More Utahns converting cars to run on natural gas
The Salt Lake Tribune
August 25, 2008
The number of natural-gas tanks powering Utah vehicles has exploded this year.
Now state officials and clean-car advocates want to ensure the tanks don't blow up, too, and that they pollute as little as intended.
The dozens who claimed clean-fuel tax credits by switching from gasoline earlier this decade mushroomed into the hundreds last year, but Questar fuel consumption suggests the real number of compressed-gas vehicles might have grown to 20,000 in the past year alone, according to the nonprofit Utah Clean Cities Coalition. The utility itself estimates the total is at least 6,000.
Since January of 2007, Questar's natural-gas sales for vehicles have shot up 401 percent, spokesman Chad Jones said.
Many of the vehicles - including the nearly 700 that earned one-time tax breaks last year - are professionally equipped, safe and certified by the Environmental Protection Agency.
Others are backyard jobs with worn tanks and faulty exhaust systems, endangering both motorists and the Wasatch Front's air, Clean Cities Director Robin Erickson said. Those who buy old tanks or don't install kits properly are creating car bombs.
They could cause a serious explosion," Erickson warned.
It's a time of great promise and caution for those who have worked years to bring Utahns around to the cause of clean air. Motorists are flocking to compressed natural gas because in Utah it costs just 87 cents to equal the energy in a gallon of gasoline that now runs $4.
Compressed gas is unusually cheap here because Questar owns both the gas and the pipes and is a publicly regulated utility.
Moving thousands of cleaner vehicles onto the roads gratifies advocates like Erickson, but it's also clear that many drivers are taking chances.<
Weber County is gearing up to shut down motorists who bring in unclean or unsafe vehicles for registration inspection. The Weber-Morgan Health Department last month announced that it will start rejecting compressed-gas vehicles whose emissions have been altered without proof of EPA certification and the mechanic who altered it.
There is no statewide rule restricting home conversions.
The word is getting out that we won't even consider anything that's not EPA-certified [for a tax credit]," Utah Division of Environmental Quality scientist Mat Carlile said. But many switch without certification anyway, to reap the fuel savings.
EPA eventually may crack down on uncertified vehicles, Erickson said. In the meantime, the Clean Cities Coalition is talking to legislators about a proposed $3.50 tax on all vehicle registrations to help broaden safety inspections to cover compressed gas and to expand the state's certification programs and natural-gas fueling stations.
Salt Lake Community College automotive technology professor Michael Millet converted his Honda Civic using a sanctioned tank and proper form, but he sees those who didn't whenever he is at the filling station. Their tanks obviously leak in the back seat.
They open it up," Millet said, "and you can smell natural gas."
He and the college have joined Erickson in the drive to increase safety - and to help students capitalize on a growth industry. Starting this semester, he is teaching a class to certify technicians to install tanks safely to EPA standards.
Done right, he said, a conversion is safe. The tanks come with valves that help vent gas out of the car during emergencies, and Kevlar fibers make them sturdy.
The problem is that some people install tanks that have outlived their intended life or been damaged. Some are buying outdated tanks on the Internet. To date there is nothing to keep them off the road so long as what comes out of the tailpipe is up to state standards when going through a county emissions inspection.
People are converting their vehicles themselves because they can't afford to have it done [professionally]," Millet said. "And the safety inspector doesn't ask if you're using natural gas."
Jeremy Hammon is a former Millet student who now runs a business converting vehicles to run on either natural gas or gasoline. That service costs $6,000 to $10,000, depending on the vehicle, while a complete switch to natural gas may cost less because there's no tie-in between fuel lines.
Hammon helps Millet with the class because he fears accidents caused by improper installations could hurt an industry that otherwise could safely clean Utah's air. If people buy new certified tanks, they are not likely to explode no matter what kind of crash they endure, he said. But poorly trained mechanics often leave the tanks loosely secured and rattling.
You don't want somebody to get in a wreck and have a tank go flying," Hammon said, "because it's a missile.
Erickson is happy to have fielded hundreds of calls from interested motorists and fleet managers in recent months, though the state needs time to catch up. Utah probably needs 20 more natural-gas stations, she said, in addition to the 19 currently open to the public.
Millet poked his finger into his Civic's tailpipe to demonstrate the potential environmental benefits if people convert cars the right way. He rubbed just a dusting of light-brown particles from the pipe, then compared it to the black smudge he wiped from the tailpipe of a gasoline-powered Ford Explorer.
Then he pulled the oil dipstick from his Civic's engine and pinched the end between his thumb and forefinger. The oil had been in his car since spring, but it showed light and clear, evidence of how little carbon the converted engine burns.
"It's like butter," he said.
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