Propane often overlooked as an alternative fuel

Wednesday, July 29, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT
Steve Clayton, general manager of Ferrellgas in Columbia, promoted liquid propane-injection fuel technology in Columbia last week by driving a propane-fueled Ford F-250 to consumers in the area interested in propane fuel for their vehicles.

COLUMBIA — For many consumers, propane can conjure up images of barbecue grills, furnaces and water heaters.

But propane is also the most widely used alternative fuel source for vehicles in the U.S. There are more than 2,500 fueling stations nationwide and more than 200,000 propane-fueled vehicles on the road, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.


Related Media

In the past decade, ethanol, biodiesel, hydrogen and other alternative fuels have risen to the forefront of the U.S. effort to reduce dependence on foreign oil and protect the environment. Propane is rarely part of the conversation. 

"Personally, I think (other alternative fuels) have better lobbies," said Steve Clayton, general manager for Ferrellgas, a propane company in Columbia. "Plus, this is corn country. But if you're analyzing fuel performance, (other alternative fuels are) not very good."

Clayton was driving a liquid propane-injected Ford F-250 in Columbia last week to demonstrate what he called propane's alternative fuel benefits for people considering propane conversion for their vehicles.

Most vehicles that use propane for fuel are large fleets of pickup trucks and vans; transit and school buses; and off-road and construction vehicles such as forklifts or loaders.

Fleets are typically composed of high-mileage vehicles that consume large amounts of fuel within a limited radius. The sizable investment to convert a gas tank to run on propane is therefore more reasonable than it would be for someone driving back and forth to work every day.

Columbia Transit does not operate any vehicles on propane, something Clayton hopes to change. 

He said Ferrellgas is interested in talking to the city, MU, the Missouri Department of Transportation and any other organizations with fleets that could potentially benefit from converting their vehicles to run on propane.

The Schwan Food Company's entire fleet of 6,700 trucks runs on propane, including those that refuel at Schwan's Sales Enterprises in Columbia. Lee's Tire Company of Columbia converted one of its Ford E-450 vans to run on propane about a year ago.

"We run so many miles, we were looking for any way possible to save money," said Jeff Sexton, wholesale route supervisor for Lee's Tire. "We go 350 to 450 miles a day ... we figure we gain 4 or 5 miles per gallon (using propane)."

Advances in research and technology have made alternative fuels more viable today than ever before. Propane has an advantage over fuels such as ethanol and biodiesel in that infrastructure is already in place.

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, there are about 2,500 propane refueling stations nationwide, including 60 in Missouri and two in Columbia.

Propane reduces carbon dioxide and monoxide emissions, is less toxic than gasoline and is stored in tightly sealed containers to protect from evaporation or leakage into the atmosphere according to the Propane Education and Research Center's Web site.

Like other alternative fuels, propane has its drawbacks. One of the primary market barriers keeping propane from gaining prominence as an attractive alternative fuel for the average consumer is the cost to convert a gas tank to run on propane — anywhere from $4,000 to $12,000, according to the Alternative Fuels and Advanced Vehicles Data Center.

Vehicles that run on propane were typically manufactured to run on gasoline and later converted. A vehicle can be converted to run solely on propane (mono-fuel) or to run on both propane and gasoline (the more popular dual-fuel).

Propane also contains less energy than gasoline and therefore has a shorter driving range. Conversion requires a separate tank that takes up space and can weigh a vehicle down.

Tax incentives in place to encourage propane use in vehicles include a $0.50 per gallon tax credit for every gallon used and a 50 percent rebate of the incremental cost of conversion up to $5,000 per vehicle, according to the vehicles data center.

A complete list of Missouri tax credits for propane use is available on the U.S. Department of Energy's Web site.

Like what you see here? Become a member.

Show Me the Errors (What's this?)

Report corrections or additions here. Leave comments below here.

You must be logged in to participate in the Show Me the Errors contest.


Mark Foecking July 29, 2009 | 4:23 a.m.

Actually, propane is already the most common alternative fuel in use today.

Part of the problem of using propane on a large scale is it is a byproduct of natural gas and oil refining, and it's supply is dependent on the demand for those fuels. Therefore, a large increase in demand for propane will cause sharply higher prices, and shortages.


(Report Comment)
Charles Dudley Jr July 29, 2009 | 4:43 a.m.

Propane has always been an alternative since the mid to early 70's.

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith July 29, 2009 | 8:16 a.m.

Propane is sometimes used as a standby fuel for industrial furnaces and kilns that are normally fired using natural gas, when gas is curtailed to industrial users in very cold weather. Compared to natural gas this is expensive; therefore, it tends to be confined to the southern United States, where natural gas curtailments are more infrequent and of shorter duration.

Propane poses a greater inherent hazard than natural gas when used in confined areas. A mixture of air and natural gas will rise (and thus escape through factory roof vents); a mixture of propane and air will settle to the lowest possible level, posing the possibility of an explosion.

It is more typical for industrial furnaces and kilns in the northern United States and Canada to use natural gas as the primary fuel and some form of heating oil as a standby fuel.

(Report Comment)
Chris Hill July 29, 2009 | 9:03 a.m.

They used propane for school busses 30 years ago when I was in school. I can't help but wonder if the increase in asthma isn't caused by all the particulates produced by diesel busses.

(Report Comment)
Clayton McLaughlin September 14, 2009 | 11:20 a.m.

After reading this article I did a bit more research. YouTube popped up some results from the propane company shown in the image above

Some more info from the same company on their site with a bunch of government links for more info as well.

I would think that holding a tank in the bed of your truck or hidden under a car somewhere would be a bit dangerous, but I guess its not.

(Report Comment)

Leave a comment

Speak up and join the conversation! Make sure to follow the guidelines outlined below and register with our site. You must be logged in to comment. (Our full comment policy is here.)

  • Don't use obscene, profane or vulgar language.
  • Don't use language that makes personal attacks on fellow commenters or discriminates based on race, religion, gender or ethnicity.
  • Use your real first and last name when registering on the website. It will be published with every comment. (Read why we ask for that here.)
  • Don’t solicit or promote businesses.

We are not able to monitor every comment that comes through. If you see something objectionable, please click the "Report comment" link.

You must be logged in to comment.

Forget your password?

Don't have an account? Register here.