Photos courtesy of Aqua America.Once a CNG time-fill station was built at Aqua's Springfield, Penn. location, the utility acquired more CNG vehicles within several months.

Photos courtesy of Aqua America.
Once a CNG time-fill station was built at Aqua's Springfield, Penn. location, the utility acquired more CNG vehicles within several months.

- By Kelsey Nolan

Aqua Pennsylvania, a subsidiary of Aqua America, received two grants for a total of $86,812 from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection that funds the purchase of 14 new compressed natural gas (CNG) trucks. These dedicated-CNG vehicles will be used for the company’s field service and construction inspection operations.

Charlie Stevenson, manager of fleet and materials management for Aqua America, says the company jointly applied with VNG, based in Bala Cynwyd, Penn., for five CNG-dedicated vehicles. Aqua Pennsylvania also applied alone for nine vehicles. According to Stevenson, who is also a Clean Cities board member for a local coalition, the grant was primarily based on gallons of fuel consumed, and because Aqua has a controlled service territory, the joint application increased the number of gallons used and bettered the two companies’ odds.

With 1,150 vehicles in the fleet, Aqua America supplies water and wastewater to 3 million people in nine states. The fleet consists of light- to heavy-duty, and includes many Chevy vehicles from the Cruze and Malibu to the Chevy Express and Silverado. Freightliner is used for most of the company’s utility and dump trucks. Fleet vehicles each average around 15,000 miles annually.

Measuring Up CNG

Stevenson explains that the fleet’s ROI on the purchase of 14 CNG vehicles without the grant would’ve been around 6.5 years, but with the grant he expects to see a return in just over three.

Aqua America in the past has purchased a Chevrolet Volt and several hybrid trucks, Stevenson says, but hasn’t seen much return so far. “CNG just seems like a better option for us right now in terms of ROI,” he says.

Photos courtesy of Aqua America.Aqua also received two other grants to help build out two more CNG stations, in addition to the this time-fill station in Springfield, Penn.

Photos courtesy of Aqua America.
Aqua also received two other grants to help build out two more CNG stations, in addition to the this time-fill station in Springfield, Penn.

Aqua began with a pilot CNG van a couple years ago. Once a time-fill station was built at its Springfield, Penn. location, the utility acquired more CNG vans within several months. The company currently has 10 and hopes to be at about 20 by the end of this year, in which the grant will help significantly. Stevenson says that the same grant opens up once more in the next few months and he plans to apply again.

In the next five years, the company hopes to include at least 90 large and small CNG vehicles in the fleet, especially since Aqua Pennsylvania was also recently awarded with two Pennsylvania Alternative and Clean Energy (ACE) Grants to expand its alternative fuel infrastructure. A total of $35,000 will be given for each site at the company’s Willow Grove, Penn. and West Chester, Penn. locations. Aqua is currently in the permitting phase and is looking to have the project finished by second quarter 2014.[PAGEBREAK]

Photos courtesy of Aqua America.With 1,150 vehicles in the fleet, Aqua America supplies water and wastewater to 3 million people in nine states.

Photos courtesy of Aqua America.
With 1,150 vehicles in the fleet, Aqua America supplies water and wastewater to 3 million people in nine states.

There’s More Than One Way to Save

In addition to moving into CNG, Aqua has begun using synthetic lubricants and retreaded tires in an effort to lower costs and improve fleet sustainability.

Stevenson says that the fleet tested out synthetics for two years before taking it companywide. He and his team weren’t initially impressed during the pilot since the synthetics do cost more, but by the end, the numbers became clear: “Eventually, when we saw that we were taking oil out at 6,000 miles and it was still good, we went to 7,000 — and then when we got to 7,000, we decided with the labor savings and cost savings, we were happy with that.”

Changing the intervals, Stevenson says, did not affect any of their OEM warranties, which is largely due to General Motors changing this requirement with the 2010-MY. Aqua America is also now using synthetics for all hydraulic fluid applications as well.

Overall, maintenance and ensuring nothing is missed, or duplicated, is a big focus for Stevenson. Because the company’s service locations are scattered throughout several states, there are not enough fleet vehicles in every area to do all maintenance in house. GE Capital primarily handles the fleet's maintenance and fuel provisions, though the company does have a total of three shops in service areas where in-house maintenance makes more sense. Two of these shops are heated with used motor oil — a seemingly small step that helps the company save on disposal and purchasing costs.

To help manage the different maintenance methods, Aqua uses Dossier, a fleet maintenance software that allows the company to pull in information from GE Capital, as well as company fuel card information from WEX Inc., and the company’s internal fuel and maintenance management data. “That becomes our maintenance model,” Stevenson says. “We put everything into one system and are able to analyze data for the best maintenance parameters for the fleet and to track our underperforming vehicles.”

He adds that prior to having this process automated about eight years ago, the company had a full-time position dedicated to fleet data entry.

Going beyond the shop, the company has also invested in start-stop technology in order to reduce idle time and engine wear. Stevenson says that Aqua bought two Chevrolet Malibus equipped with the technology, and has been pilot testing IdleRight2 on some of its larger trucks for the last two years. IdleRight2, from Havis, monitors a vehicle’s battery life while the engine is shut down so that components can safely run off the battery without draining it. Once the battery charge hits below a certain level, a remote starter kicks the engine on until the battery is again charged, and the process starts over.

Stevenson says the verdict is not yet in on the IdleRight2 system: “We want to try it on a few more vehicles because right now the ROI is just about there.” (Stay tuned with Utility Fleet eNews and we’ll check back in with him to find out the results.)

In other fuel-reduction initiatives, Aqua also recently finished an 18-mile pipeline out to a natural gas company’s fracking site instead of hauling water with tanker trucks. Fracking requires large amounts of water, but this site is located on roads ill-equipped for 80,000-lb. water trucks. After less than a year into operations, Aqua decided instead to build a direct pipeline to the site.

The company reported in April 2012 that it had removed more than 2,000 truck trips from the road within the first month of opening the pipeline. Aqua America Chairman and CEO Nicholas DeBenedictis said in the announcement, “By reducing truck traffic, we are also reducing the noise from the vehicles and wear-and-tear on local roadways, plus helping to reduce carbon emissions associated with the thousands of truck trips that have been eliminated because of the pipeline.”

Joanne Tucker contributed to this article.

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