Fill 'er Up

Features - Equipment & Products

A number of hauling companies are incorporating CNG-fueled vehicles into their collection fleets.

August 3, 2012
Curt Harler
Equipment & Products

Many major fleet-operating companies are at least dabbling in using compressed natural gas (CNG) to power the vehicles in their fleets. It makes sense. CNG-fueled vehicles produce about 75 percent less carbon monoxide (CO) emissions and they cost less to fill up.

CNG-fueled vehicles run cheap—typically one-third below the cost of gasoline or diesel fuel. As an additional benefit, CNG trucks run 50 percent quieter than diesel trucks.

“Using CNG makes us more competitive,” says Michael Benedetto, president and CEO of TFC Recycling Corp., Chesapeake, Va. “Lower fuel costs allow us to do the job more efficiently and at a lower operating cost than our competitors.”

Many Savings
One of the cleanest fuels, CNG reduces particulate matter emissions to nearly zero, carbon monoxide emissions by 75 percent, nitrogen oxide emissions by up to 49 percent and carbon dioxide emissions by 25 percent, Benedetto says.

As the first private recycler to embrace CNG in Virginia, TFC Recycling was recognized by state officials for the company’s commitment to alternative fuels. “We provide support to our municipal customers as they work to convert their fleets to CNG,” Benedetto says.

TFC says it is the only privately owned recycling company in Virginia to operate CNG trucks.

Waste Pro USA, Longwood, Fla., has converted trucks in New Orleans, Atlanta and the Florida cities of Clearwater and, most recently, Fort Pierce to CNG. John J. Jennings, president and CEO of the firm, says Waste Pro saves anywhere from 30 percent to the low-40-percent range on fuel costs. Waste Pro has had CNG vehicles in the fleet since late in 2011. “It’s still too early to determine exact savings,” Jennings says. However, he says he expects the final numbers to be somewhere in that range.

Even given the costs of conversion and establishing CNG fueling stations, Jennings says he expects the company to see a return on the company’s investment in about 30 months.

If there is a grandfather among residential hauling companies using CNG, honors go to Waste Management Inc. (WM), Houston. “This is not our first rodeo,” quips Wes Muir, director of corporate communications for WM. “We’ve been involved in natural gas since the mid-1990s. We now have the largest CNG fleet in the industry.”

WM entered the natural gas business after asking how the company could extract more value from the waste stream. WM started in California with liquid natural gas (LNG) before moving to CNG. In 2009, WM started a joint venture with Linde North America at the Altamonte, Calif., landfill to recover 13,000 gallons per day of LNG.

Today, the company fuels 300 collection vehicles from that site in California. But WM also has another 1,200 vehicles across the country, including in Pennsylvania, Florida, Texas, New Jersey and the upper Midwest, running on CNG. Recently, WM added 45 CNG vehicles to its Camden, N.J.-based fleet. They cover collection routes in Camden, Burlington and Gloucester Counties. Deploying these vehicles will help WM achieve its goal of reducing fleet emissions by 15 percent and increasing fuel efficiency by 15 percent by 2020, the company says.

Not only does CNG cost less than diesel fuel but it requires a simpler after-treatment system, and domestic supplies are abundantly available, says Curtis Dorwart, Mack vocational marketing product manager.

Although WM started with LNG, the company soon realized CNG was the way to go. Noting that collection trucks are increasingly expensive, Eric Woods, vice president, fleet and logistics, for WM, says, “We need to get more out of the vehicles we buy.” WM set a goal of reducing fuel consumption and cutting emissions by 50 percent by 2020. Woods is bullish on beating that goal as long as WM continues to convert its fleet to CNG.

WM looked at hybrids and at improvements in diesel technology but opted for CNG.

The benefits of CNG in reducing CO2 (carbon dioxide) and NOX (nitrogen oxide) are most powerful at slow speeds.

“At low speeds, we see a 60 percent to 80 percent improvement with CNG versus a 2010 diesel,” Woods says. However, that advantage fades at highway speeds. At 55 mph, it drops to 15 percent. “But there is a massive advantage around town,” Woods emphasizes.

Jennings says he got the incentive to move to CNG from none other than T. Boone Pickens, the famous oil man. “A number of us were invited to his ranch. He challenged everyone to start looking at ways to save money and keep it from flowing out of the country,” Jennings recalls. In short, Pickens challenged the fleet owners to use American fuels and keep that money in the U.S. economy.

That, Jennings says, was his No. 1 reason for moving to CNG. However, saving his company one-third on its fuel costs is icing on the cake.

Benedetto agrees. “At an average of $1.25 per gallon equivalent, CNG is less expensive than diesel and is a true domestic fuel,” he says. “We are reducing our dependency on foreign oil, one truck at a time.”

TFC’s fleet consists of 40 trucks. Currently six of them, put into operation in 2011, run on CNG. TFC says it will add five more CNG trucks this summer and five additional trucks by year’s end.

Ironically, in the face of all the CNG popularity, there is a move among natural gas producing companies to export U.S.-sourced gas. Faced with domestic complaints that exporting natural gas would certainly cause a price jump at home, at press time, Congress was considering a ban on such exports beyond the one company that already has approval to export natural gas.

Fueling Stations
So why isn’t everyone running CNG vehicles? Well, for one thing, CNG fueling stations are not exactly on every corner. If a company runs a fleet with just a couple of trucks, it probably is not ready to risk its mobility on a single, local CNG fueling point. The big boys can afford to stock multiple fuels, including diesel, gasoline and CNG or to build CNG stations. In fact, those who are going whole-hog frequently are do-it-yourself fuelers.

“The main drawback with CNG has been with not having the infrastructure in place to support the fueling or the maintenance of CNG vehicles,” Benedetto says. “TFC is providing solutions to those problems by installing CNG fueling stations and through the certification and training of its mechanics.”

Waste Pro also is building its own fueling stations. “You need a critical mass of 20 to 25 vehicles to maximize return,” Jennings says. At the company’s new 12-acre facility in Fort Pierce (it opens in August 2012), Waste Pro is allowing public access for fueling. It is a bonus for Waste Pro and an opportunity for firms with undersized fleets to take advantage of CNG’s benefits.

WM has followed a similar filling station strategy for some time. The company has 29 fueling stations nationwide and says it expects to have 50 by the end of the year. “We’ve been able to debunk the myth of expensive fueling,” Woods says. “We’ve taken the cost out of the station.”

Not long ago, the estimate for a CNG fueling facility was $3 million. However, WM is doing a trailerized version of the filling station for about $500,000.

“It’s very important that customers don’t base a decision to purchase natural-gas-powered trucks solely on the lower fuel price,” Dorwart cautions. “They must fully understand the investment and do their due diligence to understand the fueling process and ensure their facilities can safely accommodate the natural gas trucks.”

What CNG Is
According to petroleum engineers at BP, natural gas—the source of natural gas liquids—is a natural mixture of gaseous hydrocarbons found in the ground or obtained from specially driven wells.

The composition of natural gas varies in different parts of the world. Even so, its chief component, methane, makes up 80 percent to 95 percent of its composition. The balance is varying amounts of ethane, propane, butane and other hydrocarbon compounds.

Methane, made up of one carbon atom and four hydrogen atoms, is a simple hydrocarbon with the symbol CH4. It is lighter than air and normally dissipates quickly if released into the air, according to CNGo Co., Pennsylvania. Typical gasoline has a more complex chemical composition of C8H18. Many more chemical bonds must be broken and recombined to fully burn gasoline or diesel fuel. Unfortunately, CNGo engineers note, these fuels don’t get completely converted to carbon dioxide and water, resulting in more pollution than cleaner burning natural gas.

CNG typically is sold in gasoline gallon equivalents (GGEs), with each GGE having the same energy content as a gallon of gasoline. Vehicles using CNG usually have similar or better fuel economy ratings than standard gasoline or diesel vehicles. Current pricing at the Camden “Clean N’ Green Fuel” station is in the range of $1.759 per GGE.

Supporters say CNG is not as susceptible to the vagaries of OPEC-style pricing strategies. Diesel and gasoline have jumped 40 percent in price in the past year despite flat demand. In comparison, CNG is a domestically sourced fuel with stable supplies and more predictable long-term pricing, supporters say.

“The more trucks you get, the better the savings,” Jennings says. A multi-stop visit to several California fleet operations convinced him that the fleets were finding longer engine life and much quieter and cleaner operation. Cleaner goes beyond air pollution.

Dorwart explains that CNG-powered trucks tend to be quieter than traditional diesel trucks because the combustion process produces less noise than diesel engines. There are other advantages.

“It is much cleaner for the drivers since they are not filling up with diesel,” Jennings explains. There is no splashing or spilling fuel. CNG vehicles at company stations typically do a slow, overnight fill. However, it is possible to do a more normal, fast-fuel at spots with public access.

WM favors the trickle feed at a 15-pound rate. “We can do 40 trucks in one shift,” Woods says. There are other advantages, too. For one thing, high-paid drivers are not waiting in line or messing with urea for the diesel while on the clock. The fill-up job falls to others.

Some Cautions

The road to CNG is not totally paved with dollar bills, however.

For one thing, CNG-powered engines need to be tuned to the vehicle’s exact operation. Conversely, diesel trucks can have similar engines whether they are roll-offs, front-loaders or standard neighborhood refuse vehicles.

“With CNG you need to gear the rear ends to the application,” Jennings says. For example, residential pickup trucks need quicker power moving stop-to-stop than do roll-off trucks that spend much of their time at 40 or 50 mph.

Mechanics need to be trained to the new type of engine. Most mechanics have decades of diesel experience. CNG power is different. Anticipated engine repair situations are different. It takes time to climb the learning curve.

“We have begun setting up the infrastructure to train area mechanics on CNG and have begun to train police, fire and rescue workers on the specifics of CNG,” Benedetto says.

Woods says drivers and mechanics seem to like the relative simplicity of CNG versus diesel.

“On top of that, diesel technology is getting much more expensive,” he adds.

This has become a payload issue for WM. The company figures it could lose about one ton in payload when cooling packages, urea tanks, catalytic converters and other required equipment is added to the diesel trucks in its fleet. At one point, the company had problems registering vehicles because they were overweight on the front axle.

With CNG-fueled trucks, there is no diesel particulate filter to maintain. There is no manual regen to get the fuel hot enough to burn off the excess soot (while this happens naturally at sustained highway speeds, it is a concern with stop-and-go vehicles).

“The engines in our natural-gas-powered TerraPro Cabover and TerraPro Low Entry models utilize a three-way catalyst to meet EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) 2010 emissions standards,” Dorwart notes.

With that, the CNG-powered models offer similar performance to diesel-powered models in a package that utilizes lower cost, domestic fuel.

Benedetto says companies can install conversion kits on vehicles so they can operate fleets on CNG.

“Cold weather is not a hindrance to CNG-powered models,” Dorwart says.

“Performance has improved compared to early natural gas models.”

Cold-weather operation may be easier with CNG but that can be a mixed blessing. Benedetto says TFC Recycling’s CNG trucks have no problems with cold weather operation.

That said, others caution that drivers need to be aware that quick winter starts with CNG actually can damage an engine, because cold, thick oil will not circulate instantly to all the places in the engine that it is required.

“You still need block heaters,” Woods says. “If it is too cold, diesel just won’t start.” Not so with CNG. It hops to life. Be aware of the possibility of problems with both the main and crankshaft bearings, however, users suggest.

That said, Woods adds that he is sold on CNG. “If you compare a post-2007 diesel with natural gas, natural gas is simpler,” he says.

Some safety concerns exist but they are easily addressed. WM equips all of its trucks and garages with methane detection monitors. Automatic door-openers kick in should levels rise.

Muir says that 80 percent of WM’s fleet purchases for the next five years will be CNG vehicles.

One other concern was vehicle performance. “I was skeptical at first,” Woods says. He found the 9-liter Cummins engine worked well. His company has beta tested a 12.9-liter version but doesn’t seem to need it in most cases.

“For a driver, if the truck won’t get out of its own way, we’re going to hear about it,” Woods says. With 1,500 vehicles on the road, they are well-aware of the trade-offs with CNG for operations, fuel consumption, noise. Woods says he likes what he sees.

“There are so many wonderful things about CNG that make it better for residential collections,” Benedetto says. “First, it’s quieter, cleaner and has no odor. Another benefit with CNG is the absence of diesel spills.”

Jennings notes that he has a college-age son. “We need to continue to grow and make this planet a better place for future generations,” Jennings says. “CNG is one way to start doing that.”

Benedetto concludes, “Living and operating in a community that values its beaches and waterways, this is important to our company, our community and to the generations to follow.”


The author is a freelance writer based in Cleveland and can be contacted at