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Rough road ahead for propane vehicles

Small usage, certification explain alternative fuel’s decline in popularity

Published January 31, 2013
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In trying to stay “green” by cutting vehicle emissions, and also keep some “green” in my wallet, I’d been searching for a used dual-fuel vehicle that can run on either propane or gasoline at the flick of a switch.

The Canadian Propane Association cites that propane as a motor fuel produces 26 per cent fewer greenhouse gases than gasoline and is low in sulphur.

Propane only costs about 55 to 60 cents per gasoline litre equivalent (in Toronto) and is a popular fuel among taxi and limo operators — and the London Police Service.

More: Here’s why I’m saying goodbye to my ‘green’ vehicle

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However, I’ve now abandoned my quest for propane-powered wheels, and predict that many other proponents will do the same. Some recent changes have stacked the odds against this once popular alternative motor fuel.

Since the infamous Sunrise Propane disaster in Toronto, officials have been closely inspecting auto propane fill stations and demanding costly upgrades. But, because usage has dropped significantly in recent years, many operators are instead eliminating auto propane pumps, so few fill locations remain.

Additionally, vehicle propane systems must now be recertified every five years.

These factors combined to dissuade me from buying a propane vehicle. I also don’t drive a lot, so the extra $1,500 or so that retired propane police cruisers may demand at auction (taxi operators love them), plus paying for propane system inspections, would likely override any fuel savings for me.

Converting a car or light truck to propane would cost about $4,000 — $6,000, making it a viable option for heavy commercial users only.

As of 2013, Ontario’s revamped Drive Clean program may ultimately doom many auto propane users. Inexpensive “fumigation” type propane conversions, once popular with taxi operators, may occasionally trigger a trouble code in normal use. But, under new Drive Clean rules, vehicles with the “check engine” light on will automatically fail.

In effect, e-testing may actually encourage harmful emissions by forcing taxi operators — who are on the road 24 hours a day — to abandon propane conversions and revert to gasoline, a more polluting fuel.

Likewise, many current dual-fuel (propane/gasoline) vehicle owners may be forced to revert to gasoline-only in hopes of clearing the “check engine” light, just to pass Drive Clean and stay on the road.

Note that costlier fuel-injected propane conversions, as used by London Police since 2005, claim not to trigger trouble codes. In all, London Police have utilized propane as the primary fuel for its fleet of 90 front line cruisers since 1983.

Email your non-mechanical questions to Eric Lai at wheels@thestar.ca. Due to the volume of mail, personal replies cannot be provided.

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