When figuring out the right questions to ask, perhaps it’s important to start with what not to ask. “Price is important, even when fuel prices are low,” says Paul Shaffer, vice president and managing director of Dallas operations at Westport Innovations, the natural gas engine and vehicle maker, “but there are other critical things to discuss when converting light- or medium-duty vehicles to natural gas or propane. Those include which company is responsible for calibration, certification and installation of the fuel system and long-term implications about support and service networks.
“The company listed on the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and/or California Air Resources Board (CARB) certificate under the hood of the vehicle is the ‘manufacturer of record’ and replaces the original manufacturer,” Shaffer explains further. “That manufacturer is responsible for the warranty of emissions-specific components and for any calibration updates. Validations are also critical. For example, if the installer responsible for tank brackets and shields has not validated the components and design, the fleet has no assurance the vehicle will perform safely or operate as intended.”
Using a single company to source an alternative fuel system simplifies certification, calibration and validation issues, Shaffer notes. If a fleet chooses to use an installer that is not the manufacturer of record, he advises, it is important to understand which company is responsible for warranty and how service issues will be resolved.
“It’s critical to know where the vehicle can be serviced,” Shaffer says. “When purchasing a natural gas vehicle, think differently. While almost any service facility can work on a gasoline or diesel powered vehicle, it shouldn’t be assumed that the same can be applied to natural gas vehicles unless they have been trained and certified to work on them. Also, do not assume that the installer of the system has the parts inventory needed to support the vehicle.
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“A growing network of service locations will help natural gas trucks become a long-term solution for fleets,” Shaffer continues, “but any company that is not consistently providing training for service technicians cannot guarantee a service network’s availability or its effectiveness. Training programs produce capable technicians and service networks that save fleets money and cut downtime.”
Westport Innovations, which supplies natural gas engines to Ford, recently received certification from the EPA for the dedicated compressed natural gas (CNG) and bi-fuel CNG Westport WiNG Power System models in 2016 model year Ford 5-liter F-150 pick ups. The F-150 is available with a 17 gasoline gallon equivalent (GGE) or a 23 GGE tank. The CNG model features two in-bed tank package options on both dedicated and bi-fuel vehicles, has an underbody option on dedicated systems for greater flexibility, and the LPG version comes with underbody tank packages to preserve bed space.
The latest certification marks the first time Ford has offered gaseous prep in the 5-liter F-150 and it means that the half ton pickup is now available with either CNG or LPG engines. Westport had already received EPA and CARB certification on 2016 F-250/350 6.2-liter models in both bi-fuel (EPA) and dedicated (EPA and CARB) versions; the F-450/550 6.8-liter model in dedicated CNG (EPA); and the E-450 6.8-
liter van in dedicated CNG (EPA).
Currently, Westport also has certifications pending for the F-150 dedicated CNG (CARB); F-150 dedicated LPG (EPA and CARB); Transit Van/Wagon 3.7-liter dedicated CNG (EPA and CARB), and the E-450 dedicated CNG (CARB) van.
“Alternative fuel vehicle systems interact with OEM hardware and software and differ greatly from other equipment purchases, so they require more research than standard diesel or gasoline powered models,” Shaffer says.
“Even at today’s low fuel prices,” he adds, “investing in an alternative fuel system is a great way to reduce fuel costs, and it’s always a way to lower emissions. But experiencing the highest levels of safety, durability and performance requires upfront due diligence. Before you invest in alternative fuels, make sure to address these key considerations.”