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March 19, 2013  |   Comments (0)   |   Post a comment

Horlock points to growth in propane business for Blue Bird

With Blue Bird recently netting its biggest-ever order of propane school buses — more than 400 — President and CEO Phil Horlock is ebullient about the fuel’s potential. Here, he discusses alternative fuels, the state of school bus sales and other pertinent topics.

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What would you say is the biggest challenge or concern that some operations have that might keep them from venturing into alternative fuels?
Often there’s a lack of clear understanding about infrastructure requirements, how safe it is and how affordable it is. This industry is very used to diesel being the only way of powering buses.

We have made a big and concerted effort with our partners in this area, particularly ROUSH CleanTech, who is the fuel system supplier on our propane product. We also have outstanding relationships with propane suppliers throughout the U.S. and Canada. We partner with those folks and go out on the road to talk to potential customers about how easy it is.

I’ll give you an example: The propane infrastructure can be installed in 24 hours. The propane filling station goes right in the school district’s yard, next to the diesel tank. CNG [compressed natural gas] infrastructure is far more expensive to put in place, but once it’s in place, the cost of CNG as a fuel is very, very low. The lowest of all.

Typically, it will cost about $30,000 to install a propane fueling facility. It’s about $500,000 to install a CNG fueling facility. With many of the agreements we have with our propane suppliers, when they have a fuel supply contract from the school district that orders a few propane buses, they will install that propane system free of charge.

Another thing that’s always on people’s minds is safety: “How safe is propane?” It’s an incredibly safe fuel, for two reasons. One is the fuel itself is very low on combustibility. It’s even harder to make combustible than gasoline or diesel. And the tanks themselves are very highly regulated, so the tanks on our buses are so tough. We have a video on our website where we show police officers shooting various caliber guns at a propane fuel tank, and still they can’t bust through it. A gas tank and a diesel tank can be penetrated much more easily.

The 2014 All American FE and RE buses were unveiled in October. What reactions have you gotten about the redesigned features?
All of our reactions have been very positive, first from our dealers and then from our customers who have seen it and then placed orders with us. We do believe it’s the best Type D bus in the market. We’ve been through this very carefully, benchmarking us against competitive buses. It’s got the best fuel economy; it has the best turning radius; the ergonomics in the cockpit are the best in class; it’s got the best capacity in its DEF [diesel exhaust fluid] reservoir.

I think what a lot of our customers also love is, with this new bus, we commonized a lot of parts in the passenger compartment. All of the windows are common with the Vision [Blue Bird’s Type C]. The sheet panels behind the driver are common. So it minimizes the number of parts that dealers have to stock and we have to stock. It really helps to reduce complexity.

We start full-scale production in March, and our customers are anxiously awaiting their first deliveries. We have a lot of orders on hand. So we’re very pleased.

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