TORONTO, Ont. – Fred Zweep doesn’t want to hear why a fleet can’t convert to natural gas or why a fleet that has tried it isn’t getting good results.
Zweep is president of the Vedder Transportation Group and has been running LNG tractors since 2011.
“Naysayers, we still hear from them today. Honestly, I’m not interested in talking to those people because our fleet is successful and it works. If you’re not doing it, you just really have to look at your operations and ask yourself why aren’t you doing it. I’ll tell you that 99.99% of the time is that you just have to convince yourself that it works. People are operating in our part of the world and it’s very functional,” he told the audience at the Canada Natural Gas Vehicles conference in Toronto.
“I do get questions from fleets telling me they aren’t achieving good fuel economy or they’re having additional wear and tear on their equipment. The simple answer to you is go back to your planning on how you manage your drivers. That’s where your success will come and that’s where your failures will happen is with the operator. If the operator is going to give you grief, you need to be able to have a one-on-one discussion with them to explain what the outcome needs to be because it always goes back to the operator.”
Zweep said Abbotsford, BC-based Vedder has 1,350 pieces of equipment including 50 Cummins LNG tractors and 250 Cummins diesels. The company has an operation that picks up raw dairy products at farms and delivers the contents to facilities for processing, it has a solid waste division that hauls compactable garbage from Vancounver to Cache Creek B.C. and brings back woodchips, and it also has moves bulk liquid sweeteners. Its decision to add natural gas vehicles to its fleet was one that was driven by business demands.
“Our customers were challenging us to go green,” he said.
“As an operator, we are continually challenged by our customers to deliver low cost component and the most volatility we had in the supply of our cost components was the cost of fuel. When our customers were demanding that we give them a reasonable set price for a set time, it was difficult when we had to go back to them every quarter and talk about fuel prices. From their perspective, they didn’t care about the volatility. What they were looking for was the stability of managing their businesses.”
According to Zweep, the company’s target was a reduction of greenhouse gas emissions in the 27-30% range. As for fuel savings, Vedder has “displaced over 500,000 L of diesel fuel a month in our own fleet. That’s what we’ve been able to take out. We have a heightened awareness and we’ve also created new business opportunities,” said Zweep.
“Fuel economy very good, right on target where we budgeted. We’re really restricted to go further simply because of weights we haul. For example on our solid waste fleet, in our diesel application we are at about 3.9 or 3.98 mpg in 140,000 lb. GVW. With our LNG fleet, we are probably around 3.8 mpg, so there is a slight difference. When people ask me more specifically where does that difference come from, it’s typically from lift-off because there will be a slight hesitation with the natural gas equipment versus the diesel. That’s typically were we find we get the variance.”
Spec’ing the trucks with the most suitable natural gas systems is one of the reasons Zweep said Vedder has had success with its LNG fleet.
“Part of the success comes from understanding how you going to utilize this equipment and how are you going to deploy it, and then where are you going to execute it from?
“On the dairy side we use dual 70 gallon fuel tanks on that equipment, whereas on the solid waste side where we have 15 tractors deployed, we use 120 gallon tanks. It’s very critical again in an LNG environment you need to have cold fuel to have success.
“When we did our strategic planning we took a look at the radius of travel and we deliberately put fuel tanks on the equipment so we would initiate fueling at the end of every shift. Our fleet is a return-to-base application. Every 10-12 hours they are returning to their home base for fueling. We specifically and intentionally put the fuel tanks on to drive fueling at the end of a shift so they would always have cool fuel in those tanks.”
He was also careful about buying the correct truck models to suit each application.
“You’ll see a difference in the two tractor models. The 22 tractors in the dairy fleet are a Peterbilt 386 model. We chose them for safety purposes and for the ability of the operator to be able to achieve a tighter turning radius. We are the only operators in the world in picking up dairy products with super trains. So when we go to our rural pick-ups, it’s no different than an LTL transporter. We’re utilizing two tanks, picking up 41,000L before we head into a manufacturing plant. We’re pulling onto people’s driveways. We try to do that with super trains. The 386 model tractor is very, very good for that.
“But the solid waste and the food grade they’re different. For food grade we have 13 tractors, they are identically spec’d to the solid waste fleet. We did that intentionally. Depending on the volatility of our solid waste business, we would have the ability to transition equipment into there. Traditionally though it is handled in a 47,500 or 105,500 GVW category. But that equipment is a 367 tractor. It’s specifically designed to be able to handle 140,000 GVWs in both directions. You need to keep it cool. You need a large radiator to keep that engine as cool as possible in that environment. That’s behind the decision to go to the 367 vehicle versus the highway tractor.”
Although one of the worries around adopting natural gas as a transportation fuel is around its performance in cold weather enviroments, Zweep said Vedder hasn’t experienced any difficulties in either the cold winter months or the hot summer ones either.
“In our dairy fleet we operate in the 63,500 kg GVW range or 140,000 lb GVW. We operate them 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days per year. Our solid waste division, where we are contract with Metro Vancouver, this is the fleet we are most proud of, and Westport should be as proud as we are of it because of the durability of the engines. We are pulling over 7%-9% grades on a round trip of approximately 600+ km 7 days a week, 24 hours a day and we are going through extreme temperatures. We are on the coast where it could be in the 27°C-30°C range in a summer month but when we get into that canyon on Highway 1 temperatures can escalate to 42°C and in winter we can go completely the opposite direction. When people talk about the equipment must run in cold weather to be successful, that’s not the case. The equipment is extremely durable, even in warm temperatures.”
Zweep is able to back up his claims about durability with data comparing the running costs of LNG with his diesel fleet. He said over the course of three years, with a lot of hard miles, the LNG trucks have cost one penny more per kilometre than the diesel trucks to operate.
“Within the three fleets and 50 tractors at the end of September we had put 467,667 total hours on the equipment and almost 20 million kilometres. We are certainly far surpassed 20 million kilometre mark today. That’s in the three years we’ve been operating the equipment.
“We are extremely diligent to the interval cycles for maintaining our equipment. We are not believers in extending intervals. Our equipment has interval changes at 24,000km. We are religious about getting that equipment into the shop. So that certainly drives up the cost of the one penny per kilometre.”
He was very honest with the audience about exactly what issues Vedder has encountered with the LNGs. Most, he puts in the category of minor.
“Some issues. It’s not all roses, but we’ve really only had minor issues. From the minor issues perspective, initially had injector failures. When we take a look at the other fleets operating at the same time, we all had injector failure problems. Kudos though to Westport. They immediately pinpointed where the issue was, it came from manufacturing process. Immediately, they improved that process and they took care of that issue, and it went away.
“Hydraulic lines, we’re receiving pulses from the LNG pump where the stroke has created some shaping in the rubber areas of the lines, so we are having some premature failure on hydraulic lines.
“Natural gas cross-over lines. Only fuel from one side and then have a cross-over line to the passenger side of the vehicle. What we’re seeing is on the Curbside of tank, we’re experiencing, because of the coldness of the fuel, expanding and contracting of the lines. We’re seeing some premature wearing of those lines due to chaffing.
“LNG fuel sensor harness. Subject to road debris and moisture causing some failure.
“Lost vacuum in a handful of tanks. We’re talking 3 or 4 tanks.
Of the handful of major problems, one involved injector tip failures, which Zweep said “can be catastrophic because of what the outcome is, you can destroy your engine very, very quickly.
“We’ve had three hydraulic failures to date—three LNG tank failures. The difference between the minor and the major issue is the pumps. Inside the LNG tank you have a pump. We’ve had some failures in the pumps, and the issue has been addressed. We’re seeing a new generation of pumps where the issue has issues rectified.”
There was one other major problem worth mentioning, but Zweep was very, very clear that he didn’t consider it an LNG problem. Instead it’s an engine block problem.
“We operate 400 tractors in our fleet, all on Cummis power. This is where you have to differentiate and ask ‘is it an LNG or an engine issue?’ We’ve had nine block failures in our natural gas fleet in the Category 3 Cummins engines. Cummins has three categories of engines: Family 1 is typically in the 80,000GVW, Family 2 in the 105,500 GVW and Family 3 is 140,000+ GVW or greater. Our nine failures have come from the 140,000 category, which is Family 3. This was not a surprise to us. Why? We see the same failures in our diesel fleet. It’s a carbon-packed piston issue. It’s quite common. Cummins is well aware of it. In our diesel fleet, because of the warranty we carry, they have no issues correcting that issue. On our diesel fleet, we have rebuilt 17 diesels compared to the 9. The failure happens between 400,000 and 500,0000 kilometres. It’s unpredictable. They recognize the issue is there. The fix happens. They don’t understand what is causing the failure, but they recognize the fix and they’ve upgraded the piston to reduce any further failures going forward.”
Along with buying the LNG tractors, Vedder built its own refuelling station. Zweep commented that the company probably over-built it but the company wanted to ensure it would stand up to the use it was going to receive. “It’s a station we are very proud of. It would rival anybody’s cardlock operation in the United states,” he said. Before it was completed, Vedder relied on a portable refuelling station that was stressed to its maximum potential.
“We fuel 125 times in 24 hour period. So we were putting the temporary fueling station to great task and the engineers should be very proud of what they designed and built.”
Besides ensuring there was refuelling infrastructure situated in the most advantageous location for the company’s operations, Zweep said having its own facility staffed with LNG trained specialists was important to ensure refuelling was handled properly.
“Part of the success of our fleet is a dependability on even fuel. We man the station with trained fuellers so we can have consistent fuelling in the tanks. If you have the drivers fuel the tanks you will have a variance from one fuel to the other. We track our fuelling so we are dropping the same volume of fuel in each tank to margin of 1%-2% because we need to get the radius out of that.”
While Vedder did take advantage of the financial incentives offered by utilities provider Fortis BC, he said the switch to natural gas makes sense even without the bonus.
“I’ve been asked ‘would you do it if you didn’t receive the incentives from Fortis?’ Yes. We’re churning through 500,000 L per month. If you look at the price of natural gas versus diesel, there is a business case for it. With Fortis’ incentive, they enticed us to do what we’ve done, and we’re very proud of that and thankful for their support.”
While it took 18 months of planning before making the decision to incorporate LNG into the Vedder fleet, at this point in the company’s operations, Zweep doesn’t even give the alternative fuel a second thought.
“At the time, we considered it a science fair project. Today it is real world, and we don’t even think about it. It is integrated into our business no differently than our diesel application.”