Columbia Falls adds propane buses to its fleet

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The new propane buses.

Columbia Falls School District 6 could save thousands on fuel and maintenance costs over the next few years with the recent purchase of three propane-powered buses.

At a cost of $120,000 each, the new buses, manufactured by Blue Bird Buses and ROUSH CleanTech, cost less than the school’s current diesel fleet, which cost $134,000.

With the school locked into a year-long contract with CityServiceValcon to provide the propane fuel at a cost of $1.08 per gallon, the three buses could wind up providing a significant reduction in fuel costs. With the school’s 31 buses traveling an average total of 230,000 miles per year, the savings could be around $15,000 per year.

Columbia Falls School District Transportation and Maintenance Director Bob Rupp said he first got the idea to purchase the new buses after attending a seminar on electric buses hosted by Flathead Electric Coop. While he did not think the electric buses would be a good fit in Montana, the things he learned about propane buses at the seminar got the wheels turning, so to speak.

“An electric bus would be perfect if you lived in Arizona, where it is warm and the batteries don’t draw as much. It also helps if you have $300,000 to pay for a brand new electric bus. We don’t have any of those conditions,” Rupp said.

While electric buses would not do well in the cold winter conditions of Montana, vice president of school bus sales for ROUSH CleanTech (the manufacturer of the propane systems in the new buses) Ryan Zic notes that propane buses actually perform better in cold conditions.

“Propane actually really likes the cold. Propane is a liquid at negative 44 degrees Fahrenheit, so it is actually a very good fuel for cold conditions,” Zic said. “It’s very tolerant of cold conditions and will not be restricted by them.”

Another benefit is that propane engines do not need to be kept warm with block heaters in the wintertime.

Rupp took it upon himself to do more research on propane buses and reached out to the Browning school district, which has already replaced its diesel bus fleet with a propane one. After speaking with Browning and test driving a propane bus locally, Rupp was sold.

According to both Rupp and Zic, propane buses have a number of advantages over their diesel counterparts, including using less oil (24 quarts per diesel engine compare to six in a propane one), the oil filters are less expensive, the fuel filtration system is also less expensive and there are fewer components to maintain.

Propane buses also have much cleaner emissions than diesel buses and do not require expensive emission control systems, which can cost in the tens of thousands of dollars just by themselves.

According to Zic, the new Columbia Falls propane buses will join a Blue Bird/ROUSH fleet of more than 15,000 such buses in North America, many of which run in extreme cold conditions, including a large fleet in Alberta, Canada and at Denali National Park in Alaksa.

Right now, the three Columbia Falls propane buses have been running routes close to home, but Rupp says he could see that expand in the future with the possibility of the school adding more propane buses.

“We are pretty excited about it. We don’t know where it is going to go from here moving forward, but we will find out after a year of using these buses. I’m not sure now how much, but these buses are going to save us some serious money,” he said. “I’m not sure exactly what the cost savings is going to be over diesel, but I know it is going to be significant.”

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