Is Propane Fuel Getting a Fair Shake?

Globally, propane is the most widely used “alternative” car fuel -- and for good reason. Propane fuel is abundant, relatively inexpensive and sourced in North America. It also burns clean. A recent study by the Argonne National Laboratory, based in Chicago, was just one of many pointing out the real advantages of using propane as a transportation fuel.

These arguments have largely fallen on deaf ears in the Obama administration and the U.S. Senate. Both the administration and Senate seem intent on vehicle electrification at the expense of other technologies. The U.S. Senate bills S.3495 and S.3815, respectively titled Promoting Electric Vehicles Act of 2010 and Promoting Natural Gas and Electric Vehicles Act of 2010, both exclude propane and other forms of alternative engine fuels.

Propane: Long History, Many Advantages
Many auto industry experts believe this is a shame and an injustice, since propane offers so many advantages. A key advantage: Propane -- often referred to as “autogas” when used as a transportation fuel-- is not experimental. Quite the contrary: It has been used as a vehicle fuel since 1912. By the 1920s, several automotive fleets in California used propane as fuel, and in the 1950s propane-powered buses and taxis were common in Midwestern cities. According to the Energy Information Administration, some 158,000 propane-powered vehicles operated in the United States in 2008. The World LP Gas Association says more than 13 million propane-fueled vehicles were in use worldwide in 2009.

Propane is so widely popular  largely because conventional internal combustion engines can easily adapt to using it. While a switch to battery electric vehicles would require a revolution in the car manufacturing industry, a move to use propane in a higher percentage of cars could be accomplished with much less cost and complication.

A byproduct of natural gas processing and oil refining, propane auto fuel contains high octane levels and key properties required for spark-ignited internal combustion engines. As the Argonne National Laboratory report noted, “To operate a vehicle on propane as either a dedicated fuel or bi-fuel (i.e., switching between gasoline and propane) vehicle, only a few modifications must be made to the engine.” Simply put, propane-powered vehicles will be much less expensive to consumers than hybrid or battery electric vehicles of equivalent size.

Clean Enough?
But are propane-powered cars sanitary? Differences of opinion over what’s “clean enough” provided the basis of contention and spurred the current Senate proposals to ignore propane and other alternative fuels. There’s no doubt propane burns cleaner than gasoline or diesel; according to a recent Energetics study, propane contains up to 20 percent less nitrogen oxide and up to 60 percent less carbon monoxide than gasoline. It also yields 24 percent fewer greenhouse gas emissions and fewer particulate emissions. s

Those pushing battery electric cars want no combustion at all; however, they seem to overlook the fact that a high percentage of the electricity generated today involves some form of combustion. Those emissions don’t come from a vehicle tailpipe -- but from a smokestack somewhere else.

So is propane getting a fair shake? Are consumers well-served by government actions that ignore less expensive solutions to air quality issues while pushing a single technology? At least one expert on the subject doesn’t think so. 

“Propane autogas historically costs around 30 percent less than gasoline, and is as clean as natural gas, but without the harmful methane emissions,” said Jack Roush, a well-known motorsports figure and chairman of ROUSH Enterprises, a company that has done a great deal of work in propane conversions. “Propane is available ‘right here, right now,’ and I feel that any alternative fuel legislation would do our country an injustice if it were to pass into law without including propane auto gas, and for that matter, all alternative fuels, in the legislation.”

Tailgating Goes Upscale

Each fall weekend, football fans pour onto college campuses to cheer their favorite teams to victory. Many of these rabid followers arrive well ahead of kickoff, prepared with a feast fit for an offensive line: Meats sizzling on the grill, chili simmering in a Crock-Pot and a cornucopia of side dishes and munchies. But with so much grub and so little space, where’s a serious tailgater to stake out?

Not surprisingly, the Family Motor Coach Association (FMCA), an international organization of motor home enthusiasts, discovered that a growing number of tailgaters believe a mobile home is the ideal spot to host portable parties. Okay, we admit that typical motor homes don’t have a traditional tailgate, but that doesn’t mean they don’t make ideal tailgating vehicles. Just extend the awning, pull out the tables and chairs, fire up the grill and roll out the coolers.

A motor home also obviously offers amenities not found in cars: electrical power, storage, onboard cooking appliances, refrigeration and restrooms. Many motor homes have sophisticated outdoor entertainment centers with big-screen satellite TVs and high-quality sound systems -- perfect for watching other games pre- or post-main event.

Because mobile home owners typically park together at home games and travel together for away games, the FMCA launched several chapters for tailgating members loyal to a particular school. The FMCA says the groups broaden the support of scholarship fundraising at the school; they additionally host a prime rib dinner for coaches’ wives, organize away-game caravans and support rallies for university athletic activities.

Since the 1996 launch of Clemson’s IPTAY chapter, FMCA’s first tailgating group, several other motor home-owning football fanatics have started FMCA tailgating chapters of their own, including fans at the University of South Carolina, the University of Georgia, Virginia Tech, Mississippi State University and the University of Oklahoma. The groups often combine their love of football and travel into one event: When Virginia Tech faced Boise State in Landover, Md., Virginia Tech’s “Hokie Travelers” took a trip together a few days in advance to sightsee in Washington, D.C. The various chapters also gather at rallies throughout the year to talk recruiting, discuss why the head coach is a genius (or should be fired immediately) and to relive memories.

So if you own a motor home but have yet to discover its value as a tailgating machine, fill the coolers, pack the refrigerator and set up your own party palace the next time you root on your favorite team. You just might make a few new friends while you’re at it.


Photo Credit: ©iStockphoto.com/sjlocke

4 Steps to Fix Your Car for Fall

Cold, wet rain beats down on your head as you stand on the shoulder of the road. Your car is stalled, with no help in sight. It’s not a pretty picture, but it is something thousands will experience firsthand this fall because they didn’t properly prepare their vehicles for the season. Your car may have handled the heat like a pro, but how will it do in the cold?

Consider your car like a collection of several complex systems, all of which need to be maintained properly to ensure that you never end up on that shoulder in the rain. It’s a good idea to identify which systems can leave you stranded and make certain you’ve addressed their needs. Here are the four systems you need to check to get your car ready for fall:

Battery and electrical system
If your car doesn’t have juice, it won’t start … and it won’t run. It’s as simple as that. Batteries now live longer and require little to no maintenance, so it’s easy to forget them. But if your battery is more than two years old, you should have it checked by a competent technician. If it needs replacement, now is the time to do it, rather than when the tow truck comes to visit you in the grocery store parking lot as your frozen foods melt.

While you’re at it, make sure your alternator and the other parts of the charging system are working right and that your serpentine belt is not worn to a frazzle.

Tires and wheels
Proper tire inflation pressure and ample tread are two key factors in avoiding a tire failure that can propel you off-road. Regularly checking your treads is the key to preventing excessively worn-out tires. Make sure to rotate your tires every 5,000 miles to avoid having one tire wear more than the others.

The right tire pressure isn’t just good for the tire’s life; it also improves your car’s gas mileage. Checking the pressure in each tire is even more important when the temperature drops, because tires lose pressure each month. Monthly tire checks ensure that your tires are filled to their recommended PSI rating (which can be found on the driver's side door panel and in the owner's manual).

Cooling system
Frequently check your car’s cooling system (radiator and associated hoses and clamps) for leaks and low coolant level. Overheating your engine will require you to pull over -- or worse, sustain very expensive engine damage. The cooling system should be flushed and refilled as recommended in the owner’s manual. Just remember to never remove the radiator cap until the engine has thoroughly cooled.

Engine oil

An engine without oil is like a body without blood. Making certain you have a high-quality oil in your engine is critical to ensuring that expensive, highly stressed engine parts get the lubrication they need.

These days, many drivers are making the switch to synthetic oils like Mobil 1 because they offer better performance at a wide range of temperatures. This is especially true for those few split seconds of engine cranking on cold fall mornings. Help prevent engine wear by changing your oil and oil filter as specified in your owner’s manual.

Don’t Write off Gasoline Engines yet

We live in an era when press and politicians tout the wonders of the electric car. We’re on the cusp of Nissan’s salvo in the electric car arena, and if you believe the pundits, electrics are the wave of the future.

In a desire to limit carbon dioxide productions (a goal looking increasingly problematic) and for greater fuel economy (although, yes, gasoline remains relatively cheap in America), the electric car is touted as The Next Big Thing. When it comes to range or cost-effectiveness, one might quibble with electric vehicles. But, by and large, their greatest virtue is fuel efficiency, and their carbon dioxide emissions are excellent -- if you don’t look too closely at where the electricity is generated. 

So it must have come as a major shock to the electric car’s many proponents when the winner of the most important Progressive Automotive XPRIZE category, the Mainstream Class, was a car powered by an internal combustion engine that burned E85 (a mixture of ethanol and gasoline). The four-passenger Very Light Car bested a field of 135 competing vehicles from around the globe, turning in a miles-per-gallon equivalent of 102.5.

To be fair, we must admit that no one will ever mistake the “Edison2 Very Light Car No. 98” for a conventional gasoline-powered car. But the outcome of this prestigious competition reveals a great deal of potential upside in making more efficient and Earth-friendly conventional internal combustion (IC) engines.

Interestingly, even the founder of the Edison2 organization was once a big believer in electric cars. But Oliver Kuttner and his engineering team closely examined the challenges presented by the Automotive XPRIZE. They came to believe that a very lightweight, highly aerodynamic vehicle powered by a small displacement IC engine was the right solution. 

It’s unlikely that we’ll see many 800-pound cars like the Very Light Car on our roads in the next decade. But Kuttner’s effort shows how out-of-the-box thinking might prolong the life of an internal combustion engine using gasoline or gasoline equivalents -- fuels with, needless to say, a pre-built infrastructure. Lack of infrastructure stunted any possible growth by hydrogen fuel cell cars and could loom as a major obstacle to electric cars as well.

Thankfully, most of us have home electricity. Charging an electric car, however, isn’t quite as simple as plugging into a home receptacle, especially if you want to charge up with any degree of speed.

Nissan recommends that electric LEAF car owners install a 220-volt receptacle in their garage -- a circuit much like the ones that power home clothes dryers. That prospect is somewhat daunting by itself, but a bigger problem might occur when several households in the same block decide to buy electric cars. The issue with this, which even EV proponents admit is quite likely to occur, is that the typical neighborhood electrical system (likely built decades ago) might not be robust enough to provide all the electricity needed.

Add to that the need for charging stations in office parking lots and parking structures, and perhaps even on city streets and highway rest areas. All of which begs the question: Who is going to pay for all this?

The point is not to bash electrics. EVs are technically interesting and offer excellent drivability in addition to fuel economy and emission benefits. But we should point out that while many people predict the demise of the internal combustion engine, it will very likely be with us for decades.

 

Buy or Lease 2010

Millions of consumers would like a simple answer to the question, Should I lease or buy my next car? In the economic doldrums, when the drive to save every dollar is more urgent than ever, getting an answer to this question seems increasingly important. But after examining the most recent statistics and trends, we’re sorry to report that there is no one correct answer. Making the right decision is a matter of your personal situation, values, financial status and desires for the future. OK, it sounds existential, but it’s true.

Car leasing has been around for decades, and it once offered small-business owners significant tax advantages. Leasing really caught fire in the heady mid-2000s, an era of easy credit and a booming economy. Manufacturers used special lease deals to promote their vehicles. And with low monthly payments, leasing offered eager car buyers a form of acquisition that captured as much as 30 percent of the new-car market.

One of the key advantages of leasing is you need relatively little cash to initiate a lease. Let's say you don't have much money in the bank and have no trade-in car, but you have excellent credit. You can walk into your local dealer, sign on the dotted line for a lease and drive out in a new car pretty easily. If, on the other hand, you want to buy that same car, you might have a tougher time. Leasing also allows you to structure the lease term to match your trading cycle. If you normally purchase a new car every two years, you may be better off with a two-year lease.

Leasing also works to the advantage of those who don't know what to do with their car when the time comes to get a new one. You don't have to weigh the advantages of trading it in at a dealership versus selling it yourself, and you don't have to go through the selling-it-yourself hassles of running want ads and meeting with prospective buyers. You don't even have to decide when to do all this. It's spelled out in the lease contract. You either take the car back to the dealer and wave bye-bye, or you pay the dealer (or finance company) the amount specified in the lease agreement at the time the lease is established, and you keep the car.

And of course, the biggest reason for the popularity of leasing: The fact that for the same monthly payment, you can lease a significantly more expensive vehicle than you can buy. Why? Because you’re paying for the use of the car, not the car itself.

So what are the downsides? When you lease, you don’t own the car -- and the finance company that does wants you to take really good care of it. That means you must maintain the car, insure it and limit the miles you put on it. If you don’t, you’ll face serious financial penalties.

Compared to the numerous advantages of leasing, there’s only one key advantage to purchasing your next vehicle. As you make payments, you build equity in a real asset. For most people, this one advantage of buying far outweighs all the advantages of leasing. Sure, by owning a car, you have to put up with the hassles of maintenance, upkeep and repairs, but you're also building equity in an asset for yourself and your family. When you purchase a car, you (not a financial institution) take the risk on the value of the car at the conclusion of the financing term. And for this risk, you are very often rewarded. Your payments will cease, and you have a car you can drive for months, if not years, payment-free. And studies show that driving your car until it essentially has no resale value is the most cost-effective arrangement.

So even in this economic climate, when manufacturers are trying to outdo each other by offering truly phenomenal lease deals, most buyers will still find that buying is their better bet. But leasing still has its place.