Fuel Economies


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 ago, it wasn’t his first brush with the fuel. Racz had seen propane conversion systems two decades earlier.

“We actually spent more time removing them and putting cars back to original carburetion,” Racz says of the propane conversions he encountered in the 1980s. The first generation of propane conversions was inspired by the gasoline shortages of the 1970s, but the lack of fueling stations made it unattractive. When gasoline prices fell dramatically, conversion made little economic sense.

Today, however, new technology makes it relatively easy to convert a vehicle to operate a dual-fuel system, allowing it to use its gasoline or diesel fuel when there isn’t an appropriate natural gas fuel station nearby. The relatively low cost of building fueling stations also has created a more robust infrastructure for gas-powered vehicles.

Racz recognized that a renewed migration to propane, which is marketed worldwide as autogas, had begun, and Carburetor Connection became a certified conversion center in early 2011. Racz and his crew have since converted some of the Northwest’s largest vehicle fleets to dual-fuel propane systems, including shuttles for MasterPark, Seattle Children’s Hospital, Northwest Transport and all 16 of the Edmonds Police Department’s Ford Crown Victoria cruisers.

Autogas, which is chemically identical to the propane that fires your outdoor gas grill, is doing a booming business overseas: It powers nearly 18 million vehicles worldwide. In South Korea alone, 2.5 million cars run on propane. By contrast, there are only 250,000 propane-fueled vehicles in the United States—less than one percent of all registered highway vehicles.

“It might as well be a state secret,” says Darren Engle, director of marketing for Oregon-based Blue Star Gas, one of the West Coast’s largest suppliers of propane infrastructure and technology. Engle, who is chairman of research and technology development for the Propane Education and Research Council, is quick to point out that the propane industry’s structure is fundamentally different from that of any other major fuel type. Unlike the oil and natural gas sectors, which are controlled by a handful of large corporations, the American propane market is served by some 3,500 independent retailers. Most of them are small firms with little to spend on marketing plans, much less on lobbyists in Washington, D.C.

But thanks to Alliance Autogas, a newly formed consortium of more than 50 retailers, conversion centers and equipment providers, liquid propane has recently found its voice. Linking fleet managers with partners like Blue Star Gas and Carburetor Connection, Alliance Autogas provides all of the tools and support a manager needs to research and carry out a conversion.

CNG and LNG are also gaining ground. North American natural gas is abundant, clean burning, inexpensive to transport and even cheaper than propane. Championed by T. Boone Pickens, the outspoken oil magnate, natural gas has become the alternative fuel du jour in Washington, D.C. There have been large-scale fleet conversions to CNG across the country as cities converted buses, law enforcement agencies converted police cruisers, and corporations pledge to convert thousands of fleet vehicles. AT&T has promised to deploy 15,000 CNG vehicles nationwide by 2018.

LNG, meanwhile, has become the alternative fuel of choice in heavy-use applications, including trucking and maritime use. Washington State Ferries is researching the viability of converting its six Issaquah Class ferries to LNG because it is considerably more energy dense than CNG and is therefore better suited to large-load scenarios.

Projections for the growth of gas for use in ships and motor vehicles in the United States range from wildly optimistic to cautious and measured. Regardless, it’s clear that as long as propane and natural gas prices remain low and gasoline prices remain high, more and more motors will be converted to run on gas.

“Everybody’s watching the price [of gasoline],” Racz says. “The higher it goes, the more the phone rings.”

Healthy Fleet
At Seattle Children’s, the hospital’s conversion to propane is beginning to pay for itself. Fifteen shuttle buses travel more than 500,000 road miles each year, operating 16 hours a day, five days a week. According to Kyle Brown, manager of parking and shuttle operations, the recently converted shuttles saved $19,000 in fuel costs in 2012. Those savings are expected to jump dramatically this year, when additional propane tanks will be fitted to the shuttles, nearly doubling their propane capacity and further limiting the fleet’s reliance on gasoline.

Brown is excited about the savings, but he’s even happier about how smooth the conversion has been for his shuttle drivers, describing the process as seamless. And since propane burns more cleanly than diesel and gasoline, Seattle Children’s shuttles will receive routine oil changes every 5,000 miles instead of every 3,000.

“[Propane] makes sense economically,” says Sandy Stutey, the hospital’s transportation program manager, “and also for the hospital’s sustainability goals to reduce carbon emissions. Until they figure out how to make shuttle buses run on air, I think we’re really pleased with this option.” — N.H.

Catching the Green Wave

Catching the Green Wave

Eco-savvy developers incorporate ways to mitigate stormwater pollution.

Seattle’s 84-year-old Aurora Bridge is built with steel downspouts that dump 3.2 million gallons of untreated rainwater directly into the ship canal between Lake Union and Puget Sound every year, something that bridge designers in the 1930s probably never considered to be a problem.

The CoU Project, named for the Fremont neighborhood that calls itself the Center of the Universe, is tackling the bridge runoff in its design of the Fremont Office Building at 34th Street and Troll Avenue. Situated in the shadow of the Aurora Bridge and two of its downspouts, the project broke ground this spring and is scheduled for completion next year.

Early in their planning discussions, the developer Stephen C. Grey & Associates and the civil engineering firm KPFF decided to catch the water from the downspouts and filter it. Their design includes a stepped system of six bioretention cells, or rain gardens, in the public right of way along Troll Avenue beneath the Aurora Bridge. The roadway’s 15-degree incline poses an engineering challenge, but KPFF designed a system that diverts outflow from the cell above to the cell below. This way, each cell receives enough water to keep the gardens’ plants healthy without irrigation while also filtering rainwater. The last cell sends the filtered water into the ship canal. 

Water runoff from hard surfaces is the largest contributor to pollution in Puget Sound. This isn’t just rain we’re talking about. As it drains from pavement to the sound, the water becomes contaminated with motor oil, gasoline and a variety of heavy metals. 

Striking research by Professor Jenifer McIntyre at Washington State University (WSU) has demonstrated that untreated stormwater runoff from State Route 520 can kill salmon in just a few hours. Salmon are considered an indicator species because their sensitivity to environmental toxins shows how the toxins might affect the health of other species, including humans. Filtering the stormwater through a mixture of sand and compost absorbs the toxins and allows the fish to survive.

The biorentention cells in Fremont will accomplish the same thing in a remarkable example of public/private partnership that has come up with a creative solution despite potential obstacles. The developer and the engineers needed to get cooperation from both the Washington State Department of Transportation and Seattle Public Utilities (SPU) even though they will receive no financial benefit by keeping vast quantities of untreated water out of Lake Union.

“Very few private developers are willing to do this sort of thing,” says Jeremy Febus, KPFF’s civil engineer in charge of the CoU Project. “It’s a big undertaking.”

The COU project will divert about 6,000 gallons of runoff per year, or the equivalent of 16 gallons a day. This isn’t a staggering amount, but Mark Grey, principal and property manager at Stephen C. Grey & Associates, believes it is only the beginning. He says his company has in the pipeline projects that will filter more water and he hopes other developers will be inspired to jump on board to address the issue on a regional level.

The Seattle 2030 District, a public-private collaborative working to create a groundbreaking high-performance building district in downtown Seattle, has developed guidelines to encourage developers to take action on stormwater management, which is becoming a greater issue as climate change leads to more days per year of substantial rainfall. Heavy storms overwhelm existing water-treatment systems, causing untreated water to overflow into local waterways.

District guidelines require newly constructed buildings to keep stormwater discharge 50 percent below the current district average in their designs. Existing buildings must implement retrofits to achieve the 50 percent reduction by 2030. Although the guidelines only affect buildings within the district — 11 neighborhoods in and around downtown Seattle — other communities are taking action as well and coming up with their own site-specific solutions to stormwater management. 

The Sheraton Seattle downtown is finishing the design on a project that will divert rainwater from its roof to a storage tank for filtering, sanitizing and ultimate use in the hotel’s laundry operation. The Sheraton is working with Seattle-based Herrera Environmental Consultants on the filtration and pumping system design and is evaluating bids to find a certified mechanical contractor to complete the work. The goal is to install the system by this fall. 

Rodney Schauf, director of engineering at the Sheraton, believes Starwood Hotels — Sheraton’s parent company — may follow suit with similar efforts to reuse stormwater in its properties nationwide. The result is attractive from financial and environmental standpoints, as it allows the hotel to buy less water from the city. 

Seattle’s little wing Office Building on Sixth Avenue houses the administrative offices of the EMP Museum and demonstrates that creating a green infrastructure doesn’t necessarily cost more money than more established methods and can actually save money. Vulcan Inc., the property owner, is one local developer taking a lead in implementing environmental consideration into its designs.

 The Little Wing design includes a sloping green roof that filters rainwater and also keeps the building cooler in the summer. Runoff from the roof is filtered and either stored in a 9,000-gallon tank for later use or distributed immediately into the building to supply the sewage system.

Theoretically, the system can save up to 89,000 gallons of water per year; actual data show results closer to 60,000 gallons. Installing the green roof and outdoor storage tank for about $180,000 eliminated the need for an underground detention tank and a secondary storm/sewer discharge connection below the street, which would have cost about $250,000. 

The Little Wing building is also Salmon-Safe certified, which means it has met a list of performance requirements that aim to minimize the impact of urban development on the environment and enhance salmon habitat. Standards cover stormwater management, water use, water quality protection and more. Vulcan’s aim is to certify all its properties as salmon safe.

Over in north Bothell, Clearwater Commons, a small, eco-friendly residential development, has a goal of achieving zero discharge. All stormwater is infiltrated on site. The houses stand on pin foundations so rainwater that isn’t sent to cisterns flows underneath the buildings and soaks into the ground, making the houses look more like cabins in the country than suburban homes a quarter-mile from a main road.

None of the houses have basements or garages. The “road” running down the center of the development is made from drivable grass — square bricks with greenery growing between them and sand underneath — and is intended primarily as a pedestrian path with access for emergency vehicles. Residents park their cars in a lot at the front of the development, much of which is covered in permeable pavement.

Permeable pavement absorbs rainfall that would otherwise flow into storm drains, but it suffers from certain drawbacks, such as not being durable enough to be used on heavily traveled roads. Collaboration among the Boeing Company, WSU and the Washington Stormwater Center led to a pilot project using discarded carbon-fiber composites from aircraft production to develop a stronger alternative to existing permeable pavement. Initial testing suggests the material absorbs water efficiently and does a good job of filtering toxic chemicals. More research is needed before such a product reaches the market. 

Meanwhile, projects like Little Wing and the Sheraton that reuse roof runoff have the double benefit of helping Puget Sound while saving on water bills — the green roof of Audi Seattle’s new showroom in the University District recycles water that’s used to wash cars — but local regulations make such recycling impossible in many cases.

The CoU Project, for example, is prohibited from recycling the Aurora Bridge runoff for use inside the building because the runoff falls onto public property and cannot be diverted to private use without first going through the municipal water system. SPU maintains ownership of stormwater that empties onto publicly owned land, including rights of way in front of private buildings.

While some business owners are resistant to change and may not be eager to invest in new technologies to address stormwater management, tighter regulations may force them into action. As stricter national regulations based on the Clean Water Act trickle down to states and cities, local businesses will not have a choice whether to control stormwater discharge. Rather, they will have to decide just how to do so.

The Sheraton’s Schauf offers this advice to building owners: “Start out with an open mind and get creative about what can be done. There are ways that aren’t expensive that both save costs and limit the impact on the environment.”