Fuel Economies

High gasoline prices make propane and natural gas attractive alternatives for fleet operators.
Nick Horton |   February 2013   |  FROM THE PRINT EDITION

At the Kirkland headquarters of Carburetor Connection, Alexander Racz makes fast cars go faster. Racz (sounds like “race”) founded Carburetor Connection in 1987 to install superchargers, high-performance exhaust systems and suspensions that most of us only dream about. But in 2010, Racz’s phone started ringing for an entirely different reason: With the price of gasoline and diesel at unprecedented levels, fleet operators throughout the Northwest were interested in converting their vans and light vehicles to run on liquid propane gas (LPG), which is a byproduct of refining gasoline.

At the Kent headquarters of World CNG, a similar trend had taken root. The four-year-old alternative fuel systems firm is growing rapidly as it converts vehicle fleets—taxis, police cruisers, buses—to run on compressed natural gas (CNG), which is not liquefied and is used in traditional internal combustion engine vehicles that have been converted into dual-fuel vehicles.

Ship operators, too, see a future in natural gas. Tacoma-based Tote Inc. recently announced it will spend $350 million on a project that includes building two large container ships powered primarily by liquefied natural gas (LNG), and Washington State Ferries has plans to convert up to a fourth of its fleet to run on LNG as well.

What drives the shift to propane and natural gas is their advantage as cheaper, cleaner-burning fuels. They cost up to 50 percent less than gasoline and diesel fuel, produce 20 percent fewer carbon dioxide emissions and their use results in lower maintenance costs because they burn more cleanly. If that’s not enough, since most propane and natural gas used in the United States is produced domestically, it has the benefit of reducing American dependence on foreign oil.

One challenge is the lack of places to fuel up. Armin Ausejo, marketing director at World CNG, notes that in the state of Washington there are 400 taxis running on CNG, but only six fueling stations. And it’s hard to get new investments in fueling stations when relatively few cars are designed to run on natural gas. Although Bellevue-based Paccar Inc. now offers many truck models powered by natural gas, sales of those models still represent a small percentage of all trucks sold.

That means any real progress toward the use of propane or natural gas requires converting existing internal combustion motors to run on gas. That’s where companies such as Carburetor Connection and World CNG come into play.

When Racz first began receiving calls about propane three years