Turf Magazine - September, 2013

CENTRAL FEATURES

It's a Gas

Ohio landscape contractor converts vehicle fleet to CNG for long-term savings
By Mike Ingles


Startup costs for retrofitting service vehicles to run on CNG and to install a fueling station are significant. Peabody Landscape Group, Inc., however, is looking toward long-term fuel savings.
Photos by Peabody Landscape Group, Inc.

Dave Peabody, president of Peabody Landscape Group, Inc. in Columbus, Ohio, is an innovator who is always working to reduce the cost of providing services to his customers so he can provide them more services, yet remain competitive in the brutal central Ohio market.

Because of his curiosity and his drive to offer his clients a "one-stop shop" for all of their outdoor landscape needs, Peabody is driven to be self-sufficient in all phases of landscape construction and site management. Whether it's using open-top, roll-off trucks and dump trucks to deliver materials to keep field staff constantly supplied and on the job; mixing and processing topsoil on his 20-acre farm; or dropping off a load of mulch processed from yard waste, there is always a better approach to reduce costs. Additionally, Peabody warehouses salt and has a 7-acre nursery, where he grows nursery stock, including a variety of trees. Many of these plants are used for the company's design-build projects.

Now, Peabody is undertaking his most ambitious and arduous project - the conversion of his service fleet to compressed natural gas fuel.

"Over the last 10 years, I've worked and researched numerous ways to eliminate the middleman or material suppliers to save money," explains Peabody. "Fuel prices have reached critical mass and have sustained high levels that never seem to come down, so in 2008 I decided I had to do something."

After researching his options, Peabody decided to replace petroleum with an alternative fuel source. Natural gas is plentiful, and cheap, in Ohio. He attended a Clean Fuels Ohio seminar in May of 2010 and met his CNG (compressed natural gas) mentor, Rick Ridenour, an innovator and 35-year veteran of the CNG community. Ridenour convinced Peabody that CNG was the right alternative fuel, and together they researched available equipment and the right conversion equipment for Peabody's fleet. Additionally, they identified that the real savings would be made by constructing a refueling station and thus eliminating another middleman.

Finding the right guy

"CNG is not an easy process, especially when you execute the work within your own facility," explains Peabody. "The biggest task was finding the right person who could do the engine conversions and manage the station."

Ridenour suggested John Murray, one of his former students at Hocking Technical College in the Alternative Fuels Program. Murray not only oversees the conversions, but he's also Peabody's shop manager.

It's been a process that has taken several years, but since Murray joined the operation the company has converted seven trucks to CNG and will be converting 14 others, about one a week. The team has just about completed the infrastructure for the CNG pumping station, which should be finished sometime late summer.

"It's like anything else, there's a learning curve, and we've got the conversions down to about a 20-hour job per vehicle," Peabody explains. "What took most of the time was permitting for infrastructure and construction. New technology and processes have taken a little longer than expected - CNG is synonymous with slow."

A Closer Look at CNG

Compressed natural gas (CNG) is made by compressing natural gas (which is mainly composed of methane) to less than 1 percent of the volume it occupies at standard atmospheric pressure. The U.S. has vast natural gas reserves distributed across the country through extensive pipeline systems, extending from the wellhead to the end user.

CNG is stored and distributed in hard containers, usually cylindrical of spherical, at a pressure of 2,900 to 3,600 PSI. CNG is used in traditional gasoline internal combustion engines. The cost of conversion is a barrier to wider adoption of CNG as a fuel.

According to the EPA, the octane rating for CNG is higher than that for gasoline. In a dedicated engine, a CNG vehicle's power, acceleration and speed can be greater than that of a gasoline-powered vehicle.

CNG advantages

  • CNG does not contain lead or benzene, so the lead fouling of spark plugs is eliminated.
  • CNG-powered vehicles have lower maintenance costs than other hydrocarbon-fuel-powered vehicles.
  • CNG fuel systems are sealed, preventing fuel loss from spills of evaporation.
  • Increased life of lubricating oils, as CNG does not contaminate and dilute the crankcase oil.
  • Being a gaseous fuel, CNG mixes easily and evenly in air.
  • CNG is less likely to ignite on hot surfaces since it has a high autoignition temperature (540 degrees Celsius) and a narrow range (5 to 15 percent) of flammability.
  • Less pollution and more efficiency as CNG emits significantly less pollutants, such as carbon dioxide, unburned hydrocarbons, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, sulfur oxides and particulate matter, than gasoline.

Disadvantages

  • Compressed natural gas vehicles require a greater amount of space for fuel storage than conventional gasoline-powered vehicles. Since it is a compressed gas, rather than a liquid like gasoline, CNG takes up more space for each gasoline gallon equivalent. Therefore, the tanks used to store CNG usually take up additional space in the bed of a truck that runs on GNG.

To learn more about CNG for vehicle use along with other alternative fuels - biodiesel, hydrogen, electric, propane and ethanol - visit The U.S. Department of Energy's Alternative Fuels Data Center (http://www.afdc.energy.gov/fuels).

The site has a wealth of information about the fuels themselves, but also about alternative fuel vehicles, vehicle conversions, fuel prices and fuel conservation strategies. The site also has a section where you can find the various laws and incentives (federal and state) for adopting an alternative fuel for your vehicles.

Gasoline and diesel in the area are selling at nearly $4 a gallon, and Peabody is paying 60 cents per gallon for natural gas.

"The savings have been noticeable, but we're looking forward to completion of all conversions; and when the refueling station is fully operational we estimate we'll cut fuel costs by about $110,000 per year. Of course, there are considerable start-up costs, but the long-term savings is the desired goal. We expect a noticeable increase in miles per gallon as well."

After receiving a $119,000 grant from the Department of Energy, Peabody began looking for the best CNG conversion packages, tanks and generators for the pumping station. The conversion packages and labor per unit had to meet Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) standards and were costly, something in the $10,000-per-unit range. However, with Murray's experience and training working in certified conversion technology, the savings to the company has been substantial.

CNG is not an inexpensive venture. All totaled, the vehicle conversions, infrastructure equipment, the dispenser with card readers and construction, the project will cost about $360,000. "A drop in the bucket compared to doing all work with new polished equipment and hiring all the work by outside vendors," states Peabody.

Not yet finished with this task, Peabody is already thinking ahead. "I'd like to do a CNG co-op refueling station somewhere else. If we can get other fleet owners and investors interested, we might expand to similar CNG stations to facilitate other fleets and lower their price per gallon as well."

There are no certainties, but Peabody has a bead on his return-on-investment. "Each vehicle needs to travel 12,000 miles a year for us to start recouping our costs. We'll easily do that. Within the first week of operating the seven converted CNG vehicles the savings was almost $500. And the great thing about CNG is that maintenance costs are reduced by about 25 percent as a result of reduced carbon buildup in the engine," he states.

Tax credits are also a strong incentive, as Peabody will be receiving a credit for $30,000 for infrastructure and will recoup about .50 cents per GGE (gasoline gallon equivalent).

Always aiming to reduce costs through innovation, this cost-visionary is considering the future with mower conversions using propane as the alternate fuel, but cautions that the technology is not there yet to afford a positive ROI.

Mike Ingles, Columbus, Ohio, is an experienced business writer and editor and frequent contributor to Turf magazine. Contact him at duckrun22@gmail.com.