Natural Gas Trucks | 8 Important Things To Know
Oil may be comparatively inexpensive right now, but you can bet prices will rise again, taking diesel prices with them. That means natural gas trucks remain a serious option for commercial fleets. But natural gas is a different animal than diesel, so integrating these vehicles into your fleet isn’t as simple as it might seem. There are important things you need to know as you consider whether natural gas trucks are right for you.
- Switching to natural gas trucks is a significant commitment. It will require time, money and learning some new best practices for operations folks and drivers.
- You won’t recoup your investment overnight. It may take several years, not just a couple. Natural gas is cheaper than diesel, but diesel trucks get more miles per gallon. However, a “gallon” of liquefied or compressed natural gas is not equivalent to a gallon of diesel. You may not get the distance-per-tank you expect. It also takes much longer to break in a natural gas engine – potentially as much as 200,000 miles to reach optimum fuel consumption.
- Which natural gas will you be using? Liquified natural gas (LNG) can be “warm” – maintained at its saturation point so it vaporizes on its own. It doesn’t need to be pumped out of the tank. “Cold” LNG is maintained as a liquid, so it must be pumped out of the tank and then warmed so it will vaporize. Whichever version you choose, you’ll have to actively manage storage pressure, fueling timing and how long fuel remains in the tank.
- The tank will be larger. You’ll wind up with a longer wheelbase. (Owners report 220 inches is about the minimum if you plan to use 120 US-gallon tanks.) And you’ll have a wider trailer gap. That might diminish your truck’s aerodynamics. Your truck may also be overweight on the steer axle.
- Methane detectors – an essential component for natural gas trucks — put added pressure on batteries. (One owner mounted solar panels on the roof to run not just the methane detectors but other accessories as well.)
- To service natural gas trucks, you’ll need to modify your shop and retrain techs. Or you’ll need to budget more for third-party maintenance. These vehicles have different service intervals than diesel and require different service actions.
- Drivers will need re-training, too. They need to know how the LNG system works to ensure your system operates efficiently. That includes learning that some persistent myths about natural gas trucks – fueling is difficult, it takes forever, etc. – are not true. In fact LNG-powered trucks are more powerful and run quieter, two benefits drivers will appreciate.
- In some parts of the country, LNG fueling stations are not readily available. That can make routing and scheduling more complex for long-haul operations.
Hot-off-the-press good news.
Late in October 2015, chemists at the University of California Berkeley announced a breakthrough in LNG storage. They have developed a metal-organic framework (MOF) that is porous and flexible. They say that using the MOF technology dramatically improves the way methane is stored and reduces the pressure needed to pump it. (Methane is the primary ingredient of natural gas.) The upshot is that future natural gas trucks will be able to use smaller tanks, be simpler to fill and still travel farther on each tankful of fuel.
There are a lot of variables here. Trucking companies that have pioneered integrating natural gas trucks into their fleets report that despite the challenges and frustrations and longer-than-expected ROI, they still consider this a worthwhile investment. Is it right for your fleet? Understanding what’s involved is your first step toward making a realistic determination.