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No 'pane,' no gain: Propane powered vehicles are a gas in Alexandria

TireMaxx Service Technician Chris Fischer indicated where the propane regulating computer sits in an engine. Photo by Crystal Dey, Alexandria Echo Press

Twenty-cent weekly jumps at the gas pumps, fluctuating corn prices, skepticism about electric cars and insecurities about the fuel of the future caused some people to look elsewhere for an alternative energy source. Lee Ostendorf, owner/manager of TireMaxx in Alexandria, looked across the pond.

"In Europe the pumps have compressed natural gas and propane," Ostendorf said. "It's getting a slow start here."

Propane is cleaner burning than gasoline, emits fewer pollutants, can cost less, and propane powered engines run more efficiently in cold weather than gas engines. Propane produces less ozone than gasoline and contains less lead and sulfur. The vehicles produce lower carbon monoxide levels and fewer toxins. Propane is nontoxic, not poisonous and has a low range of flammability.

"All things considered, propane is safer than unleaded gasoline," Ostendorf said. "It's less volatile."

Before you shell out the $3,000 to $5,000 it can cost to convert your vehicle to this pro-power source, consider the cons. Propane doesn't have the same power per gallon as gasoline. It also has to make both environmental and economic sense for each individual driver.

Over time, propane becomes less expensive per miles travelled. If a person does most of their driving in town, propane is probably not an ideal option. It is appealing for people who drive trucks and get a lower gas mileage. Ostendorf said fuel ranges up to 900 miles have been reported. Propane averages less than $2 per gallon.

"There isn't a cheaper fuel source," Ostendorf said. However, he said, the switch to propane isn't for everyone.

Ben Miller, owner of Blue Ox Timber Frames in Alexandria, had his Toyota Tundra converted at TireMaxx. Miller's fleet includes three trucks, one gasoline (the Tundra) and two diesels. Miller has plans to switch over the diesels soon.

"Fuel savings are hard to gauge," Miller said. "I'd say it's cut my dollar per mile in half."

Refueling of propane tanks may need to be done more frequently than gasoline refills and can be done anywhere that will accommodate a 20-gallon tank.

The larger an engine a vehicle has, the larger size propane tank will be needed. Miller opted for a 70-gallon tank because it's not always convenient to refuel. He said he can travel approximately 800 miles on propane with a tank that size.

Tanks can be mounted in the box of a truck, like Miller's, or under the vehicle. An 80-gallon tank will take up about as much space as a crossbed tool box. All TireMaxx-installed tanks are certified by the federal government and equipped with a safety valve to depressurize the tank in case of fire.

TireMaxx service technician Chris Fischer can convert a gasoline vehicle to propane power in a few days after specifications have been established and components have been ordered. Technocarb is one company Ostendorf recommended for conversion kits. A liquid or vapor system can be installed by a qualified service technician.

Fischer emphasized that propane conversion is not a do-it-yourself project for those who have not been trained in the trade. Fischer pursued the opportunity to learn propane conversion because he believes it makes green sense, both environmentally and fiscally.

"Customers want to save money on fuel," Fischer said. "In the long-term, it will pay for itself."

Fischer has done two conversions for TireMaxx, one for training and Miller's as a solo run last fall. Computer programming is required in addition to physical modifications. Fischer learned how to map propane monitoring computer software in Shakopee.

Generally, the power per gallon is less with propane, however, Fischer can adjust the enrichment level on the computer to equalize power if Miller needed to pull a trailer.

Ostendorf said most systems are dual gasoline and propane. Vehicles start initially on gasoline and a computer that regulates propane and gasoline balance is connected to the car's or truck's internal computer. When the computer senses levels are ready for propane, usually about two minutes after starting the ignition, the system switches over to propane. No evidence of the change is apparent to the driver.

"You don't notice the difference, except when you're paying for fuel," Miller said.

When Miller's truck engine switched from gasoline running through the intake valves to propane, a ticking sound could be heard with the hood up. Miller said he can't hear the ticking from inside his cab when driving. Fischer said the engine just sounds cleaner when it is running on propane vapor versus gasoline liquid fuel.

"It's better from an environmental standpoint because it's 100 percent fuel burning," Fischer said.

Propane fueled vehicles are not a new concept. Ostendorf said Schwann's has been running on propane for years. Another local company, Crown Gas, has been running on propane for 37 years. Crown Gas serves a 100-mile radius around Sauk Centre. Fischer said the older a vehicle is, the easier it is to convert.

Owner of Crown Gas, Ron Winters, said half of his 10 trucks have been converted. Conversion of his fleet was done in Mankato. The decision to become a propane pioneer stemmed from both a cost and environmental standpoint.

Although trucks are the primary target, cars can also be converted. A car-size propane tank would be mounted in the spare tire compartment.

Ostendorf said he has plans to convert one of his personal vehicles, but TireMaxx is not actively advertising the service just yet.

"We're just going to roll with it and see how it goes," Ostendorf said.