Aug. 1, 2009
Pennington Gas Service becomes the first to use parallel electric hybrid system on propane delivery

There's something special about being the first to do anything.

And that's what Keith Pennington, vice-president of Pennington Gas Service, is feeling these days. Pennington utilized the expertise of Freightliner Trucks and Eaton Corporation to come up with a first application of the Eaton parallel electric hybrid system to a hazardous material delivery application — a Freightliner Business Class M2e Hybrid truck equipped.

Pennington Gas Service, based in Morenci, Michigan, has a fleet of 60 vehicles that provide propane service for customers in 43 counties in Michigan, northwest Ohio, and northeast Indiana.

Pennington says he first saw the hybrid technology at The Work Truck Show in Atlanta in February 2008 and participated in a few ride-and-drive events. He made some inquiries with Freightliner and Eaton officials and found out the technology had not been approved for hazmat vehicles.

“They had developed products that were applied to the larger fleets first — FedEx and Coca-Cola and some bucket trucks for the electric utility industry,” Pennington says. “When people say ‘hazmat,’ that includes so many different industries and totally different concerns and applications. There are big differences between cargoes like dynamite, toxic chemicals, and propane. Just as a generic category, Eaton had stayed away from it.”

With the consent of his three partners at Pennington Gas, all brothers, Pennington contacted Joe Volk, president of Signature Truck Systems in Clio, Michigan, and talked to him about incorporating the Eaton hybrid system with a 3200-gallon propane vessel made by Trinity Industries.

“Joe always impressed me in the propane industry as somebody who was out there leading innovation,” he says. “When I thought of this project, I immediately thought of Joe. You need someone who is willing to try new things once in awhile and someone who can get things done.”

The two of them pitched the idea to Eaton and Freightliner representatives following an alternative fuels seminar in Dearborn, Michigan, in October 2008. Pennington says that when all four companies determined there weren't any safety concerns that were not easily addressed, “they really fast-tracked this through their engineering.” Pennington took delivery on the truck in April.

“Eaton's hybrid engineering department and Signature are both located about two hours away,” Pennington says. “Three Michigan guys got together and decided to get something done. Michigan can't be the butt of every joke.

“From the time we told them to go, they had approval within 60 days and had a chassis out in another 60 days. We're very pleased. We were tickled to be the first ones out of the box on a hazmat application.”

Says David Bryant, vocational sales manager of hybrids for Freightliner, “Pennington's proposal for a hybrid hazmat delivery truck was certainly a challenge, but after tapping our engineers and partners such as Eaton and Signature Truck Systems, we knew that we could make it happen.”

Additional power

Pennington's new truck is equipped with the Eaton parallel electric hybrid system that enables the truck to operate using the diesel engine alone, or in combination with the hybrid electric motor.

The hybrid electric motor also provides additional power to launch the truck, further improving fuel economy in high stop-and-go operations. Pennington said Eaton conservatively estimated that fuel usage and emissions could be reduced by up to 30%.

He says his company does only a small amount of commercial delivery — to refiller stations where customers take their grill tanks to be filled, and to agricultural accounts where propane is used for grain drying.

The company's customer base is heavily residential, which is why this truck appealed to him.

“We are delivering at a customer's home,” he says. “We're backing alongside their home every time. Houses might be in tight together. We thought a way to make propane more acceptable to the public was by reducing noise and fumes coming off the engine while we parked at their residence. We don't know if we're backing up against the wall of a nursery and they have a baby they just put down for a nap, or there's an open window near the engine exhaust.

“We thought this would make the delivery process less intrusive. Once we get there, we can just shut the truck off and run on the battery. There's zero fumes and about half the noise. Even half the noise is significant. When making a delivery, we're coming into their space.”

He says that although he wants to be environmentally conscious, it ultimately has to become an economic decision and he felt that it would marry perfectly into the duty cycle of the company's trucks.

“An average day might consist of 20 stop-and-go deliveries,” he says. “We thought if we could get a hybrid to regenerate on a duty cycle that would allow us to do the pumping operation on each stop solely on battery power, that would be quite an advantage. We might be spending 20 minutes per stop in a customer's driveway — all the time we're pumping or the engine's running. Take that 20 minutes times 20 stops, and that adds up to be quite an amount of time.

“Hybrid power assists the diesel motor when accelerating. I normally order a 230 horsepower Cat. When we went to this hybrid that has a 60 hp electric motor, we reduced the diesel motor down to a 200-hp Cummins. The drivetrain includes an Eaton automated transmission.”

Super Singles

The truck uses a Class 7 Freightliner 32,000-pound GVW M2e chassis with single axles. Pennington decided to go with Michelin wide single tires, which he says he hasn't seen in the propane industry on a Class 7 delivery truck.

“I had wanted to try Super Singles because they save weight and increase fuel economy one to two percent,” he says. “I wanted to make this truck as successful as possible. The hybrid system adds 500 pounds to the weight of the truck and Super Singles will save 400 pounds over traditional duals with steel wheels.

“Tire safety is particularly important, so Stemco put on their tire-monitoring system. A concern in the industry is, ‘What happens if we have a catastrophic failure on a single-axle truck and there's only one tire on each?’ Although we believe the driver could handle the situation safely, we took an extra step and ordered the Stemco monitoring system.”

A downside to implementing the hybrid is that the unit is a dedicated tanker-style truck that can't be used for any other purposes in the off-season. And since the company's busy season doesn't start until late fall — it does 80% of its business in a four-month period — Pennington has not been able to accumulate any test results.

“We have not had it out on a daily cycle yet,” he says. “We've been making trade-show appearances, but we don't have any hard operating data yet.”

To receive instantaneous feedback on how the hybrid system is faring while on the road, Pennington and Freightliner have partnered with Telogis, a leading provider of enterprise fleet tracking software.

“Freightliner asked if they could install a telemetry system so they could chart duty cycles, and we agreed to that, because we wanted to gather it ourselves,” he said.

He said the $50,000 upcharge makes the truck less appealing to companies now, with fuel prices about 40% cheaper than they were a year ago.

“But we're hoping to gather good data and if it confirms our suspicion of how it's going to work out, and provided we can come up with incentives, which we hope are on the horizon, we have our name on four more trucks in the next year,” he says. “We're hoping to get some real data before we actually pull trigger.

“There are a lot of people out there who are interested. There's growing interest in the industry now that they have seen it. Many people may make an initial inquiry and when told that it was not available would say “OK.” My dad always taught me to say rather ‘Why not? Let's get it approved.’“

The cost is prohibitive at this point. Back in the fall when diesel was $4 a gallon, I could make it pencil out in about 10 years without any government subsidy. It's kind of the chicken-and-egg scenario. There have to be people like us willing to be the early adopters — people who will try to promote it to the point where build volumes get up to where manufacturers can lower the cost to make it economical. That's the whole idea behind the government subsidy — get enough volume to where they can lower the cost.”

He said the truck ultimately will be based at the Morenci customer service center. In the meantime, it has been moved around to the other six service centers for media events and ride-and-drives.

“We'll get as much bang out of it as can,” he says. “Ten years ago, there may have been 10% of our customers who cared whether we were reducing fuel consumption and emissions. Maybe today that number is 30% or even more. It's definitely an awareness issue for customers, and we're trying to respond to that.”

About the Author

Rick Weber | Associate Editor

Rick Weber has been an associate editor for Trailer/Body Builders since February 2000. A national award-winning sportswriter, he covered the Miami Dolphins for the Fort Myers News-Press following service with publications in California and Australia. He is a graduate of Penn State University.