Dealers Face New Hazards, Information Void in Building Natural-Gas Maintenance Shops

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When Craig Young started thinking about building a maintenance shop at his Canton, Ohio-based dealership to service natural-gas vehicles, he sought advice from the fire department.

“Our local volunteer fire department had very little knowledge of any hazards related to natural gas,” said Young, president of the dealership that sells Freightliner and Volvo heavy-duty trucks.

So, Young’s safety team and construction-management contractor met with the firefighters to educate them of possible hazards, and then worked together to ensure the safety of its first dedicated natural-gas repair facility, which opened in mid-November.

In interviews with Transport Topics, U.S. and Canadian truck dealers who have opened dedicated repair facilities or bays to serve natural gas-powered vehicles shared similar stories.

“We found out very quickly we were basically on our own,” Doug Fach, owner and dealer principal of Peterbilt Southern Alberta, said of his initial impression when he set out to build a natural-gas shop several years ago. “Companies are spending a lot of time on the sales side of the engines, but there is very little information when it comes to the other side — fixing these things.”

Kyle Treadway, owner of the Kenworth Sales Co. dealership chain headquartered in Salt Lake City, agreed, saying there has not been nearly as much attention on the service side as there has been on emerging fueling infrastructure and engine technologies.

Fach and Treadway have multiple dealerships able to service natural gas-powered vehicles.

“Dealers want to take the gamble and be on the leading edge of something pretty spectacular,” Treadway said of the growth potential of natural-gas truck sales and service.

Dealership executives said part of the “gamble” stems from the absence of federal standards in the United States or Canada for maintenance and repair shops to handle natural gas-powered vehicles.

Until there are standards, Greg Ham, service manager of TEC Fontana in Southern California, said the first step for dealers remains clear.

“Each city or county may have their own rules,” said Ham, whose dealership sells Volvo and Mack vehicles. “You need to get with the local fire marshal on the front end. It can avoid a lot of headaches because they can shut you down.”

However, some states are stepping in to fill the void.

For example, Wisconsin hired construction management firm ET Environmental Corp. to develop codes and guidelines to help maintenance shops make alterations to handling natural-gas vehicles.

The process started with public events set up by the Wisconsin State Energy Office. “Through this outreach, it was discovered that there is a lot of uncertainty related to repair-garage requirements for natural-gas vehicles,” the state’s energy office said.

Out of this uncertainty came a 60-page report released late last year outlining guidelines for ventilation systems — which it called “perhaps the most complicated, confusing design element” — as well as gas-detection systems, electrical installations, ceiling heights and working with heaters or open flames.

“NGVs have a proven record of safety, but they will introduce new hazards into a maintenance garage,” the report said.

The details are similar to other information available from the National Gas Vehicle Institute, the Clean Vehicle Education Foundation and the National Fire Protection Association.

Besides building codes, the report outlines steps to minimize the chance of the unintentional release and ignition of natural gas.

Safety checklists in the report include: confirming the fuel shut-off valve is closed prior to maintenance; running liquefied natural gas vehicles prior to entering a garage to reduce the internal pressure of the tank, and limiting the time an LNG vehicle is in the garage for maintenance to reduce the chance of the tank venting into the shop.

Rush Enterprises, which operates the more-than-100-dealership network of Rush Truck Centers dealerships, said it has invested between “$50,000 to upwards of $200,000 per facility” to provide dedicated natural-gas service.

The company, which sells Navistar and Peterbilt heavy-duty trucks, has dedicated facilities in Arizona, Texas and Atlanta, with additional plans for other areas of Texas and Florida.

“We have factory-trained [Peterbilt and Cummins] more than 100 technicians at these locations and others around the country with an additional 250 technicians provided safety and preparedness training,” said W. M. “Rusty” Rush, chairman and CEO.

Rick Holland, Rush’s Environmental, Health and Safety Compliance officer, said the company’s internal safety staff conducts detailed building assessments, including electrical and thermal hazards and roof and ceiling structure.

Holland said, “In warmer climates, we use modified awnings or covered outdoor service areas. In other locations, we modified sections of the facility to create dedicated space. In addition, we are including dedicated natural- gas service infrastructure in all new facility construction. It’s been our experience that fire marshals and fire inspectors recognize the hazards associated with natural-gas vehicles and have freely shared their knowledge and expertise.”

Dick Witcher, chairman of the American Truck Dealers, said there have been some discussions — “strategic in nature” — about natural-gas maintenance issues, much of which involve understanding local fire codes or guidelines.

The issue has not yet garnered significant attention industrywide, he said, as the use of natural gas is low in many areas of the country — including around him in New England.

The situation is different for Treadway, a past ATD chairman, who said dealers have “had to learn on our feet.”

Treadway’s Kenworth Sales Co. includes 20 dealerships in Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, Washington and Wyoming, many located near natural-gas fueling infrastructure being built along the West Coast.

He said that in warm climates such as Las Vegas, the dealership works on natural-gas vehicles only outside. Farther north in Idaho the dealership made a sizeable investment in ventilation and gas-detection systems, and made numerous other modifications, to operate dedicated bays.

However, just how much it will cost to update a facility, or construct a new dedicated service center, remains somewhat of a mystery.

“In an overly simplistic model, it’s possible to have project cost variations from $0 to over $125,000 per vehicle bay,” the Wisconsin report said. “Many projects end up in the range of $40,000 to $75,000 per vehicle bay.”

Recalling his experiences, Fachs, the dealership owner in Alberta, said that until recently the little information available on natural-gas shop dangers was based on “ignorance,” and recommendations for repair shops called for an “overkill investment.”

He said his dealership in Red Deer, Alberta, was among the first to open to service LNG vehicles. He said he pumped “several thousand dollars” into Red Deer to install multiple large ceiling fans, sensors throughout the building and warning sirens, as well as costly explosion-proof wiring and special power shut-off switches.

However, he discovered the shop could operate just as safely with fewer fans and less sensitive sensors because trained technicians could take steps to quickly diffuse potentially hazardous situations.

Fachs used those lessons to convert another natural-gas repair facility in Calgary, Alberta, using “more common sense” and a smaller investment.

In Ohio, Young visited some dedicated bus and private fleet facilities before deciding on the best way for his facility in Canton to install large exhaust fans and warning systems.

After about three years of planning — and more than a $15,000 investment — Young opened his company’s first dedicated service facility for natural-gas and cryogenic-powered vehicles in November, in Canton next to the company’s Volvo dealership. Young also sells Freightliner, Western Star and Isuzu vehicles.

Young said the facility has been “full almost every day” since opening, with a large number of natural-gas trucks in the area run by Frito-Lay and other fleets such as refuse hauler Kimble Co.

“We know in the immediate area there are over 100 natural-gas trucks, and it has been a problem to get them serviced,” Young said. He added that while some dealers and Cummins engine distributors may have one converted bay, being able to showcase a dedicated facility and several fully certified technicians has proved to be a strong selling point.

Wisconsin Kenworth followed a similar path as Young. CSM Cos., parent of Wisconsin Kenworth, has invested in setting up a dedicated bay at the Milwaukee dealership, as well as certifying technicians at six other dealerships. The dedicated bay took about six months to convert, said Mike Clark, senior vice president of operations. It is sectioned off within the larger service facility by concrete walls and has its own ventilation system.

“We have done this to cater to certain customers and made the decision to minimize our initial investment,” Clark said.

He also said estimates for the bay were between $50,000 and $75,000, but the “final cost was about half as much as initially thought.”

Clark said he did not expect a full return on the investment to be realized for several years but added he likely would expand at other dealerships using the one dedicated service bay model.

Ham said his Southern California dealership took about six months to convert an older repair shop into a modern natural-gas certified shop. It opened in the fall, allowing them to service nearly a dozen vehicles at a time.

Regardless of shop-investment decisions, he stressed the importance of also investing in certifying enough technicians to handle maintenance demands that will develop with more sales of natural-gas trucks.