At a natural gas vehicle conference, Bison's VP, Western Operations Trevor Fridfinnson and Robert Transport's Engineering Manager, Yves Maurais, shared— quite openly — their challenges with implementing natural gas tractors into their respective operations.

It was, without a doubt, a refreshingly honest and sobering account of the challenges early-adopter fleets have been facing with natural gas.

Both fleets have experienced their share of hard lessons — hard lessons that, if you're about to start running natural gas powered trucks, you'll experience too.

But maybe, thanks to Bison and Robert, you can avoid a few of them.

Eyes Wide Open

1. Know that this will be a resource draw, said Fridfinnson. "It takes a lot of time, energy and money to make this a reality. From a technical side of things, anybody here in this room that has run trucks for the last number of years has been a part of the technology changes meant to increase environmental efficiency of our tractors. Sometime the effects are not as desired — you might have lost fuel economy, you might have increased downtime — we had to consider all that and be satisfied we could deal with those."

This Fuel is a Different Animal

2. "Handling this fuel is different than diesel," said Fridfinnson off the top. "It needs to be actively managed. When you talk liquefied natural gas, it needs to be maintained at temperature. With diesel you can plug it into a tank and you use it when you use it — natural gas is a different animal."

3. There are two types of LNG, explained Maurais. "There is cold and warm LNG. Warm LNG is basically LNG that is maintained at its saturation point — the point where it turns from liquid to vapor. That's what you're going to find in the smaller LNG engines, like the Cummins 8.9L and the bus and city trucks. They don't need a pump to get it out — it just turns to vapor by itself. You have to remember that the natural gas engine always uses vapor. When you use cold LNG, it's always in liquid form; it's pumped out of the tank, warmed up, and turned to vapor. So, depending on what kind of spec you use in your LNG engine, you're using either cold or warm LNG. If you use cold LNG into a warm LNG system, you might have some problems. So make sure you know the difference between both systems."

4. Bison expected a fuel degradation of 10 percent when going from diesel to a first generation natural gas truck. "Right now, today, we're tracking just around 5 miles per gallon on the LNG tractor, and we're around 6 miles per gallon on our comparative diesel. So we've got a difference there we still haven't been able to make up — about 17 to 18 percent."

5. By taking a closer look at the fuel side of the equation, they're improving that number: "LNG has to be actively managed — when you fuel, how long it sits in the tank, what kind of pressure is in the tank — all those things are being metered and monitored and we're seeing incremental gains to close that gap.

6. Bison originally forecasted a fuel range of 550 miles for their LNG fueled LCVs, "but realistically we're around 450."

7. "We're figuring out that the break-in period for these engines is a lot longer than diesel engines," Maurais shared. "It can be up to 200,000 km before we get optimal fuel consumption."

Spec'ing Heads Up

8. When you're spec'ing, "what you have to remember is that the [Westport 15L] GX engine is based on the 2007Cummins ISX engine — not the 2010 or 2012 engine so when you want to do a comparison you want to do it to the same type of engine — that's very important," said Maurais.

Bison went with model 386 Peterbilt's and Westport's 15L GX. In general, there are some particular nuances with natural gas trucks, Fridfinnson cautioned.

But the big nuance?

9. "You need more tank space. We had to extend our wheelbase and when you do that, you get a bigger trailer gap and that affects the aerodynamic — a heads up for anybody spec'ing these trucks."

Maurais said that "In our specs, we found out it's nearly impossible to get the truck shorter than a 220-inch wheelbase with LNG trucks if you want to use the 120 US gallons tanks, so it makes for a very long truck."

10. Watch your weight, too, Maurais stressed. They went overweight by U.S. regs on the steer axle when they first got started.

11. Robert had electrical issues, as well. Methane detectors drained power, and they had to bring in more batteries. (Creatively, they added solar panels to the roof to power those detectors, A/C systems, microwaves, and computers.)

Anticipating Cost Per Mile

Bison tapped their LNG project onto their LCVs that run in between Calgary and Edmonton. "We took a look at that and said that's a prime opportunity for us — how can we convert that and be able to anchor our natural gas solution?

12. Fridfinnson said that an LCV truck tracks around 3-4 cents per mile in maintenance cost in the first year of its operation. "These trucks, right now, have put us double that — around 7-8 cents per mile."

13. Some of that added cost was anticipated, he said. They didn't convert their shop to maintain the LNG tractors, "so we knew there was an outside factor, and the service intervals on today's natural gas trucks are more complex than diesels so that's not a fair comparison." They knew that going in, he said. "But there was some downtime related to the fact that they are gas trucks — fuel sensors, fuel gauges, and software related to those pieces not being right — and some are related to the fact that it’s a truck trying to make a bunch of pinpoints work together."

Bison's LNG tractors have been put through their paces; next month, they'll hit the one million mile mark.

14. Which is the point with these trucks: work 'em. "The more your LNG truck is on the road, the more it will save you money," Maurais pointed out. "So try to get them going as much as possible. If you want to give them double-shifts, LNG trucks are perfect for that, especially if you're running a daily operation or local deliveries — run a few shifts and you're going to save a lot of fuel."

Return On Investment?

15. Not yet. Bison had originally targeted two years to make up the incremental cost for a natural gas tractor. "We wanted to be aggressive about it," Fridfinnson said. But given what they've experienced so far, that isn't going to happen. Where it ends up remains to be seen but suffice it to say, it's become an extended timeframe."

And as to any further commitment and investment in LNG, well, Bison isn't shopping for the proverbial wedding ring just yet.

16. Still, they are dedicated to making it work. But, warned Fridfinnson, "Everyone looks at the commodity of natural gas — its 30 percent cheaper, 50 percent cheaper; commodity prices are one thing but how that translates into an operating and working model and returns at the early stage are much, much different."

Drivers: An Extremely Fantastically Important Component

17. Both Fridfinnson and Maurais stressed the importance of keeping their drivers in the LNG loop.If you don't, the whole project can die on the vine, Fridfinnson said.

18. "Have some individuals at the driver level that are experts in what this is, how it works, how it plays out at the business," advised Fridfinnson. "And have those guys participate in the breaking-in of the trucks, and in the ride-alongs before the driver is assigned a truck."

19. Bison held forums to create a dialogue with drivers on natural gas. "It's important to understand the basic presumption that's out there in the workforce." Presumptions like: harder and longer to fill, has less power, and that they run out of fuel unexpectedly.

"How we dealt with that is that one of the members of the driver advisory board — one of the mentors that had had been driving the truck for three months and coaching others — took over and related his personal experience."

That driver told the others that it was safe, that their were methane detectors in the truck, "has more power than my diesel truck and the difference is probably ten minutes in fuelling when it comes down to it, and it runs quieter."

20. Also, if you give them a bigger engine that runs quieter, plus add in the fuel range aspect, Bison's drivers needed some training on how to use that power effectively.

21. Train your technicians and train your people at the operatins level, Maurais said. You don't want your ops people sending these trucks all over the place to pick up your loads. "They need to know that LNG trucks are different than diesel trucks."

Work Closely with OEMs and Suppliers

22. Much of Bison's component issues has improved over time, Fridfinnison said. "I will give props to our suppliers for their attentiveness and partnership in making sure we're not in here on our own trying to deal with these things."

Maurais seconded him: "Work with your OEMs and the dealership. We've had — I won't say how many — but many issues, especially on the quality side of the trucks. We basically ran prototype trucks for two years and our downtime is at 20 percent with these trucks.

23. "You should expect that downtime."

24. "But I'll put onus on the people here and those in our industry," Fridfinnson said at the end of his presentation, "if we don't participate in it and create a market and a need for it, we can't expect a whole lot of development coming from the equipment manufacturers and fuel suppliers — there's got to be a collective push that moves this thing."

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