Citizens of Fort Smith may not notice anything different, but following today's (Sept. 10) Board of Directors study session, the city will begin attempts to incorporate compressed natural gas vehicles into the city's moving fleet as older vehicles are aged out and replaced.
The consensus by the Board came after a pilot program was conducted across various city departments, including the fire department, customer service department, police department and transit department.
Results for the various departments have been mixed, according to Deputy City Administrator Jeff Dingman. In a memo the Board, Dingman said the cost of converting the fire department's 2012 Chevrolet Silverado 1500 pickup was $5,250, with an expected break-even after 33 months of use.
"The Fire Department reports that its performance experience has been very good," he wrote. "They have had no maintenance issues with the vehicle, and do not notice a performance difference in either responsiveness of fuel economy whether the vehicle is operating on gasoline or CNG, averaging 15 miles per gallon regardless of fuel. It takes approximately eight minutes to refuel the pickup."
While the fuel economy does not appear to be any better on the Fire Department vehicle, Dingman did point out that the using natural gas has increased how long the truck can go between oil changes, from 3,000 miles using conventional fuel to 5,000 miles between changes using CNG.
On the other side of the CNG issue is the police department, which did report performance issues.
"The police department reportedly observed a reduction of power when operating on CNG," Dingman wrote. "CNG works for performing normal driving activities but does not allow an officer to initiate a swift response to a fleeing suspect when the situation requires, especially as compared to the gasoline-powered vehicles. The lack of responsiveness for quick acceleration motivates the operator to switch to gasoline for full power. Switching to gasoline for this reason, or for issues with fuel capacity noted above, reduces the efficiency of the CNG system and extends the payout period for the conversion cost."
Overall, the police department said not much was learned from the test vehicle, a 2010 Chevrolet Tahoe police pursuit vehicle, noting that without some sort of modifications to be more conducive to the demands of police patrols, CNG vehicles are not as reliable as gasoline-powered cruisers.
Even though the results were mixed, city directors present at today's study session were clear in their desire to continue pursuing CNG-powered vehicles.
"I think this is the wave of the future and to me, it's about clean energy," Director Pam Weber said. "Ultimately, this is an economic development tool, not only for our country but for our region because we are sitting on a very large natural gas deposit here in the Arkoma Basin."
Michael Callan, president of Arkansas-Oklahoma Gas, was on hand and told Weber and the rest of the board that the cost for fueling a CNG-powered vehicle was around $1 per gallon, versus $3.34 per gallon using conventional unleaded gasoline. With those costs reduced, plus the fewer needed oil changes on converted vehicles, he reiterated that conversions usually pay for themselves in about four years.
Callan said while he is a big proponent of CNG, he would advise against converting aged vehicles within the city fleet, instead focusing on new vehicles, namely trucks, that can be sent from a factory with the CNG conversion already completed and that include warrantees.
City Administrator Ray Gosack said as the 2014 budgeting process moved forward, he would make sure that a focus on CNG vehicle purchases was a part of the city's fleet replacement plans. But he cautioned that a large influx of CNG-powered vehicles may still be a long way off due to the fact that the city must work within budget constraints. Already this year, all departments have had to reduce budgets by 4% due to a reduction in sales tax revenues.
In other business, the Board discussed placing on the agenda at the next regular Board meeting an update to the city's current policy for the consideration of payment of claims related to sanitary sewer back-ups. Currently, the city will reimburse homeowners up to $500 to cover a deductible associated with a homeowner's insurance claim. The proposal would increase the maximum payment to $1,000 to keep with the rise in insurance deductibles.