CNG vehicle use off to rocky start in Fort Smith, NWA

story by Ryan Saylor
rsaylor@thecitywire.com

It was September 2013 when the Fort Smith Board of Directors directed the city administration to begin a phase-in of more compressed natural gas-run vehicles, as well as other energy alternative vehicles, in the city's fleet.

Since that time, not much movement has taken place with the plan to add more alternative energy vehicles to the city fleet for a variety of reasons, according to Deputy City Administrator Jeff Dingman, though he said it does not mean efforts have come to a halt.

The biggest obstacle, he said, has been the cost and availability of CNG vehicles, the primary focus of the September 2013 policy directive.

"There wasn't a CNG vehicle on the state contract at the time (the city last purchased vehicles)," he said. "And there wasn't anything from the manufacturer ready to go. So realizing that the conversion cost would be 100% on the city going forward to convert a $15,000 pickup (truck), along with spending another $10,000 on the conversion costs, that's a pretty significant thing. We sort of shied away."

The lack of vehicles available for bid from the state has also been a struggle for the city of Springdale, according to Administration and Financial Services Director Wyman Morgan.

"We've looked at some vehicles on the state bid contract, but there's not that many options available at the present time."

CONVERSIONS STILL POSSIBLE
While Fort Smith may be shying from spending money on conversions or new vehicles for the time being, it does not mean the conversions are not possible or probable, according to Dingman, who said during the budget preparation last year, alternative fuel vehicles were made a priority, as requested by the Board.

"When they (Board members) were going through the budget evaluation, they did express interest that we try to include alternate fuel vehicles in the budget. So we did that. As departments proposed capital replacement of vehicles — when we had our department budget meetings — we evaluated each of those and asked, 'Would this work as a CNG or electric hybrid?'"

He said as a result, some departments are designated to possibly receive an alternate fuel vehicle as they replace fleet.

And while the Board has been supportive of the effort, it has not been without some growing pains, with Dingman mentioning that an attempt to retrofit a Fort Smith Police Department cruiser not necessarily being a good fit.

"It was used on patrol for about a year, but it had a rough time staying on the road the whole time. It goes all three shifts and it just had issues with idling and there was some mention of having trouble with it when they had to be in pursuit mode."

As a result, the police department has shifted use of the vehicle to a supervisor vehicle, which sees substantially less mileage less idling.

The city's pilot program, which extended CNG use to a select few vehicles in not only the police department but also the fire department, customer service department and transit department, started in 2012 and saw what Dingman labeled as "moderately successful" results.

TRANSIT BUS ISSUES
What dragged down the program for quite a while was the conversion of the transit department vehicle.

According to Transit Department Director Ken Savage, the "medium cutaway bus" was sent out for a conversion in March 2012, arriving back to the department in August 2012 as the city's only fully-CNG vehicle (the other vehicles in the CNG fleet still have an unleaded gas tank that can be used in place of CNG).

"It was unreliable until mid-year 2013," Savage said. "During that time, we replaced two injectors, two fuel regulators and a fuel line during that time frame. All of it was scattered throughout the year."

The cause of the problems, Savage said, were directly tied to the conversion, though he said performance improved throughout the remainder of 2013, adding that "from that point on, it's pretty much been reliable once we got (the maintenance issues) taken care of)."

In experimenting with the CNG bus, the transit department also realized that the range on the vehicle would be problematic, as the CNG bus would need additional fuel stops throughout the day.

As a result of the testing, Savage said the transit department has found the CNG vehicles to be a good alternative on the on-demand routes since time can be factored in for fuel breaks between pickups. In fact, he said the CNG bus is working so well, the transit department has ordered two newer "small cutaway" buses to use on the on-demand routes, which should eventually be retrofitted for CNG.

In all, he said fuel savings for the first quarter of 2014 were $1,495.38.

SPRINGDALE CNG HISTORY
In Springdale, Morgan said the city has experimented with hybrid technology and has found it to meet some of the city's needs.

"We have operated a couple of hybrids that had a batter backup. I know one pickup that we did use for a good while, I think it was a Chevrolet, that would run off the battery when it needed to, it would run off the gasoline motor."

And while Morgan said the city has not conducted a cost comparison of using an all-gas truck versus hybrid, the reliability of the hybrid truck has lead the city to look at other options, including all-electric vehicles.

"I know we're looking at at using some electric vehicles for ambulance response on our trail system and some police (vehicles that are electric) that we'll use on our trail system.

POSSIBLE AEDC SUPPORT
In Fort Smith, Dingman said grants have helped fund half the cost of the city's CNG fleet (a total cost of $53,950), though no grants are available at this time, further limiting what is possible as far as alternative fuel vehicles.

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But he said that could change by the middle of this month after Patti Springs of the Arkansas Economic Development Commission's Energy Office sent out an e-mail notifying recipients of an "announcement regarding the vehicle conversion rebate program."

"At this time, no specifics are available regarding new vehicle purchases or retroactive conversions."

She said when more information is available, she would notify Dingman and others. It is a prospect Dingman is excited about.

"I don't know what that means, but it may mean there is more money available for conversions."

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