It’s becoming more common to see contractors pull up for a service call or arrive on a jobsite in a fuel-efficient vehicle or even an alternative fuel vehicle (AFV) these days … It makes sense given high gas prices, concerns about the U.S. being dependent on imported oil, the unsettled economy, and contractors trying to run as lean of businesses as possible.

Contractors featured in this article have done their research on fuel-efficient and alternative-fuel vehicles, taken the plunge by purchasing one or more of these vehicles, and are seeing results from upgrading to fuel-efficient and alternative fuel vehicles.

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Some contractors are driving Ford Transit Connects to jobsites and service calls. Currently Murphy & Miller Inc., Chicago, has 10 Transit Connects in its fleet of 60 service and construction vehicles.

“Our supervisors support the service technicians in the field and can do a lot of driving from jobsite to jobsite,” says Dan O'Halloran, vice president of service administration at Murphy & Miller Inc. “Since the supervisors were the first to have the Transit Connects we were able to see the fuel savings after a full year of operation. The supervisors’ Transit Connects are averaging about 22-mpg compared to their old E-150 vans of 12-mpg.”

O'Halloran told CONTRACTOR that there was an adjustment period for the field technicians that were given these vehicles to drive.

“They needed to manage the smaller space of the Transit Connect, however, they do enjoy the comfortable ride it provides,” says O'Halloran. O'Halloran gave specific technicians the Transit Connects to drive based on certain criteria of the type of work they do or geographic locations to the jobsites.

“Distance does come into play considering the fuel savings,” explains O'Halloran. “What we have done is looked at some of our technicians who travel the greatest miles in their trips to the customers and the type of work they perform at the jobsite. If it is feasible that the technician can fulfill the customer's service needs with the smaller truck stock available in the Transit Connect, then they are a candidate for this type of vehicle.”

Also, making sure the technicians understand the reasons why the company is having them drive a smaller vehicle is imperative to having them adjust to a smaller vehicle.

“Our field technicians understand the cost associated with driving a full-size service truck all over the Chicagoland area and are supportive in Murphy & Millers efforts to cut cost in order to improve the sustainability of the business,” says O'Halloran. “It is difficult for most service technicians to changeover to a smaller vehicle when they are so used to a full-size van that allowed them to carry everything they ever needed, but may never use. The logic we try to teach to the new Transit Connect drivers is to think practical and carry only the parts and tools necessary for daily service. We are in a business that sees a lot of change, so just the same as we have adapted to learning how to service all the new equipment, we will adapt to a new way to transport ourselves.”

Steve Bouska, owner of Help Services LLC, Oklahoma City, Okla., a plumbing diagnostics company, is also using the Transit Connect. He purchased the vehicle in February 2011.

According to Bouska, the cargo space, fuel economy, price and double sliding side doors were essential to his decision to purchase the vehicle.

“The vehicle was effectively free,” explains Bouska. “Gasoline was around $3.50 a gallon and the Transit boasted 20+ mpg. The Transit gets 25 mpg (according to our own tests) and our fuel consumption fell to around 116 gallons per month, saving us about $276 per month, which is very close to a car payment.”

At Air Comfort Solutions, Moore, Okla., the company has about 20 Transit Connects in a fleet of 36 vehicles. They started upgrading their fleet with Transit Connects about two years ago.

“We remove the passenger seat and in its place we use a file cabinet, and we order the vans with a prebuilt shelving unit in the back,” explains Spencer Hoffman,” general manager of Air Comfort Solutions.

“During the summer, we stock the trucks with strictly air conditioning parts and in the winter we stock the trucks with only heating parts, so once the season changes we switch out the parts and change the stock in the vans,” says Hoffman. “The reason why the payload doesn’t hurt us is because we do this and we have several install crews that handle the heavy equipment, those guys are in box trucks. It’s our residential technicians that use the Transit Connects.”

According to Hoffman, the overall gas bill can fluctuate due to gasoline prices, but he has noticed a 20% to 40% difference in the gasoline bills since the company started upgrading to these vehicles.

“We will probably try an Electric Transit Connect, but as of right now we are very happy with the vehicles we are using,” says Hoffman. “We saw enough value in these vehicles that we were comfortable taking current trucks off the road that had several good years left."

At Oak Creek Plumbing, Oak Creek, Wisc., a Ford Transit Connect and Chevrolet HHR were purchased. Bob Siepler, service manager of the plumbing division, is driving the Transit Connect to do all of his jobsite and estimate visits.

According to Dan Callies, owner of Oak Creek Plumbing, Siepler was driving a ¾-ton cut-away van that was getting about 15 mpg, and since driving the Transit Connect, his vehicle gets about 30+ mpg.

“Despite its smaller size, I am able to carry a full complement of hand tools, cordless equipment, a soldering kit, and an assortment of often used parts,” says Siepler. “After 25 years of driving an assortment of typical van-type service vehicles, the Transit is a joy to drive. The gas mileage is good and it is so easy to park and maneuver in traffic. And customers just love the look of it.”

Randy Lewis, production supervisor at Oak Creek Plumbing, has been driving the Chevrolet HHR for about a year.

“His responsibility requires him to stop by most jobsites prior, during and after the job is completed,” explains Callies. "Prior to this vehicle he was driving a Chevy Avalanche getting about 15mpg and now with the HHR it is getting 30+ mpg. Randy carries some smaller hand and power tools to use to help the guys out in the field when needed and to take care of small problems or issues as needed.”

“I use my HHR for everything, all my day-to-day operations, from meeting homeowners to warranty repairs to running material,” says Lewis. “What I like about the vehicle is the gas mileage. It definitely gets better gas mileage than other vehicle I’ve drove for the company.”

A1 A/C, Port Allen, La., RAM 1500 and RAM 2500 pickup trucks make up the majority of its fleet, including two RAM pickups that are Flex-Fuel vehicles.

“We have always had good luck with the Dodge products compared to other brands, and maintenance and repair costs are more economical too,” says Don Sherman, owner of A1 A/C and Nexstar member. “Also more gas stations in the area are starting to carry E-85. When using E-85 in the pickups they run just the same as when using regular gasoline.”

Propane vehicles

Propane vehicles are also pulling up to jobsites and service jobs more these days. Recently, ARS/Rescue Rooter has deployed 21 propane autogas cargo and cutaway vans in the Los Angeles and Houston areas.

These Ford E-Series vans, powered by Roush CleanTech reduce harmful emissions and carry certification by the California Air Resources Board and the Environmental Protection Agency.

According to Todd Mouw, vice president of sales and marketing at Roush CleanTech, contractors in the HVAC and plumbing industry should consider propane autogas powered vehicles for a few reasons, including they can lower operating costs by 40% or more, they burn much cleaner than gasoline or diesel vehicles, and they run on an American-sourced fuel, helping to reduce the country’s dependence on foreign oil.

“From an operating costs standpoint, propane autogas costs about 40% less on a per-gallon basis than gasoline,” says Mouw. “It's readily available with a well-established public infrastructure already in place. Or, fleet managers can elect to have their own fueling station installed on-site for little to no up-front cost. From a cleanliness standpoint, propane autogas dramatically reduces your carbon footprint. You will reduce greenhouse gas emissions by up to 24%, nitrogen oxide (NOX) emissions by up to 20%, and carbon monoxide emissions by up to 60%.

“Propane autogas also comes from domestic sources; over 90% of propane used in the U.S. today comes from U.S. production, and another 7% comes from Canada,” adds Mouw.

“After researching several fuel options, we decided that Roush CleanTech propane auto gas systems offered the best solution for us,” says Mike Baessler, director of purchasing and fleet of ARS/Rescue Rooter. “We believe this investment will provide longevity to our fleet, in addition to reduced operating costs, allowing us to pass the savings on to our customers.”

The initial propane package was first put on Ford E-450 and E- 350 cutaways.

“From the fuel cost point of view we are talking about a vehicle that gets seven to eight miles per gallon,” said Baessler. “If I can reduce these fuel costs by a dollar or two that’s a huge savings on a vehicle that gets this type of mileage.”

Regarding tracking, the company tracks all gallons of propane purchased, along with vehicles in those locations that run on gas, so a comparative analysis can be done between the two types of vehicles to see where the savings occurs.

ARS/Rescue Rooter plans to purchase 22 more vehicles by year-end, with an additional 100 or more vehicles planned for 2012, spanning multiple markets.

“We have 80 locations around the country, and right now the propane trucks are in Houston and the Los Angeles north branch,” said Baessler. “We are looking at other locations in Texas, the Chicago area, other locations in California, and also the Seattle area.”

When asked why it was decided to start using a vehicle that runs on something other than gasoline, Baessler says that basically you don’t have any choice these days based on the cost of fuel.

“You really need to go out and look at your options,” explains Baessler. “It’s not necessarily about doing alternative fuels. You can also look into downsizing too.”

Mark Gibson, Nexstar member and owner of Gibson Heating, Waterloo, Ind., has also converted vehicles to run on propane. Gibson started converting vans to run on propane about three years ago. The company’s AFVs consists of three Ford Rangers, one F-150 pickup, two E-250 vans (all of these run on duel fuel), and nine E-350 box trucks that run on propane.

“We have 22 vehicles in our fleet, and by the end of the year there will be 15 running on propane,” says Gibson.

Gibson says it just made sense to convert company vehicles over to propane.

“It’s better for the carbon footprint, they run longer between oil changes, and you can lock in your propane price for 24 months. We save well over 40% of what we would pay for gasoline,” says Gibson.

Electric vehicles

Out of all the alternative fuel vehicles available, electric vehicles seem to garner a lot of buzz, but are still rather uncommon on the roads, but some companies, such as James River Air Conditioning, Richmond, Va., are starting to use these vehicles.

Just this summer, James River Air Conditioning, specializing in HVAC, plumbing, electrical, solar energy and whole house efficiency programs, installed its first Level 2 electric vehicle charger and purchased its first all-electric vehicle the 2011 Nissan Leaf, which is being used as a company vehicle by Hugh Joyce, president of the company.

An electric Ford Transit Connect will also be deployed soon.

“I use the Nissan Leaf in the business as a vehicle to market the company and to promote solar, and the renewable energy business,” says Joyce. “I am a big believer of electric cars. For general daily driving around it just makes sense. They make sense in the grand scheme of being energy efficient and energy smart.”

The Level 2 charger will be available to the public when not being used by James River corporate vehicles. Much of the energy used by the GE watt station electric charger is generated by the 10 kW solar system at the James River Air Conditioning company headquarters.

Resources

Chrysler has a variety of AFVs available. For information on the 2012 RAM cargo van, Dakota, RAM 1500, and RAM 2500/3500 go to: https://www.fleet.chrysler.com/.

For information on the 2012 Ford Transit Connect go to: http://www.ford.com/trucks/transitconnect/.

For information on the Transit Connect Electric go to: http://www.azuredynamics.com/products/transit-connect-electric.htm.

General Motors also has a variety of AFVs for contractors to consider. For information on E-85 capable vehicles, including Chevrolet Express cargo vans, and the Silverado Hybrid and Sierra Hybrid, go to: http://www.gmfleet.com/vehicles/alternative-fuels/index.jsp.

Information on the Nissan Leaf, along with information on commercial trucks, is available at: http://www.nissanusa.com/.

Freightliner Custom Chassis offers a hybrid-electric and all-electric chassis for walk-in vans. According to the Freightliner Customer Chassis website, the all-electric system eliminates the need for fossil fuels, saving owners up to $15,000 annually, and the battery system needs six to eight hours to fully recharge, offering a range of up to 100 miles. Additional information is available at: http://freightlinerchassis.com/.

Also, the following websites are educational resources contractors can visit to learn about AFVs and stay up-to-date on the different technologies being used:

The Alternative Fuels and Advanced Vehicles Data Center: http://www.afdc.energy.gov/afdc/applications.html.

Natural Gas Vehicle Institute: http://www.ngvi.com/.

Green Truck Association’s (GTA) website: http://www.greentruckassociation.com/.

The Propane Education & Research Council (PERC): http://www.propanecouncil.org/.