which means there is little room for additional equipment.
“All of our tractors are equipped with chains, with those tanks there is no place for chains, there is no place for any other equipment, and we can’t extend the length of our tractors due to our configuration. We built our buildings with a turning radius a turning radius based on a MH-cab-over tractors, so we have to keep the short turning radius so we can service the trailers we have.”