Be Concerned

This winter’s supply structure will likely

be “stressed but sufficient,” but what

about the winter after that? 


Unless the propane industry sees a heavy grain drying load again and another colder-than-normal winter, the propane supply situation should be OK this coming winter of 2014-2015. Mike Sloan of ICF International (Fairfax, Va.) says the propane supply structure is likely to be “stressed but sufficient.” But the following winter of 2015-2016 might be an area of concern as propane export capacity is expected to increase faster than propane production in both 2015 and 2016.

Sloan, in a presentation titled, “2015 Propane Market Outlook—Impact of Changing Propane Supply on Propane Markets,” given on July 17 at the Propane Education & Research Council (PERC) meeting in Santa Fe, N.M., noted that limited options existed in the past for the propane that was produced in North America. When production during the summer exceeded demand, propane marketers could reasonably expect propane to be placed in storage during the offseason and to be available for purchase during the peak winter season when demand exceeded production.Sloan-1
“However, with the growing export market, that’s no longer automatic,” Sloan told BPN following the meeting. Propane marketers and consumers must be aware of where their supply is coming from and be more willing to make commitments to ensure that the supply is where they need it, when they need it.

He noted that the propane industry is facing other challenges on the demand side, but opportunities exist there, as well. ICF expects conventional residential demand to continue to decline nationally because of improvements in efficiency and competition from electricity. But real opportunities exist in the engine fuel market, as Fig. 1 shows, and those aren’t going to go away. Opportunities in the fueloil conversion market also look promising. Growth from those markets should offset losses in the more traditional propane markets.

As propane production continues to grow, producers must develop new markets for that increase, because it won’t come from the consumer market. That means additional exports and greater petrochemical demand are likely, and those markets are easier for producers to serve than the seasonal market. That again means propane marketers must be more proactive about lining up their supply and figuring out how to deal with seasonal fluctuations in demand.

Sloan-2The increase in propane production is linked to the broader growth in natural gas, natural gas liquids, and light oil production. The broad growth in petroleum production is leading to what Sloan sees as a major issue for the propane industry: congestion on the existing pipeline and rail transportation infrastructure. Consumer propane is competing with other NGLs for available pipeline transportation capacity. In addition to the issues caused by the Cochin Pipeline no longer carrying propane, the growth of diluent demand in Canada is increasing congestion on pipelines flowing north. And the need to move y-grade mixed NGLs to market from the new producing fields in the Bakken and the Marcellus has put a premium on capacity moving down into the Gulf Coast. Fig. 2 shows additional trends reducing seasonal propane transportation capacity.

The industry’s reliance on rail is also increasing because of the changes in supply, and rail reliability is a significant concern, particularly during colder-than-normal weather conditions.

With the additional demand reducing the availability of the transportation assets for seasonal use, Sloan observes that’s one more factor making it more important for marketers to make sure they know how they’re going to get propane into their markets when it’s needed.

In the absence of the Cochin Pipeline, the ability to move propane into the Midwest is much more limited than it was last year, but Sloan believes the problems will be relatively minor if the next winter is near normal. With growth in production from the Bakken, and use of available pipeline space on the Oneok, Teppco, MAPL, and Nustar pipelines, that should even out the problems. The pipelines in the past have been underutilized for much of the year, and even during winter periods when the weather has been warmer than normal, the pipelines have been underused, Sloan stated.Sloan-3

“There’s less underutilized capacity now because of the changing market structure, but there is still enough so that a fair amount of the Cochin volumes will be replaced through increased flows on other pipelines in the region,” he added. Without the Cochin, people will have to go a bit further with transports and bring more in by rail.

Marketers and their customers will have to make significant adjustments, but Sloan believes the available capacity should be there to allow them to make those adjustments. That is, unless demand this fall and winter resembles last year.

“And if we do get a high-demand fall and winter, I’m concerned about another year with periods of significant shortages in the Midwest.”

Fig. 3, showing data as of Aug. 15, supports Sloan’s view that available capacity should suffice in a close-to-normal winter. Propane inventories have been increasing rapidly at PADD 3, which includes Mont Belvieu and the Gulf Coast. Storage additions are averaging 1,165,000 barrels per week this year compared to an average of only 390,000 for 2011 to 2013. That puts Mont Belvieu in very good condition for this time of year, and Sloan feels that should carry over leading into the coming winter. PADD 2 in the Midwest is more of a concern. He noted that in addition to the Conway, Kan. hub, PADD 2 includes Midwest territory all the way from Kansas to Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Illinois. As Fig. 4 shows, also as of Aug. 15, PADD 2 storage injections are moderately higher than the last three years, with additions averaging 788,000 barrels per week this year. That compares to an average of 676,000 for 2011 to 2013. Speaking to BPN on August 1, Sloan noted that PADD 2 inventories a week earlier were at the bottom of the five-year range. He hoped the numbers the following week would show a solid build indicating inventories are moving up toward the five-year range. Without that build, marketers should be concerned and plan accordingly.

Nationally, inventories have been building nicely, but they have been distributed differently, with most of the growth coming in the Gulf Coast and less in the Midwest.Sloan-4

If this coming winter is closer to normal, the focus will turn to winter 2015-16. In 2015, as shown in Fig. 5, a clear disconnect is evident between the expected growth in propane production and the increase in propane export capacity. Fig. 6 shows some export terminals planned in the coming years.

“We can’t possibly export all the propane that could be physically exported by the higher amount of export capacity, and nobody expects that to happen,” Sloan noted. “However, the fact that the export capacity is coming online means we will be fully connected with the international market, and much of this capacity growth will be utilized.”

He has heard that export terminals coming online will see a significant amount of use. Some of the facilities are reportedly fully contracted already, and most are at least partially contracted now.

“Given the increase in export capacity, that for me raises a very significant concern that we may see in 2015 and in 2016 what we saw in 2013, which was that when the export capacity came online, we saw a very rapid decline in inventories, setting up the problems we saw last year, particularly in the Midwest.”

The main message of Sloan’s presentation: If you don’t know where your propane supply is coming from, it may not be there when you need it. If next winter is a warm one, there won’t be any issues. If next winter is colder than normal, particularly in the Midwest, there could be issues similar to last winter.Sloan-4b

“And for 2015 and 2016, given the change in export capacity, these will be the years where it’s really important for marketers to have figured out their supply situation. Because even in a warm winter, or normal winter, with that much export capacity coming online, marketers who have not committed for their supplies prior to the start of the winter may have significant difficulties finding available supplies during the winter.”
 —Daryl Lubinsky     

Just in Time for Winter, Alliance Launches Rail Terminal

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It’s on. Alliance Midstream LLC’s Benson, Minn. rail terminal will be up and running late this month, in time for crop drying and the heating season while adding critical infrastructure in the Upper Midwest. The firm is building out the terminal, formerly owned by Kinder Morgan Energy Partners and served by the Cochin pipeline, to be a rail-in, truck-out facility capable of unloading 32 railcars and loading 130 trucks a day. In operation since 1979, the 13-acre site currently provides about 1.4 MMgal. of storage in 17 above-ground tanks. And the storage is full and ready for winter.

With the Army Corps of Engineers issuing the final permit in late July, the next day construction crews were making the dirt fly at the west-central Minnesota location. Benson will be exclusively marketed by Alliance Midstream’s affiliated wholesale company, Alliance Energy Services LLC (North Kansas City. Mo.). In mid-July Alliance Energy hosted a launching ceremony at the terminal, purchased from Kinder Morgan for $5.1 million. Alliance is investing another $6 million for facility infrastructure and the rail link. The terminal initially will be able to accommodate 64 railcars, with propane primarily sourced from Canadian suppliers and smaller volumes coming from the new production areas of North Dakota. Sixteen railcars will be able to be unloaded at a time.
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No More Cochin  

In the spring of this year the industry lost more than 50,000 bbld of propane transportation capacity from Alberta into the propane market in the U.S. Midwest when the Cochin pipeline was switched to diluent service. As reported by ICF International in a report released in August, in 2013 the Cochin was the largest single source of propane supply into North Dakota (29%) and Minnesota (38%), and a major source of supply into Iowa (13%) and Indiana (17%). While the pipeline had no terminals in Wisconsin, many marketers in the southern half of the state relied on Cochin deliveries into Minnesota.

The study, “Impact of the Cochin Pipeline Reversal on Consumer Propane Markets in the Midwest,” further notes that the line provided direct access to the 5.2 MMbbl (220 MMgal.) of propane storage facilities near Fort Saskatchewan, Alta., Canada. That access to major storage enabled the Cochin to be an effective source of swing supply into the Cochin market region, which ICF International identifies as the five states named previously, as well as the greater Cochin market region. This allowed the market to accommodate extreme swings in demand associated with grain drying and weather. In the absence of the pipeline, access to this capacity by Midwest propane marketers is limited to rail and truck transportation. In addition, the Cochin reduced transportation congestion on other pipelines delivering propane into the Midwest and provided flexible supply to meet demand needs throughout the Upper Midwest.AlliancePg2

The Cochin runs from Fort Saskatchewan through the U.S. Midwest to the petrochemical complex in Sarnia, Ont. In the past, the pipeline was used primarily to transport propane produced in the Western Canadian Sedimentary Basin into the Upper Midwest to meet seasonal demand. Between 2008 and 2012, flows on the Cochin averaged less than 25% of operational capacity, leading the owner, Kinder Morgan, to evaluate options for maximizing the pipeline’s value. In 2012, Kinder Morgan requested approval from Canada’s National Energy Board and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to allow the pipeline to transport diluent from the Midwest to Alberta. Diluent is used to dilute heavy oil, such as that from the Alberta oil sands, to facilitate transportation on pipelines and by rail. Approval was granted by both agencies in 2013, and the line was taken out of propane service in the spring of 2014. Over the past year, Kinder Morgan worked on the Cochin line in preparation of this change. This resulted in propane outages and a reduction in shipping capacity, which greatly contributed to the propane crisis of last season.

“Now that the Cochin has ceased the shipment of propane from Canada into the U.S., our industry has a large void in distribution,” comments Jason Doyle, founder and president of Alliance Energy Services. “The area that will be most affected will be the Upper Midwest, and Minnesota is ground zero since it relied on approximately 40% of its propane supply from the pipeline. Supplying the market during peak demand periods will be very challenging. The industry must work together, more than ever, to plan and adjust to these distribution challenges.”

He added that suppliers are adding capacity, such as the Benson rail terminal, to help provide supply security, but unfortunately, in the short term this will not be enough to displace what was lost. “Carriers are adding trucks for more capacity and longer runs to alternative supply points. Railroads are committing to move additional capacity, although they are challenged with increased traffic from other industries. Retail marketers are adding storage and working their plans to ensure tanks are full and that they are routing their deliveries as efficiently as possible,” he says.

Noting that Benson was the first significant acquisition for Alliance Midstream, a company formed to own, operate, acquire, and develop midstream assets, Doyle acknowledges that the loss of Cochin-supplied propane has left a hole in the market that is much larger than a single new rail terminal can fill. “We definitely will be continuing to acquire strategic assets to help fill this supply void in the marketplace for our customers. Other wholesale propane marketers are also expanding rail operations and exploring new storage options. Together, as an industry, I am confident that we will establish the supply solutions that the market requires.”

AlliancePg2bAs part of that needed infrastructure build, Alliance has purchased additional land around the Benson site and has expansion plans to add more track in order to facilitate more railcars. There is also the opportunity to add more storage, although track expansion is the priority. “The facility will be equipped to handle unit trains in the future,” Doyle says. “Currently the industry is not set up well for unit-train deliveries due to limitations at propane loading facilities, coupled with production areas being so spread out. Storage in railcars at Benson is an option that can help during peak periods, but the goal now is to unload quickly into storage and send the cars back to supply points for reloading as fast as possible.”

While working to bring Benson online, Alliance Midstream is simultaneously working with third-party owners of other rail terminals in order to transport more propane into the region.  “We are talking with some customers and partners about utilizing their terminals more efficiently by moving higher volumes than they have in the past, as well as partnering to expand them to handle additional volumes,” Doyle says. Meanwhile, some supply contracts are in place at Benson, and the company continues to add new customers. “Our primary objective is to continue to supply the existing businesses in the area who relied on supply from the Benson terminal in the past,” the Alliance Energy president explains.

Game Has Changed

Looking at the relatively new propane export picture, the result of ramped-up natural gas production that has created an excess of propane and other natural gas liquids the domestic market can’t presently use, Doyle comments that propane must be exported since there isn’t enough demand or storage locations to take it all. While acknowledging that the export situation is a double-edged sword, and that many have strong feelings on the subject, with production forecast to grow still further, exports are here to stay.

“If we can create more storage infrastructure, especially in areas of the country with high demand that are farthest from the traditional propane hubs, that would be ideal and would improve fall and winter supply security. At the same time marketers can build a plan with hedges in place to alleviate some of the price swings that are inevitable now that we are influenced by export economics and international demand,” he says.

He adds that having a plan in place to enhance supply security and manage price risk is more important now than ever before. “Supply is growing at an amazing pace in the U.S., so that is a good thing. Distribution channels and infrastructure are lagging behind, creating short-term volatility and anxiety for many. We are confident that the industry is working hard to solve these issues and will get the job done. Things won’t happen as fast as we want, but things are happening every day to make the necessary adjustments. The seasonality of propane demand is part of the problem as we compete for transportation assets, but that is the reality of our business.”

Furthermore, beyond protecting the propane end user, Doyle emphasizes that the need for a comprehensive supply plan, along with a price risk management plan, is key so retail marketers can best manage their businesses. “To be proactive with a plan, filled with contingencies, is always recommended. In these markets, with all the changes that are taking place in supply and infrastructure, this is critical. The price swings that are a direct result of these infrastructure changes, such as what we experienced last season, will likely continue over the next few years. Hopefully, we won’t see a repeat of last year since that kind of supply shortage and the resulting price spikes are bad for consumers and our industry.”

Cochin Loss

ICF International’s report, prepared for the Propane Education & Research Council, underscores that the loss of the Cochin pipeline will not have a noticeable impact on the total supply of propane available to the North American market. Canadian supply formerly transported to the Midwest on the line will continue to be available to the broader market, and supply from Canada, the Bakken formation in North Dakota, and other regions will continue to grow. However, the loss of the pipeline will significantly reduce the availability of supply into the Heartland. As such, the loss of the Cochin is a transportation issue, rather than a supply issue.

ICF anticipates that some of the decline in propane supplied by the Cochin will be replaced by production from the Bakken and delivered by rail and truck. In addition, the consultancy notes that propane production in the Marcellus and Utica plays is also growing, which is increasing supply to the northeast and providing an alternative source of supply for the central Canadian petrochemical complex in Sarnia. In addition, ICF forecasts that Canadian propane formerly transported on the Cochin will continue to find markets in the U.S. Much of this supply will be available for shipment to the Midwest by rail.

However, substitution of the pipeline also requires replacement of the flexibility it provided, operating as it did as a system with the storage capacity in Fort Saskatchewan. There are no large scale storage facilities located in the Cochin market region, or in the Bakken, and access to storage facilities in the other producing regions is currently limited during peak demand periods by a lack of pipeline capacity. ICF concludes that despite potential options to replace Cochin pipeline flows, and the investments in new transportation and storage infrastructure that have already been announced, new investments in propane transportation and distribution capacity into the Midwest market region may be required to fully replace the Cochin during high demand periods.

Despite those obstacles, and more bumpy roads ahead, Doyle states he is upbeat, and the propane industry will work as one to identify and implement solutions. “With more time to prepare for this winter, despite increased challenges from things like the loss of the Cochin pipeline, we are optimistic that things will improve from last winter’s crisis. Carriers have been adding trucks, and more storage locations are going to have higher inventory levels as we head into the fall and winter. Retailers have added storage and will concentrate on keeping bulk storage and customer tanks full. NPGA, state trade associations, and legislators are also taking action, such as passing legislation to give state governors more authority to approve hours-of-service extensions. Having said all that, we have our sleeves rolled up and are preparing for more challenges this winter.”      —John Needham

Connecting with Residential Propane Customers

By Roy Willis

RoyWillis 250The Propane Education & Research Council's $6.1 million Consumer Safety Preparedness Campaign will launch soon and, in essence, is about connecting with residential propane consumers.

The residential market is vitally important to the economic viability of the U.S. propane business. It is the core of our business. It is where the first installation of propane was made over a century ago, and it is the foundation on which we must build the future, even as we accelerate the transition to a more diverse and stronger U.S. propane market.

The decision to undertake this campaign at this time has a context beyond last winter's lingering polar vortex. Residential propane use has declined for several years for several reasons, including the steady improvement in appliance and structural efficiency, growing consumer conservation, expansion of electric heat pumps and natural gas utilities, and the collapse of new home construction. In fact, the housing decline hit propane sales even earlier because of the 85 percent decline in manufactured housing, where propane at its peak had nearly a 70 percent market share for heating and cooking. Those economic forces were beyond the industry's control.

What the industry can control is how we present propane to the people who make energy decisions. Since 2009 the industry's ability through PERC to directly market the general benefits of propane to people buying, building, and renovating homes was effectively shut down by the restriction of PERC's public education function under the Propane Education and Research Act of 1996. Yet PERC was able through its unrestricted training authority to provide information and tools that key energy decision makers -- construction professionals -- need to have when they consider using propane in their residential building projects. That effort has helped, and as housing generally is recovering from its lows, propane's share of nationwide residential space heating is slowly growing again, although propane businesses in many states are experiencing a net decline in propane heated homes.

The challenges that propane businesses face in the residential market were compounded only a few months ago by a surge in crop drying and space heating demand that drew down inventories, strained the transportation infrastructure, drove up costs, caused a price spike, and generated unprecedented negative news coverage that together undermine consumer confidence. America is not running out of propane, yet consumers' perception of propane's reliability has been shaken. No business can ignore such threats without suffering permanent demand destruction and customer losses.

To help address these challenges, PERC is preparing once again to launch a multimedia campaign focused on residential propane consumers. This time, PERC is relying on its authority "to inform and educate the public about safety ... related to the use of propane." To comply with the restriction, the campaign must carry a safety message.

Safety communications are always delicate because the message, if not carefully crafted, can be unsettling to the very audience one seeks to reassure. The creative collaboration between PERC's communication firm, Swanson Russell, the Advisory Committee’s project team led by Brandon Wade, and PERC's staff, led by Director of Communications Gregg Walker, has struck the right balance. The campaign uses multimedia elements online, on television, and in print to illustrate propane's benefits in the home, while subtly urging consumers to fill tanks early. The essential safety message is clearly there, yet the images of the comfort and convenience of propane being used in the home are powerful reminders of the benefits of propane as clean American energy. Indeed, a picture is worth a thousand words.

We should have realistic expectations about what this campaign can achieve. Funded at $6.1 million, the new campaign in total effort and spending is less than a third the size of the award-winning Energy Guys campaigns of 2004-2008 that featured Propane and Electricity characters illustrating the benefits of propane in the home.

While substantial, the resources available for this year’s campaign do not enable buying television time in every locale and will be aimed at some of the hardest hit states in the Midwest and Atlantic regions. Of course, online elements will reach the nationwide audience and will include a dedicated website www.propanecomfort.com that will go live soon. Additionally, radio ads and several print pieces will be available for use in local markets by state organizations and individual companies, if they choose.

The TV ads launch on September 8 and will run during a 12-week period. Obviously, the timing is not the same as traditional summer fill programs. Most propane companies carry on the conversation about early fills and payment plans directly with their own customers throughout the summer. And that's important to maintaining and strengthening the business-customer relationship that is the most valuable asset of any business.
 
The PERC campaign neither duplicates nor substitutes for the outreach that propane companies are doing with their consumers. It is meant to support their messages of being prepared and, at the same time, reach a broader audience with information about the benefits of using propane in the home.  For existing customers, the campaign will confirm that they made a smart choice to use propane in their homes. It will prompt will-call customers who haven't filled their tanks to do so. For nonusers, it will present propane in a positive, informative way that we hope will lead them to seek more information and consider using propane in their homes.
 
PERC will measure the effort, setting a baseline of consumer sentiment prior to launch and measuring awareness, favorability, and online activity once the media plan is completed. The data will tell us more about how consumers feel about using propane in their homes and, optimally, steps we can take in the future to grow residential use.

Ultimately, the goal of the PERC Consumer Safety Preparedness Campaign is connecting with residential propane customers. That's always a good idea.

Roy Willis is president and CEO of the Propane Education & Research Council (PERC).

Bobtail Efficiency: How Competitive Are You?

Knowing what it really costs to operate one of your most expensive assets, and how to reduce those costs while maximizing efficiencies, is critical to growing a business. For Minnesota propane marketers, both large and small, utilizing bobtails to achieve maximum productivity can be the difference between being successful or just getting by (or even worse, going out of business!). Efficiency in any business requires both understanding and effectively managing operating costs, including tools that can help you measure the efficiency down to the cost of delivering one gallon of gas.manufacturer

Just as in every other state, the propane industry in Minnesota is highly fragmented, with many private, independent, and family-held marketers. Because of this, the industry has a dearth of measurable and quantifiable benchmarking data compared to other industries, which makes it very difficult for marketers to know how they are performing against their peers. Without quantifiable metrics or real-world data, there are only “guesstimates” or surveys, which often are not very useful because they cannot be verified.

at-a-glanceMost marketers grapple with what specific metrics are needed to measure performance objectively in this very competitive environment. The best way propane marketers make money is to efficiently deliver propane into customer tanks via bobtails (and, of course, billing and collecting). Why skimp on drivers, trucks, or technology that will make your bobtails less efficient when this is your primary revenue source and critical asset?

The Minnesota Propane Association (MPA) asked me to conduct its first Bobtail Operating, Cost & Efficiency Analysis in the summer of 2013. My “roll-out,” complete with instructions and a template to collect the data, was presented at the association’s meeting in Minneapolis the following January.

The results were then provided at the MPA meeting at Madden’s Lake Resort this past June 23. The 38 marketers who participated in this initial study provided excellent data, which made for a very comprehensive report with real-world value. Minnesota propane marketers now have their first comprehensive detailed costs, metrics, and variances at their fingertips. The consensus is that future studies will be necessary to “clean up” the initial data and discern trends. The next study will include drops by tank size. Because all specific company information is completely confidential and the results are actual data and not “guesstimates” or surveys, there is less reluctance to participate.

Specific Data Requested from Each

Each marketer received detailed instructions and an Excel file to be completed and returned with following specific information for each bobtail:

• Truck Details — Manufacturer model type, year build, fuel type, transmission, bottle size.

• Demographics & Technology — Topography, primary use, onboard PC logistics software.

• Most-Recent 12-Month Totals— Miles driven, gallon throughput, number of drops.

• Most-Recent 12-Month Costs — Driver, variable, fixed.recap
 Each respondent received a 28-page booklet with three fully customized pages that provided specific details and variances (amount and percentage) to other Minnesota marketers. The marketers who did not elect to participate in the study but attended the presentation were given a generic Minnesota Successful Marketer booklet for illustrative purposes only. This mythical Minnesota Successful Marketer has four bobtails and delivered 2,105,000 gallons in its most recent 12-month period. Custom Report #2 shows how the Minnesota Successful Marketer compared to other marketers in all of the appropriate categories.

Marketers Categorized into Sub-Groups

While it is useful to compare each marketer to the other 37 participating in the study, it is even more beneficial to compare to marketers of similar size since the dynamics and costs are certainly not identical for large and small marketers. Each marketer was assigned a category — A, B, C, or D, in each of two separate sub-groups differentiated in size by the number of bobtails and annual gallons delivered. This allowed for much more accurate comparisons, as marketers compared their results with marketers of similar size.

minnesotaAfter reviewing the entire report, especially the recap page with the summaries of all key metrics, demographics, and costs, analyze your company’s customized confidential reports, noting its variances as detailed in Report #2 to similar marketers. Take the opportunity to determine what looks especially good, bad, or surprising compared to your peers. Were there any eye-openers or unexpected results?

Take a look at your actual cost per drop, per mile, per gallon. What are the efficiency differences between trucks, between drivers, and how can these be improved? These results may be shared with key company members to make improvements.

Real-World Benefits of Study

minnesota-2The study generated many questions and comments. Many marketers realize that their business can truly be run more efficiently with real, quantifiable data that may bring to the forefront the possibility that they may have too many bobtails for the gallons delivered or are not nearly as efficient as their competitors in gallons per drop, for example.

minnesota-3Previous bobtail studies have helped marketers be more successful by:

• Encouraging larger drop sizes and annual throughput per bobtail to maximize efficiencies;

• Identifying trends and costs to improve operations by decreasing costs by gallon, mile, and drop;

• Determining if on-board computers and logistics programs increase productivity, and utilizing or buying capable software to provide comprehensive energy solutions;

• Realizing that efficient routing will decrease the cost per drop and overhead costs, and that intelligent routing software can allow a new driver to be productive from the first day. One final detail—eliminating an unnecessary bobtail will provide a savings of $200,000 a year.

Mike Shilts is vice president of marketing and business development for K&K Management Solutions in Indianapolis. He has been involved in the propane industry since 1996. Contact him at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. . Shilts would like to thank Will Norman and Roger Leider for permission to publish the article. For additional data on the study, click here to read the complete booklet.

Propane Bobtail Hits Production Milestone

S2G Bobtail 1
June 16 marked a major milestone for the propane industry as the Freightliner Custom Chassis Corp. (FCCC; Gaffney, S.C.) S2G propane-fueled bobtail went into full production. FCCC is taking orders now, and about 25 trucks had been delivered as of late June. Initial reviews have been positive, but as is the case with most products, the process has not been glitch-free. The Burton, Mich. location of AmeriGas, which is using the truck on a pilot project basis, has given the truck high marks, although it experienced some low-idling problems with the bobtail early on. FCCC, however, fixed that problem quickly, said AmeriGas area director Mike George.

He told BPN the reduced cost of operation has been the truck’s biggest advantage. That is especially the case in the summer months when the price of propane is lower.

“You’re looking at almost a 50%-per-gallon difference to operate the truck,” George stated. “That’s the big ‘wow’ factor. It’s a cleaner-burning product, so I don’t expect to have as high maintenance costs with the vehicle.”

A participant at a ride and drive during last year’s National Truck Equipment Association Work Truck Show commented, “Quiet, really quiet. I’m really pleasantly surprised. It drives like a car. Minimum cab noise. You wouldn’t even know you’re driving a truck.”

Although some marketers were still apprehensive about ordering at this early stage and were taking a “wait-and-see” attitude, the many positive comments must be gratifying for all the companies involved with putting together the bobtail. FCCC built the vehicle chassis, Powertrain Integration (Madison Heights, Mich.) produced the engine, and CleanFUEL USA (Georgetown, Texas) designed the fuel tank system assembly and the fuel rail system assembly.S2G Bobtail 2-5

It might seem like it has been a long road to get to this point, but Bryan Henke of FCCC notes that the process has not been much different than that of any original equipment manufacturer (OEM) product. OEMs typically start manufacturing products by unveiling pilot units to test how they will run through the production line. That took place about a year ago for the S2G. Then comes “pre-series,” a limited production run to make sure the production process is working as planned. That took place around March of this year.

Now that the product is in full production, Henke says FCCC as of late June had several hundred orders, which were spread fairly evenly around the country. Propane marketers can order the bobtail from any of about 600 U.S. FCCC dealers.

The S2G will not just be available as a bobtail, however. Production is underway now for the bobtail, but the unit will go into production around the first quarter of 2015 for crane truck and box truck configurations as well. The chassis is also made for the Thomas Built Bus Co., and the school bus chassis using the same propane fueling system is also in full production.

Also like any OEM project, the S2G went through extensive testing to get to this point. FCCC built the pre-series units specifically for in-field testing. The company put the vehicle through several hundred thousand miles of durability testing, altitude testing on the rugged terrain of the Rocky Mountrains, including Pikes Peak, in Colorado, and cold start testing in –30ºF temperatures and colder in Bemidji, Minn.

“This is very typical of how we want to validate a vehicle’s design,” Henke explained.

Dealer buy-in is also important in any OEM product release, and Henke stressed that the FCCC dealers understand the features of the bobtail. They know alternative fuels because the company has been involved with natural gas products. The company showed the vehicle at an FCCC event in Wisconsin in June, and gatherings like that have achieved good results. A recent Southern Connecticut FCCC S2G event resulted in the sale of several trucks.

“The FCCC dealers are energized,” he said. “They’re seeing results with the trucks and getting more engaged with it.”

It’s been a long road since General Motors phased out its 8.1L engine from the medium-duty truck market at the end of 2009. Tucker Perkins, chief business development officer of the Propane Education & Research Council (PERC), recalled that the phase-out took place during the heart of the U.S. financial crisis that resulted in the government’s bailout of GM. The automaker had a buyer for its medium-duty truck division, but the deal fell through. Perkins, who was with CleanFUEL USA at the time, described GM’s medium-duty truck program as “successful by any stretch of the imagination.” Sales of the propane version of the 8.1L were just beginning to grow, and many users were satisfied with the propane-fueled bobtail. After GM’s exit from that market, PERC, CleanFUEL USA, and Blue Bird Bus bought GM’s remaining inventory of 8.1L engines to continue the Blue Bird propane school bus program.

CleanFUEL USA and Powertrain Integration immediately began working on a brand new engine, which is an 8.0L to replace the 8.1L and features more horsepower, torque, and fuel efficiency along with lower emissions. The engine has gone through various changes since the original pilot version.

“It’s amazing how the vehicle integration from the fuel system to the engine itself, to noise, to air intake, to just about everything, has evolved over the past several years,” Henke noted. “If you would have looked at the pilot unit we did several years ago and what we have today, there are significant changes, because we just weren’t satisfied with the status quo.”

The ability to start the vehicle in extreme cold weather was a big area of focus for the S2G. According to Henke, cold-start was an issue for liquid injection systems when he worked for a company that sold vaporized systems. But he and his team were pleasantly surprised when they heard that the S2G had no trouble starting in –30°F and colder temperatures in Bemidji.

“I thought, really, we’re getting cold-start without a block heater? We are. That’s unheard of,” Henke stated.

The S2G team also paid close attention to noise. The group worked to make sure the vehicle would be quiet for the driver and for residential customers’ neighbors.

S2G-Bobtail-for-photos-3“It wasn’t just making sure it ran right,” Henke said. “Propane marketers remember the past. They have great memories. We certainly did not want to have issues that these guys had in the past 10 to 20 years ago.”

Along with stringent testing in areas such as noise, starting, and cooling, additional durability testing involved running the vehicle continuously around the clock. That testing revealed some mostly minor mechanical issues that the team addressed. In mid-December, Perkins told BPN that the team resolved a few technical issues in areas such as engine calibration and oil leaks.

“In some cases they were minor nuisances in our opinion, but not acceptable,” Henke noted. “Maybe for some other applications, a little leak here or there or a little noise rattle here or there after 60,000 or 100,000 miles might be acceptable, but it really wasn’t to us. So we wanted to make sure that we shook this vehicle down. I think we’ve accomplished that.”

Meanwhile, FCCC is working on marketing the product to potential users and educating its own dealers. “We’re letting FCCC dealers know the product is in full production, because they’ve been waiting quite a long time,” Henke explained. The company will hold a special event in Gaffney in late summer so potential buyers can get hands-on experience with the truck.

Many marketers are ready now. Trevor Beaudry, propane manager for Beaudry Oil (Elk River, Minn.), said his company has one S2G on order and was set to receive it in August or September.

“We decided to order one for the fuel savings and to support propane for motor fuel use,” Beaudry said. “We think if it is successful then there will be opportunity for the vehicle in different industries.”

McMahon’s Bottle Gas (Dayton, Ohio) has not ordered the S2G yet, but plans on doing so next year. “We really want a propane bobtail, but we wanted to give them a year to work out the bugs,” said Brian Buschur of McMahons.

Other marketers are on the fence. “We have considered ordering one, but were not sure how long we would have to wait to get it,” said Daren Parker of Parker Gas Co. (Newton Grove, N.C.). “I am still not sure when the first ones will be available. I have not test driven one. I obviously would like to see this thing work out, but am kind of skeptical about being the guinea pig.”

The truck won’t be for everyone, of course. Kevin Lechner of Lechner’s Propane (East Branch, N.Y.) test drove the vehicle at a recent Ray Murray Inc. open house in Lee, Mass. Although he said using a propane-fueled bobtail would lower his operating costs, he would not order one because his location is in a mountainous area.

“The automatic transmission is constantly shifting, so in my location, it’s not so much of a ‘pro’ for me,” said Lechner, addressing the pros and cons. He now prefers diesel-fueled bobtails with standard transmissions because they can be more easily fitted with a “Jake brake” that uses engine compression to slow down the vehicle so the driver does not have to pump the brakes as much while traveling downhill.

Gary France of France Propane (Schofield, Wisc.), past chair of the National Propane Gas Association, drove the bobtail at the Work Truck Show and also at the joint Georgia/South Carolina Propane Gas Association convention in July, 2013. He has two main concerns: the price and the transmission. He wonders why the vehicle is priced about $12,000 more than a comparable diesel version, and he has also heard concerns from truck builders about the S2G’s Allison transmission.

“When your bulk truck manufacturer is skeptical, it kind of makes you not feel real comfortable, either,” France said.

He believes that propane marketers must have confidence in their own fuel as a delivery fuel and that they need to get the propane-fueled bobtail out in the field. “It’s hard to expect the customer to buy or use autogas if we’re not using it, and I think right now there’s a little reluctance on some of the marketers as to why they have to pay such a premium for that truck.”

He does feel the truck has “a good solid chassis.” But the price tag and transmission will be his main concerns until he sees them out in the field in real-world conditions. His test drives took place with an empty barrel, and he contends that a truck is best judged with a full barrel.

On the plus side, another ride and drive participant at the Work Truck Show said the vehicle had “great visibility and it turns nice and tight.” Another, whose current fleet includes a 2012 Freightliner with a Cummins diesel, commented that the S2G had just as much power.

Lechner said that although he would not be able to use the truck, the S2G’s turning radius and visibility were two positives. “If you’re in a city environment with a tight residential area, the turning radius is wonderful.”
    —Daryl Lubinsky