Alternative fuels such as compressed natural gas (CNG) are not new to the school bus industry. But they are new to the small school bus segment. Requiring refueling about every 150 miles, CNG chassis are perhaps ideally suited for smaller buses, which often run shorter routes than their large-bus counterparts. Yet large CNG buses have, until now, been the only ones certified for use in the school bus industry.
Small buses take the field
Ford Motor Co. and General Motors have both developed CNG chassis for small bus use. However, Ford's chassis is the only one currently certified for school bus use. Both Blue Bird Corp. and Collins Bus Corp. are building on it.
"CNG is not new to anyone, since it's actually been around since the 1930s in motor vehicles," says Rusty Mitchell, director of marketing for Blue Bird, where the Micro Bird is currently available on the Ford E-450 Super Duty cutaway. "As for as OEM installation for school buses, we started doing it back in 1991, mainly in bigger buses. The cutaway type vans like Ford and GM are building really just started getting into it as far as being validated for school bus use."
Kent Tyler, vice president of marketing for Collins Bus, says Collins was ahead of the game in alternative-fueled small buses. "We built the bus for Ford that they crash-tested to certify. We're making it available to our dealers this fall," explains Tyler. Collins President Paul Kessler notes that the company built two custom bodies on the Ford CNG chassis a year and a half ago. "These were custom bodies because you have to protect the fuel tanks differently than you do gasoline tanks. You have to case them in differently," he explains.
The Collins Grand Bantam is available on an E-450 dual rear-wheel chassis with a GVWR of 14,050 pounds and a 5.4-liter dedicated CNG V-8 engine. The Grand Bantam offers a flat-floor, track seating, 30-passenger capabilities and an optional lift model. "With three underbody tanks providing a reported range of up to 150 miles, Ford has certainly made CNG a viable option for the Type A school bus market," says Kessler.
Robert Sharp, alternative-fuel vehicle brand manager for Ford, says the development of a dedicated CNG cutaway chassis for the school bus industry has been a learning experience. "We've had the 176-inch wheelbase school bus package out for a while, but as we started to deep-dive into the industry a little more, we discovered it was the wrong wheelbase. For small buses, users really prefer the 158-inch wheelbase," he says. The Ford E-450 Super Duty cutaway chassis comes with one underbody mid-ship CNG tank and two underbody aft-axle tanks. For detailed specs, see chart.
Marketing for success
Body and chassis manufacturers agree that there's no telling how successful the CNG cutaway models will be. "It's hard to tell what kind of [sales] volume is going to be out there for this kind of unit. It's one of those scenarios where you don't want to be left behind," says Kessler.
Indeed, Sharp says Ford has seen interest from nearly all the major school bus manufacturers. "The response has been very positive. With some of the bad press that diesel's getting right now, CNG is a great alternative," he says.
Ford's marketing strategy is two-fold: Work with the distributors to build awareness that the chassis is available and work directly with school bus operators, particularly those who already have the CNG fueling infrastructure available. California, with 600 CNG school buses currently on the road, is a prime market. But it's not the only market being targeted. CNG buses are on the streets across the nation, and Sharp says Ford is targeting several major cities such as New York and Boston.
One of Kessler's hesitations in forecasting the future of the CNG cutaway model is the potential he sees in other types of fuel, such as traditional gasoline. "There have been some inroads made with the traditional gasoline engine in terms of being able to meet low emissions requirements," he says. The cost of the traditional gasoline chassis is significantly less than the CNG chassis. The CNG model costs about $13,000 more than the gasoline engine, says Kessler, and about $8,000 more than the diesel engine.
Environmental initiatives have put some funding in place to help operators secure alternative fuel school buses. In addition, FuelMaker, a McKinney, Texas-based fuel-station supplier, has partnered with Ford to offer rebates to some customers who purchase a Ford alternative- fuel vehicle along with a FuelMaker unit.
Calming fueling concerns
A second major concern users have with switching to CNG is the availability of fueling facilities. "Part of the issue going forward is: Will there be an infrastructure in place where you can get compressed natural gas?" says Kessler.
"Obviously if you buy a dedicated natural gas school bus and you're 10 miles or more away from convenient access to fueling, that becomes a concern," says Bruce Rayner, vice president of U.S. sales for FuelMaker. His company specs out the number of CNG compression systems a user needs based on the number of buses they have and sets up an on-site fueling station with the option of fast- or time-fill. "When the buses go out for two hours in the morning and in the afternoon, all other times they can be getting a time fill. Then while the buses are sitting for their 12 to 14 hours overnight, they get a full fill. So every day school buses start with a full tank," he explains.
Most alternative-fuel companies work similarly. Some, like Trillium in Salt Lake City, offer a full fueling package, which includes financing, design, installation and operation of on-site fueling stations. One of Trillium's customers is Los Angeles Unified Schol District. "We do 24-hour monitoring," says Jennifer Detapia, customer service manager for Trillium.
At Applied LNG in Amarillo, Texas, experts offer consulting services for operators in the market for a fuel station. Based on the user's needs, Applied LNG advises the user on the best company to build the station. Applied LNG manufactures and distributes liquefied natural gas, which vaporizes into CNG. "You can store up to 60 times the amount of LNG, compared ot that of CNG. We'll deliver LNG and before they'll actually fuel, it will be vaporized into CNG. They can get bigger bang for their buck," says Juanita Diaz of Applied LNG.
Whatever fuel system you choose, Len Bowgen, president of Springfield, Mo.-based Bowgen Fuel Systems, warns that you must keep it up to date. "One problem is that school districts don't put anything in their budget to upgrade the station as new technology comes along. They end up having a station that's obsolete and cannot fill the new buses," says Bowgen.
<font size="2" face="Verdana, Arial, Helvetica, sans-serif">Blue Bird's CNG Micro Bird
|Chassis||Ford E-450 Super Duty|
|Wheelbase||158, 176 inches|
|Engine||Ford 5.4-liter, V8 dedicated CNG. Meets federal UL EV and California HDE emission requirements|
|Fuel tank capacity||Three steel tanks (18 gal. gasoline equivalent)|
|Transmission||Automatic with overdrive|
|Overall length||261 inches|
|Overall width||96 inches|
|Overall height||115 inches|
Complete spec's for the Collins Bantam CNG are not available at this time.