Question: What is the first step school bus fleet managers should take when considering a switch to propane autogas?

Answer: School districts and private contractors must consider upfront costs associated with new bus acquisitions, infrastructure and fuel costs when switching to an alternative fuel like propane autogas.

Understanding the upfront costs is important; however, forward thinking transportation directors, administrators and business managers are asking prudent questions. What impact will these buses have on students, drivers and our community? What is the true total cost of ownership for this bus? What are the maintenance requirements? Propane is providing solutions to these questions, and many others, for school districts and private contractors across the U.S.

Whether school districts and private contractors are making the switch to propane to reduce emissions, noise or operating costs, they all have one common denominator: the decision needs to make good business sense. The first step school bus fleet managers should take before adopting propane — or any alternative fuel — is calculating the true total cost of ownership.

Accurately calculating total cost of ownership is an imperative step for schools on a tight budget, so accounting for every cost associated with operating a fleet should be factored into the analysis. The most common mistake fleets make in their calculations is overlooking and not accurately accounting for all hidden costs. Obvious expenses include the cost of the asset and fuel costs, but fleets must also account for the total costs of fluids, filters, preventive maintenance, non-warrantable repairs, utilities, hazmat cleanup and disposal fees, employee compensation and uptime versus downtime over the life of the bus.

One pitfall school bus fleet managers should avoid is forgetting to account for differentiating maintenance intervals, fluid capacities, and cost of similar parts. For example, some fleets have reported that the clean-burning properties of propane allow them to extend preventive maintenance intervals after warranty coverage expires. Additionally, diesel engines require more oil by volume, and the costs of oil and fuel filters are higher. These often-overlooked requirements can add up to big expenses.
Hard costs associated with fleet ownership, such as cost of maintenance and parts, are easily calculated. However, fleet managers sometimes forget to account for less visible expenses like downtime, user experience and utilities. For instance, propane autogas-powered buses do not require block heaters like diesel buses do. Unlike diesel-fueled buses, propane autogas-powered buses crank reliably in cold weather and require very short idling periods to produce consistent heat throughout the passenger compartment. The extra costs diesel buses require for electricity and increased downtime are often overlooked in the calculation process.

Propane autogas-powered school buses are saving schools and private contractors thousands of dollars annually in fuel costs alone. Coupled with the savings they experience with reduced maintenance and operations costs, the total cost of ownership for propane buses is substantially lower than their diesel-powered counterparts.

Do you have any questions about switching to propane? Please post them in the comments section below.

Michael Taylor is the director of autogas business development for the Propane Education & Research Council.