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Propane: Not just for barbecues anymore

Published December 14, 2012

There was a time when rising oil prices and gasoline shortages made fuels such as propane, natural gas and biodiesel more popular. But where are they now?

Of the three alternate fuels, propane appears to be the best option for Canadian drivers, since it has an established distribution infrastructure, a seemingly endless supply, and at a cost per litre of about 60 cents in southern Ontario.

Although the 30 propane stations now scattered across the GTA are a far cry from the hundreds we had in the 1980s and ’90s, they are still popular with taxis and fleet vehicles. Fleets using propane vehicles include Canada Post, UPS, Airways Transit and the police department in London, Ont.

Also known as liquid petroleum gas (LPG), propane burns cleaner than gasoline, thereby reducing greenhouse gas emissions by up to 27 per cent. It also produces 50-per-cent fewer toxins and other smog-causing pollutants than gasoline.

With an octane rating of 110, propane can also fulfill the high-performance needs of supercharged engines, and advances in fuel injection technology have made LPG a viable fuel option for all vehicles in all seasons.

Meanwhile, only about 40 per cent of the propane produced in Canada is being used domestically, with 60 per cent being exported.

So why has the cheaper, cleaner, more efficient propane not caught on with the average Canadian motorist?

“The key to switching would start with the car manufacturers,” says Jim Facette, president and CEO of the Canadian Propane Association. “If they offered propane-ready vehicles to the consumer, and the consumer has the infrastructure available, it’s at that point we can see it happening.”

“Where you will find quite a few propane filling outlets is B.C., especially in Victoria, because British Columbia has a history of supporting auto propane,” he adds.

Aftermarket vehicle conversion for cars and light trucks can range from $4,500 to $6,000, but would be drastically cheaper if LGP systems were built-in by car manufactures. But propane conversion usually pays for itself quite quickly, suggests George Olah, vice-president of Alliance AutoGas, a firm that converts vehicle fleets.

For example, a Bolton electrician he knows was spending $6,000 a year on fuel, but after converting his van, he cut those fuel costs in half — paying for the conversion in less than two years.

“For the cab driver, saving money is a key concern, and the same goes for the delivery business, school buses and other transporters,” says Olah. “That’s where the big money is being saved right now.

“Here’s my own example,” he adds. “I filled up my Titan (Nissan pickup) in Toronto for a shade under 30 bucks and drove to Kingston, where I went around to see some customers before going on to Cornwall. On the way back, I stopped in Gananoque to fill up. All that distance (about 590 km) for $30.”

Facette says General Motors and Ford do make propane-ready vehicles in North America — which carry the same warranties as other vehicles — but we are still way behind the Europeans.

“More European car manufacturers produce propane vehicles. There’s the infrastructure and the demand. We’re not at that critical mass or tipping point yet, so the challenge is going forward,” he says, noting European gas prices are much higher than in North America, so there’s more incentive to seek alternatives.

Facette says another hurdle is people’s perception.

When they hear the word propane they only see it as a barbecue fuel, or recall 20-year-old images of large tanks in taxi trunks and the rotten-egg smell when they are being refuelled (which is a safety additive, since propane has no odour).

Modern tanks are positioned beneath the vehicle so no interior space is taken up. The tanks must regulate pressure levels in response to temperature changes, so they have an 80 per cent maximum capacity.

Liquid propane is converted into a gas by a vaporizing regulator, which controls the supply of propane to the engine. Once converted, the gas is mixed with filtered air before entering the combustion chambers.

Canada Post stopped using propane until recently, but now has 130 LPG vehicles across the country, in addition to 14 electric vehicles, five gas-electric hybrids and 10 natural gas vehicles.

“We realize we have an obligation, as Canada’s second-largest federal fleet, to invest in new and emerging technology,” says fleet manager Steve Clark.

“It (LPG) definitely burns cleaner (than gas), you can extend your oil changes and reduce your waste streams as a result,” he adds.

“There was a period we stopped using propane in the past, but we’ve re-entered that realm in the last three years and, for the most part, it’s been very successful.”

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