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Michigan State UniversityMichigan State UniversityInfrastructure Planning and Facilities
Propane fuel pump

Transportation Services goes green with auto propane

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Dec. 10, 2015 

Author: Emilie Lussier, IPF Communications

With 400 vehicles in its motor pool fleet, and over 1,000 total on campus, Infrastructure Planning and Facilities (IPF) Transportation Services is always looking for ways to go green. That is, they are making strides to become more environmentally-friendly. One way that is happening is through the use of propane auto-gas, a greener fuel option compared to regular gasoline.

“Propane is about half the cost of regular gasoline, so there’s a cost savings and the goal is to reduce our consumption of regular petroleum gasoline,” said Brian Watts, assistant director of Transportation Services.

The propane auto-gas bi-fuel conversion kit is an aftermarket system that is installed after the purchase of a vehicle. Once a vehicle becomes part of MSU’s fleet, it is sent to ICOM North America, a Michigan company that specializes in propane conversion kits. The conversion kit allows the vehicle to run on the greener propane auto-gas before regular gasoline.

“The vehicles run first on propane and then if they run out of propane they’ll automatically switch over to unleaded gasoline,” Watts said.

It takes about 50,000 miles to see a return on investment per vehicle. Installation cost of the conversion kits are between $6,000-$8,000. The cost per gallon of propane typically runs about half of what regular gas is. Although it takes a while to see a return on investment, the environmental benefit of using propane is immediate.

“The math behind the cost-savings is there, and we’re being good to the environment. That’s really the impetus for what we’re doing here. We’re trying to have that green initiative associated with our fleet,” Watts said

Another gasoline alternative used in some parts of the United States includes compressed natural gas (CNG). While CNG is a clean alternative, the cost is significant. The infrastructure alone for CNG fueling stations ranges between $2-3 million.

“Propane is kind of in-between. It’s not as clean as CNG, but it’s cleaner than regular fuel,” Watts said. “It’s in the range cost-wise where we (MSU) can afford to use it and see some benefit.”

Propane also offers a very simple refueling process. Located at Transportation Service’s fueling station, the underground tank holds about 3,900 gallons and can be compared to a supersized version of the 20 pound tanks found on a gas grill. Moving the propane from the tank to the vehicle is a very similar process to pumping regular gas.

“People are really surprised by how simple it is. It has a threaded coupler that goes onto the vehicle – turn it on and you pump just like regular gas. When it’s full it shuts off and you unscrew it and put it back,” said Roger Thelen, service garage manager at Transportation Services.

A shot of an auto propane pump

While the propane auto-gas is an effective option, Transportation Services offers a variety of other services to be as green as possible, such as providing more than 70 hybrid vehicles for university staff transportation and using E85, an ethanol fuel blend of 85 percent denatured ethanol fuel and 15 percent gasoline. Something as simple as buying fuel-efficient vehicles contributes significantly to MSU’s green efforts.

“It’s all these different things that we’re trying to do to reduce our fuel consumption,” Watts said.

Still in the beginning stages, MSU began this initiative about two years ago. Currently, Transportation Services has six university vehicles running on propane, but with the benefits and results of the system, there is hope that in the future, hundreds of university vehicles could make the switch.