New Propane-Fueled School Buses Help Schools During Harsh Winter Temperatures

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CEDAR RAPIDS, IOWA (KCRG-TV9) - School districts in eastern Iowa are turning to a different fuel to power their school buses.

The Cedar Rapids School District has purchased seven new propane buses to replace older diesel models.

Linn-Mar, Anamosa, and Vinton-Shellsburg are a few other school districts with some propane buses.

Propane is considered a greener alternative to diesel. It emits fewer greenhouse gases because it has a lower carbon content compared to diesel.

Propane buses cost roughly $5,000 more than their diesel counterparts, but districts said they recoup the cost from lower propane prices.

“The fuel itself is probably about a third of the cost of running a diesel fuel, and then, in an oil change we only have to change seven quarts of oil versus 18 to 29 with some of our buses,” said Cedar Rapids Schools Chief Auto Mechanic Mitch Mensen.

The Cedar Rapids School district is expecting to receive its new propane-fueled buses in time for next school year. Up the road at Linn-Mar, drivers started using their four new propane buses this school year.

"We are projecting about $3,200 a year of savings per bus, and that's not just in fuel but in re-occurring maintenance costs,” said Linn-Mar Transportation Manager Brian Cruise.

Those who sell the buses said there's something else that's grabbing the interest of Iowa school districts. Propane buses don't have problems in the bitter cold, like diesel engines.

"With a diesel bus, number one you are going to hope that you have it plugged in, number two you are going to hope you have your fuel properly blended so you don't have a gelling issue, which will leave that sitting basically along the road, which then involves a tow truck,” said School Bus Sales Co. Sales Representative Dwight Houseal.

Houseal said propane buses can start up even when it's 40 below. Earlier this week with temperatures hovering around zero, Linn-Mar's Transportation Manager put his new buses to the test.

"We did have one bus ice up that morning, a diesel bus, had no issues with the propane operation what-so-ever,” Cruise said.

Most school districts also plug buses into block heaters to warm them for the cold day ahead. Linn-Mar said it doesn't even do that with its propane buses.

"We have actually opted, this year, to run ours without using the block heaters, just to test them, and we have had no issues at all,” Cruise said.

Linn-Mar had to purchase a propane fueling system at a cost of $27,000.

Cedar Rapids said it's going to build a $10,000 base for its fueling system and plans to lease the equipment needed for fueling.

Both districts said with the low cost of propane and maintenance they'll make up those costs quickly.