Sales of propane school buses have been on the rise in recent years, and with the growing numbers of these alternative fuel buses comes an increased need for training on how to maintain them.
School bus manufacturers and propane autogas system suppliers are keeping pace by offering in-person and online training programs for school bus technicians.
“As more and more propane buses are sold into the school segment, there’s going to be a higher demand for certified technician programs,” says David Bercik, director of product marketing for Blue Bird.
Here, OEMs and other experts discuss the basics for propane bus maintenance and the educational programs that are available for bringing maintenance personnel up to speed.
“It’s important for technicians to know that they are not alone,” says Matt Scheuler, vice president and general manager of Collins Bus Corp. “Their propane school bus manufacturer and propane system providers will be readily available to provide assistance.”
For fleets that acquire propane school buses for the first time, maintenance work on them isn’t a huge departure from that of diesel buses, but there are some key areas that technicians need to be familiar with.
“Most important, they will need to learn how to perform inspections to the fuel system, which include checking the fuel routing and checking for any signs of a leak,” says Mike Stotler, manager of service education for Thomas Built Buses.
From a technical standpoint, one of the more prominent distinctions between propane and diesel buses is that propane engines use spark ignition systems. By contrast, diesel engines use compression ignition.
“[Technicians] have to learn about the spark ignition system and the things that go along with it,” says Bill Davis, director of the National Alternative Fuels Training Consortium (NAFTC). “Most of them have worked with spark ignition on a smaller scale,” such as in gasoline engines in cars.
Stotler notes that propane engines “are maintained just like gasoline engines and use a lot of the same components, with the exception of the fuel system.”
John Pfennig, director of global development for IC Bus parent company Navistar, says that experienced diesel technicians should have no trouble transitioning to propane, but brushing up on spark ignition systems is one of the first steps.
“There’s a wealth of information available online about spark ignition,” Pfennig says.
Fueling, facility factors
There are some notable differences in service procedures for propane school buses. One is that they should not be fueled indoors. If a propane bus is in the shop and needs fuel, “you have to tow it outside of the shop for safety,” Pfennig says.
Propane is unstable in the atmosphere, so if it has to be removed from the bus — for example, to service the fuel transfer pump — there are two ways to do it. One is a recovery system, which pumps the propane out of the tank and into a storage vessel, then pumps it back in when the repair is finished.
The other method for removing propane from the tank is called flaring, in which the fuel is burned off. Pfennig says that this method is more widely used in the maintenance of large tank facilities.
Servicing propane buses doesn’t require major changes to the maintenance facility, but there are some key considerations for safety. Davis of the NAFTC advises making sure that there are no potential ignition sources, such as a space heater, on the shop floor. He also recommends installing gas detectors in the shop.
“When you have a spill of autogas, there’s a limited amount of methane that escapes,” Davis says. “It’s very minor, but I say put in gas detectors.”
Stotler of Thomas Built Buses notes that there are two main codes regarding propane that fleets need to be aware of:
• NFPA (National Fire Protection Association) 58 is the industry benchmark for safe propane storage, handling, transportation, and use. “This code ensures that propane and its storage containers are safely installed and are used in a way that prevents failures, leaks, and tampering,” Stotler says.
• NFPA 30A gives guidance on how to safely dispense fuel, including propane. It also provides information on garage requirements and standards.
As another resource, the Propane Education and Research Council (PERC) offers a guide called “Propane Autogas Repair and Maintenance Facility Requirements,” which can be downloaded via schoolbusfleet.com/propanefacility.
Lower maintenance costs
Both OEMs and operators say that one of the benefits of propane for school bus fleets is that it can cut maintenance costs, in addition to fuel costs. These alt-fuel buses use less oil than diesel buses, and they don’t need diesel exhaust fluid.
The Metropolitan School District (MSD) of Wayne Township in Indianapolis recently bought 20 Blue Bird propane school buses. The district noted that propane buses use seven quarts of oil every 5,000 miles, compared to 34 quarts of oil every 8,000 miles for diesel. Also, fuel filters for propane buses last longer, and no block heaters are required.
Janet Petrisin, transportation director for MSD of Wayne Township, says that the district expects to save $700,000 in operating costs over the 12-year life of the 20 new propane buses.
Scheuler of Collins Bus says that in addition to the reduced use of oil and filters, propane buses have an extended engine life.
“These maintenance benefits mean less vehicle downtime and even more direct savings for fleets,” Scheuler says. “Simply put, propane autogas requires less training than other fuels, doesn’t diminish productivity or efficiency, and will not place an extra strain on your budget.”
According to Brian Carney, group account director for ROUSH CleanTech, a propane school bus is “a much easier vehicle to work on than today’s diesel vehicle. … There are significantly fewer components that can break on a propane bus than on a diesel.”
School bus manufacturers, propane system suppliers, and educational organizations offer numerous training programs for technicians who work on propane buses.
Blue Bird recently hosted the launch of a new propane autogas maintenance training course that was developed by the NAFTC (see sidebar below).
ROUSH CleanTech, which is the autogas system supplier for Blue Bird’s propane buses, offers a series of web-based training modules that inform technicians on what propane autogas is and how to maintain propane systems.
“It walks technicians through service procedures,” Carney says. “It sets a foundation for anyone we’ll do more training with in the future.”
To that end, ROUSH CleanTech is working with Blue Bird to hold six regional workshops across the country this year for Blue Bird dealer and customer technicians. Carney says they are requesting that workshop participants take the web-based training as a prerequisite.
Collins Bus provides tech training through its propane fuel system supplier, CleanFUEL USA, whose train-the-trainer program teaches dealership personnel to train their propane bus customers.
Navistar offers a web-based “Propane 101” course that addresses the chemistry of propane and how to safely handle it. For example, Pfennig notes that “if you have a leak, you can get frostbite if you don’t have gloves on.” That’s because propane in liquid form is below minus 44 degrees Fahrenheit.
Another web-based course from Navistar gets more specific about the engine that is used in IC Bus propane buses, the Power Solutions International 8.8-liter propane engine.
For Thomas Built Buses, training starts with familiarization of propane bus components, where they are located, general maintenance requirements, and differences between propane and diesel buses.
Thomas Built also partners with engine supplier Powertrain Integration and CleanFUEL USA to provide an in-depth fuel system training class, which Stotler says goes into more detail on the proper operation and maintenance of a propane bus.
Davis of the NAFTC says that while there can be a “fear of the unknown” for technicians who haven’t worked on propane buses before, going through a training program before taking delivery of the vehicles will help prepare the techs and ease any apprehensions.
“With our training, we talk to folks and give them a knowledge of autogas — the fuel, the different types of tanks, the fuel lines, the vaporizers,” Davis says. “We give them that comfort before they get the buses, so it’s not something new. It’s something they’ve had their hands on.”