Last updated: December 10. 2013 4:45PM - 1554 Views
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Courtesy photoJeff Sutton, transportation manager for Prestage Farms, stands between a Prestage truck and a Parker Gas Company truck. The two companies are partnering to convert a portion of Prestage's fleet to propane autogas.
Courtesy photoJeff Sutton, transportation manager for Prestage Farms, stands between a Prestage truck and a Parker Gas Company truck. The two companies are partnering to convert a portion of Prestage's fleet to propane autogas.
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Prestage Farms is exploring a propane autogas conversion that could see a quarter of its fleet utilize propane over gasoline, a move that would save dollars and make environmental sense.

Jeff Sutton, transportation manager for Prestage Farms, and Mark Burke, regional sales manager for Clinton-based Parker Gas Company, spoke Tuesday about the possible LP (liquefied petroleum) autogas conversion planned through a partnership between the two Clinton-based companies.

“The main thing is we’re looking toward alternative fuels and the price of gas has been over the roof,” said Sutton. “The LP on vehicles is not a new technology but it has definitely progressed over a period of years. We’re just thinking green.”

Burke met with Sutton about six months ago to introduce him to the possibility of an LP autogas conversion, and showed him a propane-fueled truck during a followup meeting. Burke then talked with John Prestage, who also took an interest in a possible conversion.

One Prestage vehicle, a brand new Chevy, has been tested in recent weeks, and representatives of the respective companies are optimistic about the results.

“The results are looking pretty good so far,” said Sutton. “We’ve had it in operation now a couple weeks. We have about 150 passenger vehicles in the fleet, and of course there is going to be a percentage that we cannot convert because we run diesel trucks, but it’s going to be a pretty good number once we do the testing and find out that it’s going to do the job.”

Sutton said, while numbers of conversions are still being thrown around and figures for cost savings crunched, Prestage is looking at converting about 25 percent of its 150-passenger vehicle fleet, including everything from vehicles used to service turkey and hog operations and those used to do heavy-tow hauls.

“The driver literally can’t tell the difference whether he’s running on gas or propane,” Burke noted. “It initially starts on gasoline then once (the engine) gets up to 118 degrees, it changes over to propane. That typically takes a minute and a half to two minutes in the morning.”

Currently, propane is $1.39 per gallon cheaper than unleaded gasoline, including the tax credit received by going green with an alternative fuel. Without the tax credit, it would still be 89 cents less.

The test vehicle for Prestage, used to haul pigs to and from Burlington four times a week among other trips, traveled 2,500 miles in just a matter of a couple weeks. Those kind of vehicles are perfect for LP conversions.

“It’s a high-mileage vehicle,” Sutton said.

“Unless you’re doing a reasonably (large) number of miles every month, it really doesn’t warrant putting a $5,600 system on,” Burke noted. “The systems have actually come down in cost over just the last few months, from $5,800 to $5,600.”

A partnership with Prestage would be just another local alliance to conduct autogas conversions. Stevens Sausage Co. in Smithfield is also partnering with Parker Gas to implement conversions on six F-650s. And the most sizable of its propane partners to date, the Sampson County Sheriff’s Office, currently operates 24 patrol vehicles with propane systems.

A year ago, in December 2012, the Sampson County Board of Commissioners agreed to pursue an agreement with Parker Gas that would see 24 Sheriff’s Office vehicles equipped with the propane autogas conversions, a move estimated to save $25,000 annually.

The total cost of 22 units was valued at $127,600 — a cost of $5,800 per vehicle — with two additional units thrown in free of charge. Those 24 vehicles previously logged 69,138 total miles in a given month, using 4,707 gallons of gas in the process. Multiplying that by 12 months, the vehicles consumed about 56,480 gallons of gas each year. At $3.13 a gallon (numbers used in December 2012), that was a cost of $176,780 annually to fill up those vehicles alone.

Using calculations for LP gas, those same patrol vehicles were expected to use 62,127 gallons over the same one-year time frame (running on LP gas reduces gas mileage by 10 to 15 percent per vehicle, but what it lacks in gas efficiency, it more than make up in cost savings, Burke said.) At a fixed rate of $1.52 per gallon of LP, the total cost was expected to be $94,433 with LP gas for the sheriff’s cars, a savings of $82,346, previous analysis showed. Factoring in the lease per year cost of $2,400 per vehicle ($57,600 total), the actual savings per year would be $24,746.

Prestage found that the truck that previously got 10.3 miles per gallon now gets about 8.6 per gallon, consistent with the 15 percent efficiency lost with the switch to propane. But the $1.39 per gallon cost savings more than make up for it, he noted.

“It is a higher octane so you typically sense a little more power at a higher octane but it is a little less efficient,” Burke said. “Still, propane has always trended much less expensive than gasoline so the savings is still going to be there long-term.”

The percentage that is able to be converted to propane at Prestage is only so high as there are diesel-fueled trucks and six cylinder vehicles, which could benefit from proven diesel blend systems around the globe but that technology has not yet received Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) approval in this country.

“We’re doing about 30 percent propane to 70 percent diesel is the average,” said Burke. “We’re hoping we’re maybe a year away from when we’re going to have that technology available to open the opportunities for us.”

Parker’s involvement with Alliance Autogas partners, a group of propane dealers across the country, allows the county availability and support —and the chance to continue to offer a greener technology.

Burke said it is too early to say just what the conversion, if implemented in 25 percent of the Prestage fleet locally, would mean in terms of actual savings, but stressed there would be efficiency, both on the budgetary side and the environment side.

“I’m really trying to get this green technology (out there) … not only green from an environmental standpoint, but green from saving a company’s money and using a 98 percent made in America fuel — that’s a huge part of it there,” said Burke.

Parker Gas officials, including Burke and co-owner David Parker, who owns the company with brother Daren, successfully pitched the conversion to the Sheriff’s Office last year. Burke is hoping for the same positive outcome with Prestage.

“We’re in our infancy now, just having the equipment on the road for a couple weeks,” said Burke, “but I just thought it would be good to make the public aware that Prestage is doing this and hopefully others will follow suit. From an inventory standpoint, I have the kits and tanks in stock in (Alliance Autogas headquarters in) Swannanoa (N.C.), so I can have equipment here within a couple days and turn it within four to five days if need be.”

It takes about a day for Georgia-based Force 911, which does installations nationwide for Alliance Autogas Group, to do those installs. Systems are universal, so whether a General Motors, Ford or otherwise, it is the same unit.

As the move would be another by Parker Gas to offer the technology,converting vehicles to propane would just be the next green initiative taken by Prestage Farms.

Sutton said Prestage has already eliminating using Diesel No. 2 in favor of much-cleaner burning fuel through a wood-fired boiler that produces steam and green power at its feed mill off U.S. 421. In addition to environmental benefits, that transition has saved the company $9,000 a week. Prestage also boasts one of the world’s largest solar energy systems for hot water production at its turkey processing plant in St. Pauls, Sutton noted.

A propane conversion for vehicles is considered a logical next step.

“We’re definitely looking outside the box for sure as far as alternative fuels,” Sutton said.

Running propane means a 16 percent reduction in carbon dioxide, 28 percent reduction in carbon monoxide and 35 percent reduction in hydrocarbons. It is by no means new, but many looking for cost savings are finding it in LP gas.

“We’ve been running forklifts inside of buildings since the 1950s so propane is really not new as a motor fuel, but the technology 20 years ago is not what the technology is today,” said Burke. “It’s come ten-fold.”

Chris Berendt can be reached at 910-592-8137 ext. 121 or via email at

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