Monday, November 25, 2013

Alternative Fuels: Is there a Solution? Chapter 3, Owning a CNG Truck

My proud CNG truck

Back in 2007 – 2008, Utah got fed up with ascending gas prices and many people searched the valley looking for alternatives. I was one of those people. I had tasted the American dream and started my own business in lawn care, which required a truck. One popular option then was to buy a factory-built bi-fuel CNG truck from a secondhand amateur dealer. Some secondhand dealers would go back east to shady auctions that were selling any old and very used factory-built CNG cars and work trucks. They would go with deep pockets and buy everything they could and then come back to Utah and sell them at outrageously jacked up prices. Their sales pitch would be, "Yeah, they’re expensive, but think of all the gas money you’ll save. 63 cents a gallon!"

Just in those two years, I started to see more of those vehicles driving around town than usual. Mechanic shops frantically pushed to have their technicians learn how to repair and maintain these odd new vehicles. When I bought my factory-built 2001 Ford F-150, I had difficulties getting my credit union to finance an old make and model at such a jacked up expensive price. After many negotiations with multiple loan officers and regional managers for my credit union and finally after selling my 2000 Toyota Camry I was able to get the loan to purchase what I believed was the best deal in the valley, which was still too expensive according to my credit union.

Another option I was mulling around was to buy a new truck and install a CNG system and tank onto it. The cost for this procedure was $10 to $15,000 in parts and labor on top of the purchase of a new truck. I knew this option would never fly with my credit union. I finally purchased this CNG truck in the Spring of 2008. It had its flaws but it was still reliable for my humble business. Fast forward to 5 years later. Now my truck is starting to fall completely apart.

The compu-valve: a very expensive part to replace

Since my truck was factory built by Ford to run off of two different fuels, the system is completely complicated. There is a part in my system called a compu-valve which controls the computer or PCM and the overall CNG operation of my truck. That part is highly sensitive and if handled the wrong way you can completely fry it and then have to replace it. This part is no longer being stocked by Ford and they would have a difficult time ordering you one. If you are lucky, a mechanic who knows about the compu-valve could try to call some re-manufactured parts, and even then you’re looking at about $2,600 - $3,000 range to just buy the part. Be aware, if you ask the dealership to go through this trouble they will charge you more than an independent shop would. When I worked for a Ford dealership, their parts department always joked about how we charge the customer 200% for the part. I know the truth in that joke.

After my last trip to the independent mechanic he learned through his diagnosis that my compu-valve is going out. After paying the loan off along with all the other money I have put into maintaining and repairing this vehicle, I have learned that it is not worth it to keep around anymore. I have talked to all sorts of dealerships, even the shady ones that only sell this type of truck, and no one wants to pay what we believe it is still worth. We will most likely be selling this truck next spring.

Two problems that we faced with this vehicle: 1. The factory-built components to this vehicle and the cost of such in maintenance does not justify the savings in gas prices.  2. It’s a Ford. I know all the Ford jokes, I’ve heard them all. Let me lay these rumors to rest. Around 2003 Ford improved the overall 
quality of their vehicles. 

2011 Ford Taurus
The 2011 Ford Taurus is actually pretty decent competition to the Toyota Camry. Anything older than 2003, yes the rumors are true. Unfortunately, my truck is a 2001 and falls into that category. We have spent tons of money on the typical maintenance issues that every Ford faces on top of the shady CNG system.

So, in my opinion, is buying a CNG vehicle (either dedicated or bi-fuel) the answer to our country's oil crisis? Does it help the environment and satisfy the EPA? No, according to California. Carbon dioxide is still harmful to the ozone. It’s much less harmful than carbon monoxide but that does not satisfy them. Only dedicated CNG vehicles still have the privilege of using the HOV lane. Bi-fuel vehicles, as of last year, are now excluded like any other vehicle.

Does it save the average consumer money from gas prices? Yes, but do you really save anything? No, because now you are being charged 8-10 times more in parts and labor from the mechanic. Even if you have a system installed onto your truck, because of expensive patents on kits, they won’t make the transition easy or affordable for you.

So, my overall opinion about domestic CNG vehicles is poor. If you are thinking of buying one, I do not recommend it.

Have you ever bought or knew someone who bought a CNG vehicle? Please share your story with me.

1 comment:

  1. I grew up with natural gas vehicles because my dad worked for Questar and got some good deals on conversion kits. I'll have to admit, though, that even though they save money on gas prices, they make up for it in maintenance.