story by Ryan Saylor
Fort Smith was home to Arkansas' first compressed natural gas (CNG) fueling station and now Fort Smith is home to one of the few independent CNG conversion businesses in the state. The business, Falcon CNG, handles everything from single vehicle CNG conversions to fleet-wide conversions.
Owner Barry Rowton said the business is more than just conversion, saying he provides "maintenance, service and repair of the same."
Rowton, who spent more than 11 years with Arkansas-Oklahoma Gas (AOG), said with the growth of CNG in the region — including an expected second regional fueling station in Fort Smith operated by AOG — the time was right for him to launch a conversion business.
"With the markets around us and our market picking up, along with the price of natural gas staying low while petroleum is going up, with the interest in western Arkansas going up, the market was a perfect fit."
Rowton said he is the only employee of the business located at 3707 Wheeler Ave., in Fort Smith, but he does have two technicians he can call in for assistance as needed.
While not providing revenue figures, Rowton did say that in the month he has been open, he has already had more than 20 people "either call or show up wanting conversions or service and we have a couple of fleets wanting conversion."
He said conversion costs have fallen in recent years, making it more affordable for more everyday drivers and fleet managers to justify the cost. The cost for a half-ton pickup truck, Rowton said, would be about $6,500 for a 13.5 gallon CNG tank installation.
What could help businesses invest in conversions is the possibility of a new program from the state that could rebate up to $4,500 or 50% of the conversion cost for fleets of three or more vehicles, Rowton said.
"The Arkansas rebate is supposed to be released in July," he said. "The details are only verbal from the Arkansas Department of Energy."
It would not be the first time the state has provided CNG-based incentives. In 2011, the Arkansas Energy Office made available $470,000 in grant money to build at least two CNG fueling stations in the state.
Arkansas is not the only market Rowton is eyeing for business. He hopes his proximity to Oklahoma and the existence of a CNG fueling station at the On Cue Express in Arkoma, Okla., a small town located across the street from Fort Smith, drives business.
While Arkansas could be offering rebates for conversion as soon as July and the rebates will only apply to EPA-certified CNG conversion kits, Oklahoma offers an income tax credit that Rowton said allows all CNG conversions to qualify.
But no matter which of the two states a customer may call home, Rowton is ready to make the conversions a reality. And for people possibly interested in CNG for cost savings but are worried about using CNG instead of conventional gasoline, Rowton said converted vehicles still has gas tanks that can carry conventional fuel so individuals driving outside of a CNG fueling area are not left in the middle of nowhere with no way to refuel.
"A lot of people don't understand that you do not give up the ability to drive on gas," he said. "The vehicle is not modified, you simply add on a fuel storage, management and delivery system. … If you run out of CNG, the computer instantly switches to gas. The car doesn't die."
In all, Rowton said there are about five independent CNG conversion businesses in Arkansas, including his own. He said several other places offer CNG conversion, including car dealerships (Smith Auto Group in Fort Smith being one), but the conversions are typically limited to the dealer's specific brand, meaning a Toyota could not be converted by a GM dealership and vice versa.
"If you have something outside of that (brand), you can't go to that (dealer for a conversion). That's where someone like me would be a better fit."