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Thomas Built CNG Buses Ace It At Utah Universities

Running eight new Thomas Built Saf-T-Liner® HDX CNG buses at the University of Utah displaces about 3,000 gallons of diesel a month.

Snowy winters, hot summers, steep hills, pollution-trapping inversions and thousands and thousands of college students depending on you to get them to classes on time. That’s just part of what Chad Larsen, manager of campus transit at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, and Alden Erickson, shuttle supervisor at Utah State University in Logan, Utah, have to deal with.

Fortunately, the Thomas Built compressed natural gas (CNG) buses that both universities have incorporated into their on-campus transit fleets are doing their part to make life just a little easier.
With weekly ridership of about 41,000 students, staff and faculty, campus transportation is an all-day, every day proposition, from 6:00 a.m. to 11:30 p.m., at the University of Utah. Larsen has added eight new Thomas Built Saf-T-Liner® HDX CNG buses with Cummins ISL G engines to his 30 bus fleet over the past three years, and is in the process of replacing all of his full-size diesel buses with CNG units. He expects the fleet will be fully CNG by 2020.

“With eight CNGs in operation, we are displacing about 3,000 gallons of diesel a month,” Larsen said. “And, at about $1 a gallon for CNG vs. $3.50 for diesel, that’s a significant savings. We’re really happy with the buses, which have more power than diesels and are quieter and cleaner, too.”

On the University of Utah’s 1,500-plus acre campus, the extra power really makes a difference to a full bus going up the hill. The logistics of CNG haven’t been a problem to date, and they’re about to get even easier. The university is quick-filling CNG at an off-campus location until a new on-campus slow-fill station is completed in May 2012. Larsen bought the five-year engine warranty when he purchased the new buses and he outsources maintenance to Lewis Bus Group, the Thomas Built Buses dealer in Salt Lake City.

Considering switching to CNG? Larsen advised meeting with other CNG users, trying out a bus, carefully considering how to fuel it (slow-fill, quick-fill, on- or off-site, public or private station), while keeping in mind labor costs associated with fueling. “A slow-fill station will pay for itself in four or five years,” Larsen calculated. With stop-and-go routes that average only three or four miles and top speeds of 30 mph, he fuels buses only once a day.

Larsen’s counterpart at Utah State University in Logan, Utah, is Alden Erickson, shuttle supervisor. The Utah State campus is larger (5,000 acres), with fewer students (14,000). Tucked away at the northern edge of the state where Utah, Idaho and Wyoming meet, Logan, like Salt Lake City, is prone to winter air inversions.

Erickson points out that the environmental advantages of mass transit are an incentive for people to ride the bus – especially a cleaner CNG bus – as are the adverse weather conditions prevalent in the region. Minus-20 degree temperatures aren’t unusual in winter, and Utah State’s ten Thomas Built Saf-T-Liner HDX CNG buses start up better than diesel. “No weather issues,” said Erickson.

Erickson became interested in CNG after attending a conference and networking with other attendees. “We had very old buses and were looking to upgrade,” he said. “Then, with the help of a state fleet incentive program, I was able to order four Thomas Built CNG buses in 1999. They made me a believer. The CNG buses have become even more fuel efficient and easier to maintain as the technology has evolved.”

In 2001, the university added a fast-fill station. And then in 2003, with the help of an EPA grant, Erickson added an on-campus slow-fill station to each bus stall. With the addition of a fifth tank, buses can stay on routes all-day without refueling. Erickson is pleased to report that his newer Thomas Built CNG buses are getting the equivalent of 10 to 11 mpg.

The University of Utah and Utah State both purchased their CNG buses from Lewis Bus Group in Salt Lake City. Jason Morgan, vice president and general manager of Lewis Bus Group, reports that he also recently delivered three new Thomas Built HDX CNG buses to Student Movement, Inc., which contracts transportation services for Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. It’s no surprise that the University of Utah and Utah State recommended the Thomas Built CNGs to Brigham Young.

Three universities with a lot in common, each of which approached its on-campus transit challenges from different directions and arrived at the same conclusion: Thomas Built CNG buses do the job, no matter how challenging the conditions.

The Thomas Built HDX CNG buses in use at Utah State University are getting 10 to 11 mpg-equivalent on campus shuttle routes.

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