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Propane offers one cleaner alternative to gasoline

When most of us are unfortunate (or careless) enough to run out of gasoline, we call lifelines like AAA. When 26-year-old David Whitcomb gets stranded in his 1972 Chevy C30, he tends to phone a friend and ask to borrow the tank off of his grill.

"You learn after one or two run-outs that it's a pain to get propane after dark," says Whitcomb, speaking from five years' experience. While there are a few proper fill-up places in town, like Glaser Energy Group near Platte Avenue and Academy Boulevard, he actually has an easier time obtaining propane in rural areas, where feed stores and the like supply it readily for farm equipment.

Today's clamor around alternative fuel vehicles (or AFVs, see "Pumping up"), complete with smartphone apps that locate distribution points, makes much of this technology sound new. But the technology in trucks like Whitcomb's actually dates back decades. And it's fairly widespread: About 200,000 such vehicles exist in the U.S., and around 9 million worldwide.

Propane, which accounts for about 5 percent of the mixture of hydrocarbons that's pumped out of the ground, is significantly more compact than gasoline, allowing for easier storage and transport. The U.S. consumes about 15 billion gallons annually, and to help with costly after-market conversion kits, the U.S. Department of Energy offers an AFV Conversion Tax Credit of up to $1,000.

More than 70 percent of Schwan Food Co.'s home-delivery vehicles run on propane — also called LPG, or liquefied petroleum gas — a practice that dates back to the 1973 Arab oil embargo, which led Schwan to distance itself from foreign oil dependence. The company operates more than 4,500 vehicles, including GM, Isuzu and Ford models, which cost roughly $16,000 each to convert, according to Heavy Duty Trucking magazine. But they save the company $1.2 million annually in oil-change costs, because higher-octane content creates a more complete combustion — meaning AFVs burn cleaner. (They're estimated to emit 60 percent less air pollution than gasoline vehicles.)

Whitcomb says he's run 55,000 miles on a single oil filter, going 20,000 between oil changes. And even then, he says, the oil's straw-colored, not black.

A 26-year-old who owns his own hauling business called Hillbilly Express, and who refers to himself as a "road pirate" and "adventure capitalist," Whitcomb stumbled into the AFV world. His brother was making a delivery in Woodland Park one day and spied the truck parked on a rancher's lot, for sale for $2,000. It started right up, and the owner accepted a $1,500 offer. Neither of the brothers had heard of a propane vehicle before.

Turns out the old Chevy was a farm-equipment edition, built all mechanically (sans computers) to run on propane by the factory, since that's what other farm machines accepted, too. Today he uses it as he would any other truck, enjoying fuel prices that are usually $1 per gallon cheaper than gasoline. It gets the typical 10 miles per gallon of an industrial-sized dually pickup truck, and an adapter he built himself can accommodate the barbecue tanks that he needs in a pinch.

Whitcomb says it took him a little while to get used to folks staring at his truck as he went down the road. Some perceived it as dangerous, since his propane tank is more visible than most gas tanks, but he points out that they're driving around sitting above a bunch of gasoline. (Touché.)

"It's a great, classic truck that runs on propane — how do you argue with that?" he says. "I could even run this in California, because the emissions are so clean.

"As much as we want to get off oil, our world revolves around it. I look at propane as a lesser evil."

Pumping up

  • Propane offers one cleaner alternative to gasoline

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