Commercial truck and bus fleets in the United States are becoming keenly interested in running their vehicles on liquid propane (LPG), as this column reported back in March. That's because propane prices are substantially below those for gasoline or diesel, or even for compressed natural gas (CNG). Moreover, LPG provides substantial savings in maintenance costs and up to a 50-percent reduction in CO2 emissions. Now, the question is, will LPG catch on with everyday drivers and not just commercial fleets?
LPG, also known as autogas, can be unbelievably cheap – if you buy it in bulk. Anyone who fills up the tank for their barbeque grille, or heats their home with it, will tell you that it's as expensive as gasoline. But fleets that commit to buying in bulk can get a substantial discount.

"Today we're buying LPG at $1.14 a gallon and we get a 50-cent federal tax credit, so we're actually paying 64 cents a gallon. It's been a real winner for us," says Edgar Benning, the General Manager of the Mass Transportation Authority for the city of Flint, Michigan.

The city of Flint, which is struggling through hard economic times, is saving so much money on fuel that the LPG vehicles are actually paying for themselves. Benning says it costs the city 13 cents per mile to operate its vehicles on LPG versus 41 cents a mile using diesel fuel.

John McElroyJohn McElroy is host of the TV program "Autoline Detroit" and daily web video "Autoline Daily". Every month he brings his unique insights as a Detroit insider to Autoblog readers.

The interest in propane as a fuel is a direct result of the shale bonanza that is transforming the US energy sector. As recently as only five years ago, propane was largely produced from petroleum and its price was directly tied to the price of oil. Today, propane is largely a by-product of natural gas production. The US has such a surplus that it has become a net exporter, and in some areas there is such an abundance that producers are pumping it back into the ground.

Converting a commercial truck to run on LPG can easily add $10,000 to the cost of the vehicle. An LPG fueling station can cost $50,000. Those up-front costs can scare off fleet operators, but others have figured out a creative work-around.

The company pays about $1.40 per gallon for the propane, but that includes paying for the infrastructure costs

Student Transportation of America, Inc. is a fleet operator that manages 10,000 school buses in 16 states and Ontario, Canada. Most of those buses run on gasoline or diesel, but Omaha, Nebraska now operates 435 school buses that run on LPG. The company pays about $1.40 per gallon for the propane, but that includes paying for the infrastructure costs, and is still less than half the cost of fueling those buses with diesel.

"By the way, we can pass those savings on to the school district and they can put that money into the classrooms where it's needed," says Denis Gallagher, the CEO of Student Transportation of America, Inc.

The savings go beyond the lower cost of the fuel. LPG burns so clean that operators find they can stretch out their oil changes to every 7,000 miles, versus the 4,000 mile oil changes they need with diesel engines. Better still, an LPG engine only needs 6 quarts of oil in the crankcase versus 16 quarts in a diesel engine. Over the six years or so that a fleet typically keeps a truck or bus, this adds up to a substantial savings in maintenance costs. And then there's the environmental benefit.

The LPG sector is more of a mom and pop industry.

"We spent over a year investigating all the different alternative fuels in the marketplace. Propane autogas came right to the top," says Abe Stephenson, the Fleet and Administrative Manager for the Dish Network, which operates 5,000 vehicles in its fleet and has converted 200 of them to run on LPG. He estimates those 200 vans have cut CO2 emissions by 12.5 million pounds, or the equivalent of 200,000 trees absorbing CO2.

So far LPG only makes sense for fleets, which can buy in bulk and whose trucks return to the same yard every night where they can be refueled. There are simply not enough public LPG fueling stations (about 2,500 in the U.S.) to attract the general public to the fuel.

But that's because the propane industry is very fragmented. Unlike compressed natural gas (CNG), which has attracted the interest of big oil companies such as Exxon Mobil, the LPG sector is more of a mom and pop industry.

But with the price of the fuel so cheap, the substantial maintenance savings, and the opportunity to slash carbon dioxide emissions, can't someone figure out a way to make it attractive to run our cars on propane?

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    • 1 Second Ago
      • 1 Year Ago
      I would rather breath in this than untreated diesel exhaust.
      Alex G
      • 1 Year Ago
      Hank Hill would be proud..
        • 1 Year Ago
        @Alex G
        "The only woman I'm pimping is sweet lady propane! And I'm tricking her out all over this town." - Hank Hill
        Justin Shaw
        • 1 Year Ago
        @Alex G
        First thing that came to my mind
      • 1 Year Ago
      I worked for a propane company and had a propane fueled car. It burned so clean that the oil looked BRAND NEW after 5000 miles. No need to ever change plugs. The car had almost 200,000 when it got hit. I would buy another one in a minute.
        • 1 Year Ago
        yes indeed the oil looks brand new. that's why in places where cars burn a lot of propane everyone knows the oil needs changing even though it still looks good. but yes, it is a good fuel
      • 1 Year Ago
      I don't understand the all or nothing attitude of some people. Any viable alternative to gasoline can be useful. Despite some people's wet dreams, we will never be an all electric society. People need to concentrate on whats greener, instead of greenest.
      Jamie Elmhirst
      • 1 Year Ago
      Very promising and a North American-sourced fuel. Seems like a real winner as long as there is long-term price stability.
      • 1 Year Ago
      I always wondered why LPG hasn't caught on in the US, but it's probably because gasoline prices aren't too crazy yet. I visit family in Poland often and very many cars run on LPG because it's just so much cheaper. People will buy a regular gasoline car and then convert it to LPG for a few thousand, the savings in fuel cost is just crazy.
      • 1 Year Ago
      Many cars in countries that aren't the U.S.A have run on LPG for years. I can't believe this is some huge revelation.
      Alex Ellsworth
      • 1 Year Ago
      All buses and taxis here in South Korea are LPG, and a big number of private cars are as well. Only thing is, while LPG is much cheaper than gasoline or diesel, your gas mileage will drop 15-20% when using it, partially offsetting the benefit.
      • 1 Year Ago
      i am driving for more than 10 years on lpg 10 liters of gas is equal ot 10 liters of LPG - price is half. In Europe LPG is usual thing.
      Leith Morrison
      • 1 Year Ago
      My family had a 1980 GMC 2500 that ran on propane. I think we changed the oil once every two years, even if it needed it or not. I miss the smell of rotten egg exhaust.
      • 1 Year Ago
      Boy I tell you what
      • 1 Year Ago
      It's $3.** around here. Not much different than gasoline. CNG is about $2.20 here.
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