A look at the compressed natural gas filling station that U.S. Airconditioning Distributor sinstalled on the grounds of its City of Industry, Calif., facility. The pumps allow the companyto fuel its fleet for the equivalent of around 17 cents a gallon. Picture courtesy ofU.S. Airconditioning Distributors.


Since becoming president, Barack Obama has required U.S. automakers to build - and encouraged Americans to consider buying - more fuel-efficient vehicles.

As a condition of their $80 billion in federal bailout money, the carmakers had to agree to much higher mileage standards and stop fighting efforts by states such as California to set their own tailpipe emissions limits.

And Obama recently signed the “cash for clunkers” bill, which gives owners up to $4,500 toward the purchase of a new, higher-efficiency car or truck if they give up their gas-guzzling old ones.

But for many HVAC businesses, the array of alternative fuel or hybrid gas-electric vehicles currently available just don’t offer the size and performance they’re looking for. The smallest, most fuel-efficient cars don’t have the storage or hauling capacity most need, and even the handful of small- and midsize pickups that can run on ethanol fuel - typically a blend of 85 percent corn-based alcohol and 15 percent gasoline - won’t meet their requirements. And outside the Midwest, availability of E85 can be spotty.

Efforts

That doesn’t mean that some HVAC companies aren’t trying to be more efficient. Project managers at J. Moore & Co., a mechanical contractor in Livingston, N.J., drive Ford Escape hybrids. Previously, the managers drove Ford Explorers, which only averaged about 15 miles per gallon, when driving to jobsites.

Mike Candido, president of J. Moore & Co., said he decided to start replacing the Explorers when gasoline surged above $4 a gallon in the state last year. His wife had recently purchased an Escape hybrid, and Candido was impressed with the sport-utility vehicle’s performance.

“When gas was at $4 a gallon, it seemed like a no-brainer,” he said.

The SUV cost around $32,000. Candido purchased four of them.

“We’re very happy with them,” he said.

Unlike the Explorers, the Escape averages more than 30 mpg - unheard of for a vehicle of its size. And in contrast to conventional gasoline-powered vehicles, it gets even better mileage in city driving, when its electric motor takes over at slower speeds.

They work well for the project managers, but Candido said they’re too small to replace the large service vans that make up the bulk of the company’s fleet. He would love to swap those full-size Ford and Chevy vans with gasoline-powered V-8 engines for more fuel-efficient vehicles, but said he hasn’t seen any, besides diesel models, that offer the combination of storage, power and durability the company requires.

“It just isn’t feasible,” he said. “We don’t seem to have a lot of options.”

Mike Candido, president of New Jersey’s J. Moore & Co., in front of his company’s fleetof gas-electric hybrid Ford Escape SUVs. The vehicles are driven by project managers,who appreciate their high miles per gallon ratings in heavy city driving. Image courtesyof J. Moore & Co.

Price factor

Another negative that makes Candido reluctant to expand J. Moore & Co.’s hybrid fleet is the yo-yo effect of the price of gas. A year ago, the nationwide average for a gallon of regular unleaded reached over $4 a gallon, and some experts were predicting $5 or $6 by 2010.

However, the deepening global recession caused demand for oil to plummet and gasoline dropped as low as $1.60 in much of the country earlier this year before rebounding to about $2.60 a gallon, according to the Energy Information Administration.

The EIA, which compiles statistics and forecasts for the U.S. Department of Energy, predicts gas will average $2.56 a gallon nationwide next year.

A hybrid Ford Escape commands a $4,000 price premium over a similarly equipped gas-powered model, Candido said, and at current fuel prices, “the payback doesn’t seem to be there,” although he thinks gas will cost more next year.

He typically retires service vehicles after 150,000 miles of use, although he said he’ll probably stop using the Escapes earlier than that. The oldest ones in the fleet have about 70,000 miles each and have had no problems, he added.

Despite those downsides, Candido said his company is always considering ways to make its fleet more fuel efficient.

“I still like the marketing aspect of being green - both for our customers and our employees,” he said.

So do officials with Dearborn, Mich.-based Ford Motor Co., which makes the hybrid Escape. Company President and CEO Alan Mulally said they are working to increase the automaker’s lineup of environmentally friendly vehicles.

“Ford is committed to offering customers affordable, environmentally friendly technologies in vehicles they really want,” Mulally said in a statement. “We are focusing on sustainable technology solutions that can be used not for hundreds or thousands of cars - but for millions of cars, because that is how Ford can truly make a difference.”

A close-up look at the sticker certifying that this U.S. Airconditioning Distributors pickuptruck is allowed to drive in the freeway carpool lanes of Southern California. Picturecourtesy of U.S. Airconditioning Distributors.

Other options

Hybrids aren’t the only option for HVAC businesses looking to use greener vehicles. About 2,700 miles away from J. Moore & Co. in City of Industry, Calif., U.S. Airconditioning Distributors has been using compressed natural gas - a cheaper, cleaner fossil fuel - to run much of its fleet for close to three years.

Jack Scarsi, the company’s vice president of operations, says using natural gas instead of diesel or gasoline to power its Ford F-150 pickups and Chevy flatbed trucks offers a lot of advantages when it comes to navigating Southern California’s famously congested highways.

“We’re definitely not driving anything but natural gas these days,” Scarsi said. “Things have only gotten better.”

Since they produce far less smog-inducing pollutants, many of the vehicles qualify to use the state’s carpool lanes - even if the driver is the only occupant.

That means faster deliveries, Scarsi pointed out, which saves his company time and money. And generous state tax rebates offset much of their higher purchase prices. Converting a pickup truck’s engine to run on natural gas can add about $8,000 to the cost of the vehicle.

In addition, since natural gas is a cleaner burning fuel than gasoline, engine wear is minimized and oil change frequency is greatly reduced.

“We’ve tracked the maintenance (costs), especially on the pickup trucks, and it’s been a dream,” Scarsi said.

But the biggest savings may come when U.S. Airconditioning Distributors refills the trucks’ gas tanks. Thanks to an on-site filling station that the company spent $350,000 - $100,000 of which was covered by a state grant - to install, it costs the equivalent of just 17 cents per gallon to fill up.

“I mean that’s just ridiculous,” Scarsi said, although he’s not complaining. “What the state didn’t cover we picked up in fuel savings in a few months.”

Having their own refueling station eliminates one of the major drawbacks to using compressed natural gas: finding someplace that sells it.

In a state like California, which treasures its natural resources, U.S. Airconditioning has found its use of the clean-fuel vehicles to be popular with clients.

“We really push the green agenda,” Scarsi said.

For reprints of this article, contact Jill DeVries at (248) 244-1726 or e-mail devriesj@bnpmedia.com.