Dynamic Delivery: AmeriGas keeping America fueled amid COVID-19 crisis

Sept. 4, 2020
Largest US propane supplier boasts fleet of 700 bulk trailers within its Propane Transport International interstate carrier group

This article first appeared in the August issue of Bulk Transporter magazine.

As the largest propane supplier in the United States, AmeriGas Propane has a big job to do.

The 61-year-old company, which is part of the UGI Corporation, delivers propane for furnaces and cooktops throughout rural America, while also providing propane for the commercial industry, and keeping homeowners supplied with propane grill cylinders for BBQ season.

With an equally large variety of customers and delivery locations, AmeriGas also boasts a massive fleet of vehicles, including Class 8 bulk pressure vessels, curtain-side, flatbed, drop decked and dry-van trailers, along with a sizable fleet of bobtails and crane service trucks. Jay Massey, who has spent the last 13 years as the corporate fleet vehicle manager for AmeriGas, estimates the fleet (which is spread across 1,200 locations nationwide), is in excess of 9,000 vehicles strong—and together amassed more than 126 million miles in 2019.

“Propane is a rural and portable fuel and we go where natural gas lines can’t,” Massey said. “Our No. 1 priority is safety for our employees and our customers. If a truck breaks down, renting is not an option. The majority of our equipment is designed specific to our industries’ productive environment and those types of vehicles simply are not readily available in the rental markets. (So) when we specify our truck, the expectation is they will be in service for long duty cycles before retirement.”

The bobtail fleet is the largest transportation segment for AmeriGas, which offers home deliveries in areas without access to natural gas. But as is the case with every vehicle design it deploys, AmeriGas does not run with only one type of bobtail. Rural deliveries for furnaces and cooktops typically are made with Class 7 bobtails, but the company also runs Class 5 mini bobtails, which are fully self-contained, units mounted on Ford F-550, 4x4 chassis. The “mini-bobs” can reach customers who need AmeriGas home or business delivery service, when that service is not available otherwise, Massey said.

“(Those are) pretty much our mountain goats, or they will go into tight places like Key West alleys or Martha’s Vineyard’s twisting driveways,” Massey maintained. “We also have some of these in Alaska, where other vehicles just aren’t nimble enough to handle that terrain. They’re four-wheel drive and have 1,200-gallon tanks, and they’re very handy, but they are also designed for a very specific vehicle application and, while not your everyday standard bobtail, they perform just like their big brother, but on a smaller scale.”

The AmeriGas bobtail fleet also boasts a tandem-axle version capable of handling loads up to 35,000 pounds GVW (gross vehicle weight) with tanks exceeding 5,000+ w/g. There is a lift-axle version for states like Michigan where frost laws come into play in the early Spring months, requiring an extra axle on the ground for safer, more surface-friendly weight distribution.

The Class 8 curtain-side trailers are used for bulk district deliveries for the company’s cylinder exchange program, called AmeriGas Propane Exchange. Knuckle boom trucks with Kenworth T370s chassis, have 26-foot long bodies capable of carrying two or more 1,000-gallon tanks, with crane booms capable of handling larger tanks.

AmeriGas even has rail-geared bobtail trucks delivering fuel to remote 1,000-gallon tanks positioned at railroad switching stations. The trucks are upfitted to ride the rails and have a  customer’s tracking equipment, so the rail company always knows the exact position of the vehicles.

“We have two distinct seasons in our core propane business—the heating season, and the grilling season,” Massey said. “Both are busy, but the grilling season continues to expand and grow year over year.”

Massey says, in total, AmeriGas vehicles come in many different designs, with multiple varieties of every vehicle type. The company is in constant communication with its end users on specs and, most importantly, AmeriGas standardizes as much as possible across all fleet vehicles with similar componentry, safety options and functionality, which makes it easier to migrate the assets into different positions for other business needs, such as disaster recovery or increased business demands.

When an AmeriGas location needs a truck, the company generates a “heat map” to identify which OEM dealers are nearby for parts and service support. It then connects with the location to discuss their specific needs for terrain and climate in that area. “It’s important to us that the local operation, which can run anywhere from three to 60 productive trucks, has a voice in what they get,” Massey said. “Terrain and climate are major factors, along with the vehicle options that factor in influencing how we build that truck.”

PTI fleet

The AmeriGas bulk transportation group operates as Propane Transport International (PTI). The interstate carrier’s fleet includes approximately 700 bulk transport trailers for large-scale deliveries to the AmeriGas retail locations and large commercial customers that require up to 9,000 gallons of product per delivery. AmeriGas trailers feature 10,500- and 10,800-gallon barrels, but also come in smaller and larger sizes. Most are constructed of quenched and tempered (QT) steel from various manufacturers.

PTI is a dedicated group consisting of company drivers and owner-operators pulling bulk tanker trailers with 200-plus company tractors, primarily consisting of Kenworths and Peterbilts specified with Cummins 525-horsepower engines and Eaton 18-speed transmissions. The bulk tankers deliver compressed LP gas, butane and asphalt, which is used to keep AmeriGas trucks busy when the heating season begins to slow.

“Typically, we refurb more than we buy new trailers,” Massey said. “If you take care of good steel, and maintain the trailers, they’re a good long-term investment and will last well beyond 30-plus years.”

Power units

When Massey arrived in 2007, AmeriGas bought only one major brand of large truck. The company quickly changed the mix and has diversified across multiple manufacturers, adding Kenworth, Peterbilt, Freightliner and Hino trucks to its portfolio.

A good portion of the home-delivery fleet features Kenworth T370 and Peterbilt 337 medium-duty chassis, equipped with the Cummins PX-9 engines rated at 350 horsepower with Allison 3000 RDS automatic transmissions. They’re utilized to deliver bulk propane, but also motor fuel cylinders to power forklifts, and propane cylinders, mostly used for home grilling and heating needs.

“For colder climates, we like the Arctic Fox option PACCAR offers. We began specifying this feature many years ago in our colder terrains when we ran up against extreme cold and struggled to keep our trucks warm and productive. This feature addresses virtually all heating needs our trucks run up against in extreme polar conditions,” Massey said. “Up north, we can see temperatures plummet to minus-40 degrees with wind chill. That makes it very challenging for not only our drivers, but for the equipment to function. The Arctic Fox option provides a full range of fuel and fluid heaters that have been a great tool in assisting us to virtually eliminate those problems, and in keeping our trucks actively productive when we need them the most.”

Even more extreme are deliveries in Alaska. AmeriGas operates three Kenworths—two W900s and a new W990 deployed earlier this year—that haul propane to remote locations, utilizing the ice roads. “If you’ve watched the Ice Road Truckers show, you’ll see the predominance of Kenworth W900s running those roads,” Massey said. “Those seem to be the truck of choice in the far north, so our new W990 will fit right in.”

Spec’ing for driver comfort is always top of mind. “Our drivers have a tough job and are out in the elements, so when they’re in the cab we want them comfortable and focused,” Massey said. “We want an economic truck, but we won’t skimp on safety or driver comfort in our specs. For our long-haul trucks, we specify better driver seats and premium mattresses, which makes for a happier and healthier driver. Many of our trucks include inverters, which accommodate the many power draws of CPAP devices and refrigerators, and other convenience devices drivers utilize when on the road.”

Safety first

Because of the products hauled, and difficult-to-reach locations to which AmeriGas delivers, safety always is a priority for its drivers. Tractors and trailers are equipped with air disc brakes (for Class 8 trucks), Bendix Wingman systems that feature collision mitigation and stability control, and multiple tire-pressure control systems, like Hendrickson’s TIREMAAX Pro, Apeira’s Halo Automatic Truck Tire Inflator, and Link Manufacturing’s Cat’s Eye tire pressure monitoring systems.

The company’s safety department makes sure drivers are well-trained on safety procedures, and the unique challenges of delivering propane. “We have a great safety department that works tirelessly on our training programs,” Massey said. We have dedicated training centers across the US specific to our industry.”

One of the most unique precautions used by AmeriGas drivers is a safety lanyard worn by the driver with multiple buttons to control the truck, but also with one button that stops all truck systems.

“We designed that with BASE Engineering years ago,” Massey explained.

Essential services

Much of AmeriGas’ business, including home heating in the winter and grilling in the summer, is seasonal, so some of its drivers are seasonal workers, including farmers who serve as part-time drivers during the cold season. But its fueling services always are essential, so part-timers receive year-round insurance, and AmeriGas trucks have continued to make deliveries during the COVID-19 pandemic, which Massey said began surfacing in the United States at the same time as its regular heating season was ending.

Another service AmeriGas offers is Cynch, which is home delivery for BBQ cylinders. This service is only a few years old, but it has enjoyed an uptick in volume this spring and summer, Massey said. “In the COVID-19 environment, that business demand has skyrocketed,” he said.

New safety accommodations AmeriGas has made to cope with the coronavirus include wearing masks, social distancing and regular cleaning of vehicles. The company also has modified some trucks for training purposes to ensure driver trainers and trainees are able to maintain safe distances while both are seated in the cab.

“This is one thing that we’ve worked on, because we have to train people. It’s a full plexiglass shield anchored on our in-cab file box, to accommodate ride-alongs, for training,” Massey said. “Most drivers are running solo, but we did design … a plexiglass shield, with rubber pipe wrapping on the edges to seal up the headliner, back of the cab and dash connections.”        

About the Author

Jason McDaniel

Jason McDaniel, based in the Houston TX area, has more than 20 years of experience as an award-winning journalist. He spent 15 writing and editing for daily newspapers, including the Houston Chronicle, and began covering the commercial vehicle industry in 2018. He was named editor of Bulk Transporter and Refrigerated Transporter magazines in July 2020.