The Propane Option

Electric this, electric that. Electric Porsches, electric hot rods, electric city cars, electric, electric, electric. Well, we've got a dissenting vote for propane from a gentleman named Randy Schranz. Randy lives in Colorado Springs, CO, in a house that's nearly within spitting distance of the base of Pikes Peak, the site of the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb, a race that's been held every June for eight decades. Just a few weeks ago, Randy set two records climbing the infamous hill. The first was that he tied Louie Unser's career record with the completion of his 36th climb. Environmentalists and ecologists might be more impressed by his other mark: He made it up the hill in 11 minutes and 57 seconds, a record time in a vehicle propelled by LPG, or liquefied petroleum gas. Randy says that he doesn't think that much about what's motivating his 525-horsepower Shelby Cobra replica, certainly he's not concerned that the fuel he uses is a liability. "I've been working with propane for about ten years," he said, "Sure, we lose some power as we climb, like every other car, but the propane never runs too lean or too rich." Propane is not the fashionable alternative fuel of the moment, but the fact is, propane propels more than 14 million vehicles around the world, "a number that's been growing steadily over the last several years," according to Brian Feehan, vice president of the Propane Education & Research Council in Washington. That makes it the third most popular automotive fuel, behind gasoline and diesel, he said. About 270,000 vehicles in the U.S. run on propane, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. Feehan said that mileage figures with propane are about ten percent less than with gasoline which is offset by propane costing about 30 percent less. Kits are available to convert many gasoline-powered engines to run on propane, which, while a liquid, enters the engine in the form of a vapor. Among the parts required is a fuel tank that meets current safety regulations (the tank is generally in the trunk or underneath the car), a converter to change the liquid to gas, some new fuel injectors and other assorted hardware. It is a project that requires precision work, and not something for weekend do-it-yourselfers to attempt. "Right now we're focused on fleet applications, because most fleets want their own refueling stations in their own yards," Feehan said. "For consumers propane isn't as readily available as gas, but there are over 2,500 accessible stations today nationally." Meanwhile, Randy Schranz isn't sitting in his den admiring his trophies. He and his mechanics are preparing to replace their current propane engine, a 5.7-liter, small-block Chevy V8 with mechanical fuel injection, with a direct-injection engine next year. Get out of the way.

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