As propane distribution markets go, the Canadian Province of Ontario is huge, comprising 412,581 square miles. In addition to the land mass, it is the most populous of Canada's 13 provinces and offers a very diverse range of customers.
Not surprisingly, Ontario is a key market for Superior Propane, Canada's only national provider of portable fuels, equipment, and service delivered directly to customers. Nationwide, it operates a fleet with 835 pieces of equipment, including trucks, tractors, and trailers.
In the province of Ontario, James Pinder, manager of Superior Propane's fleet operations in Ontario, and Cheryl Combe, fleet administrator, manage more than 226 pieces of equipment, including 138 Class 5-8 trucks. The fleet is managed from the provincial headquarters in Guelph, and operates out of 22 branch locations across the province.
“We deliver propane far into the woods to customers with vacation homes and to companies running mines and hunting camps in some pretty remote areas of Ontario,” Pinder says. “We also service the large urban markets, including the greater Toronto area.
“We serve a very diverse market, with residential and light commercial accounting for more than 50%. Agriculture accounts for roughly 20%, and commercial and national accounts (such as Canadian Tire and Costco) make up the remainder.”
Superior Propane's residential customer base has been growing steadily. “Our key residential customers are people living outside the natural gas grid,” Pinder says. “We still see quite a few people converting from heating oil.”
In some parts of Ontario, agricultural demand accounts for as much as 30% of the propane delivered by Superior Propane. “The fuel we deliver is used for crop drying of soy beans, corn, and grains,” Pinder says. “Our busiest time for crop drying is early September through the end of October. Propane also is used to heat chicken and pig barns and the water used in misting operations to prevent frost damage in tree fruit orchards.”
More gold and diamond mines are opening in northern Ontario. Lumber mills that had been shuttered are reopening in some parts of the province, and new mills are opening. All of this is bringing more industrial demand for propane.
Canada also has seen a surge in demand for dual-fuel vehicles that run on both gasoline and propane. “Companies and individuals buying vehicles with dual-fuel systems benefit from significantly lower fuel costs,” Pinder says. “The price of gasoline is nearly $5 a gallon, while propane is less than half that at around $2.19 per gallon. The system is so attractive that I even converted my own 2009 vehicle to dual-fuel.”
Serving such a large and varied market calls for management strategies to maximize the productivity and efficiency of both drivers and vehicles. In most locations, Superior Propane has 1.5 drivers per truck. Most workers are cross-trained to handle several types of equipment. The company also has seasonal drivers to help handle the busiest heating months.
Typically, drivers serving residential customers can make up to 22 deliveries per shift. However, it can take as long as three hours to reach a customer in some of the more sparsely populated areas.
“Some of our deliveries in the northern sections of Ontario include a barge or ferry ride to small island communities,” Pinder says. “Some of these places are accessible only during the summer months, and customers often have 1,000-gallon storage tanks.”
It takes a variety of equipment to serve Superior Propane's customers. Branches will have one or more propane bobtails, with Guelph being the largest branch at 20 trucks. Branches also have a range of service vehicles, including crane trucks used to transport and deliver customer storage tanks.
Five of Superior Propane's transports operate out of the Guelph branch and are used primarily to serve large commercial accounts. The propane marketer contracts with for-hire carriers for inbound propane shipments.
Superior Propane has about 100 bobtails spread across Ontario. Product tanks range in size from 3,500 to 6,500 gallons, and all of them are specified with closed rear cabinets, the newest being fabricated from stainless steel. Propane delivery equipment includes Blackmer pumps, Liquid Controls LCII meters, and 125-feet of arctic-grade delivery hose with a RegO nozzle. Bobtails also have Base remote shutdown systems.
The company hasn't bought a lot of new truck-mount tanks in recent years. Propane tanks seem to last forever. The only new truck-mount purchases have been for 5,000- and 5,500-gallon tanks, which are supplied by Bulk Truck & Transport Service Inc (BT&T) in Hanover, Indiana.
Prior to being transferred to a new chassis, existing truck-mount tanks are refurbished by BT&T. Trailer tanks are refurbished by DyTerra in Ayr, Ontario, often around the time of the five-year retest that is required for pressure vessels in Canada.
To maximize equipment flexibility, some of the bobtail chassis have been fitted with a swap-body system. During the heating season, a 4,300-gallon propane tank is mounted on the chassis. The tank is replaced with a crane and flatbed body, and the truck is used for storage tank relocations and service during the off season. Body mounting and demounting is facilitated by hydraulic cylinders and locks, and the process takes about an hour.
Several makes of truck chassis have been used for the propane bobtails over the years, including Kenworth, Freightliner, and Sterling. “Kenworth trucks have performed well for us, and our four newest bobtails are Kenworth T470s,” Pinder says. “We'll probably continue to run Freightliners, as well. We'll take a close look at the mid-range Freightliner that will be offered with a propane-fueled engine.”
Pinder says Superior Propane chose the Kenworth T470 for durability and drivability, and trucks are being subjected to some of the toughest operating conditions. One of the company's T470s serves hunting camps and other similar remote locations in the area around North Bay in northern Ontario. Another T470 serves in St Rose, a town in the eastern part of Ontario, near the border with Quebec. A third T470 is assigned to Belleville, a city near the mouth of the Moira River in central Ontario, west of the start of the St Lawrence River. And operates in Whitby, the center of the Durham Region of southern Ontario, east of Toronto, where it services many construction sites.
“With the new Kenworth T470s in specific applications, we've equipped them with a 4,330-gallon barrel, and we've been able to get a 20% increase in carrying capacity,” Pinder says. “So, when we haul propane to a large mine in northern Ontario, we can load up more propane and it reduces the number of trips we have to make to service the mine in a year. In the more metropolitan areas of southwestern Ontario, where we may be hauling propane to several businesses such as chicken farms or grain elevators where they do the drying of crops, the demand is not as great because we're not going quite as far. But the increased capacity reduces the number of trips we need to make, which reduces the overall per liter cost of propane delivered. All of this helps enhance our profitability.”
The Kenworth T470 also offers a more durable and maneuverable truck chassis, which is important in the work that Superior Propane does. “When you get into some of the back roads and lanes and some of the cottage country that we go into with these trucks, we really need equipment that can offer the ground clearance to get over the rugged terrain, but also the maneuverability to get into some pretty tight places,” he says. “The T470 really brings us the strength we need with durable components all the way from the frame rails to the mounting gear.”
The T470 has a gross vehicle rating (GVW) ranging from a heavy Class 7 vehicle at 33,000 pounds up to a light Class 8 truck at 68,000 pounds. The vehicle offers full parent rail extensions, delivering maximum resistance to bending moment (RBM) from one end of the rail to the other. The T470 is available with 12,000-lb to 22,000-lb front axles, 21,000 lb to 26,000-lb single-drive axles, and 40,000-lb to 46,000-lb tandem-drive axles.
Superior's T470s are equipped with 345-hp Cummins ISL engines and 6-speed Allison 3000RDS automatic transmissions with load-based shift scheduling, which automatically selects between economy and performance shifting based on the vehicle's actual payload and the grade on which it is operating.
Superior Propane chose to lease the T470s through PacLease, an arrangement that has been very beneficial. PacLease recommendations helped the propane marketer select specifications fit the company needs while providing drivers a more comfortable work environment.
Pinder says he relied heavily on the PacLease team, specifically Peter Roy, a PacLease national account sales executive in Canada. The team worked closely with Kenworth to provide Kenworth trucks equipped with the specifications that help Superior to enhance productivity and profitability.
“PacLease provided us with lease financing options that allow us to preserve our capital for other business needs, while Kenworth dealers provide the service support for most of our trucks,” Pinder says. “We appreciate the expertise that Peter offers and the degree of cooperation and coordination between PacLease and Kenworth in making sure that the trucks are specified the way we need and are properly serviced to keep them in good running order.”
It's all about ensuring that bobtails are ready to go when customers need propane. That is always the priority for Superior Propane. ♦