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Propane catching on with heavy-vehicle fleet owners

Street sweepers in Syracuse, school buses in Rolla, Mo., and ice-cream trucks in Cincinnati rarely stop at gas stations.

Today, despite a slackening of gasoline prices, the operators of these fleets say they find it more cost effective to fill up with propane.

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According to the US Department of Transportation, gasoline use in the United States was down 5.6 percent in 1980. Alternate fuels such as propane now account for 11.5 percent of vehicle fuels used.

Propane, traditionally used to heat homes or for industrial applications, now powers more than 3 million American cars and trucks. Users say propane costs 30 to 60 cents a gallon less than gasoline, which more than offsets its slightly lower fuel efficiency.

''We save nearly $100 a week by using propane,'' says Arvil Evans, housing maintenance supervisor for the Syracuse Housing Authority. The SHA's two street sweepers and 13 trucks tank up with propane. ''Not only that, but we save on maintenance. We use less oil because there's less contamination; our spark-plug life is longer; and we don't need a fuel pump. Even with the conversion cost (about $1,500 a vehicle) our maximum payback is two years - usually it's more like 18 months.''

Thomas Carr, director of auxiliary services for the Rolla Public School in south-central Missouri, says his drivers have experienced some problems starting their propane-powered buses on cold mornings, but the district is saving money on 12 buses that use propane.

''The average bus goes about 30 miles a day and gets 3 miles per gallon with propane, as opposed to 4 to 41/2 miles per gallon with gasoline. But propane is so much less expensive that it's worth it, especially when gasoline is in short supply,'' Mr. Carr says.''I don't know if we'll convert the whole fleet (33 busses) to propane. I would imagine we'll be converting more because you never know when gasoline will be in short supply again.''

Dennis Waugh, sales manager for Schwan's Ice Cream in Cincinnati, says the company has five freezer trucks on propane. ''Even though we lost about one mile per gallon by using propane, we make it up because it's about 50 cents less per gallon than gasoline. When you're talking 900 ho 1,000 gallons of fuel a week, those savings add up. And we save even more because propane saves wear and tear on our engines,'' Mr. Waugh says.

While there appear to be substantial savings for fleet owners, propane distributors are not urging consumers to convert to propane.

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''For most individuals, gasoline is still the more practical choice,'' Stuart Kean, president of the National LP (liquid propane) Gas Association, says. ''I think we'll see propane available on the interstate highway system in the next few years. But propane won't be heavily used within the city, other than by fleets that return to their home base each evening.''

Mr. Kean, who is an LP gas dealer in Elizabeth, N.J., says users can be assured the fuel is safe.

''It is not a new fuel. It's been in use since 1930, and the container in which it is stored is subject to numerous inspections. In tests conducted in Holland, (the container) proved to withstand a heavy impact, even though it is made of a much lighter metal than a gasoline tank,'' he says.

In December Ford Motor Company announced it would produce 5,000 propane-powered Cougars and Granadas during 1982. Mr. Kean expects other manufacturers to follow Ford's lead. The company already had introduced factory-equipped LP gas trucks last year.

With an estimated 300,000 vehicles converting to propane each year, no one appears happier than LP rz -O/tors.

In Minneapolis Dean Nolt, executive director of the Minnesota LP Gas Association, says distributors have been anxious about their markets.

''Home-heating and other traditional markets are down,'' he says. ''People are conserving more fuel these days, and firewood has come into play; so to maintain adequate distribution, our marketers are going to have to find some sort of volume to pick up the slack. And a good place to start is the vehicle market.''

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