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Propane vs. diesel school buses: Why an Indiana school district is making the switch

It's the first question people ask. 'Is it safe?' The short answer? Yes. It's also an environmental plus and a cosKentuckiana

FLOYD COUNTY, Ind. — A southern Indiana school district is powering its newest rides with a greener alternative compared to most diesel-run buses on the road today.

This year, New Albany Floyd County Schools (NAFCS) began rolling out a handful of school buses that run on propane and more are on the way. Transportation officials said it was a two-fold decision that could save the district a lot of money in the long run.

"There's a shift happening away from gasoline and diesel," Mitch Corwin, the NAFCS garage supervisor, said.

Out of his fleet of 150 buses, Corwin says four are now powered by propane and five more are on the way. 

It's a handful of some 600 propane buses across Indiana, including some from both Clark and Jefferson Counties. Corwin said propane autogas buses have been used for decades but started becoming more popular around 2012. 

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An April report by School Transportation News says, "there are about 22,000 currently on the road and used by a thousand districts and bus contractors to transport about 1.2 million students per day."

"They're quiet. They start well in the cold weather. So far, everything's going great," Corwin said.

The propane used on the road is no different than what you'd see used in home heating or a gas grill. Corwin said the first question he hears when you mention propane in the fuel tank is, is it safe?

"It's reinforced. It's caged, guarded, super safe," Corwin said. "People do question that, but everything we've looked at shows no sign of safety issues or we wouldn't have done that."

The district invested in these buses with help from a Volkswagen grant, emphasizing clean air projects that will significantly reduce diesel emissions across the state.

Credit: Jake Cannon, WHAS11
Diesel Mechanic Hannah Hunt explains the pros of a propane-powered bus.

"Diesel doesn't burn clean. It creates smoke and soot and pollutes the earth," said Hannah Hunt, a diesel mechanic for NAFCS. "Propane burns cleaner and you don't have to have all that extra baggage."

Hunt's talking about the added systems put in place on diesel buses, almost $25,000 worth of parts and after treatment, or DEF, that filters pollutants before they're released into the air.

"Seventy-five percent of our problems with the diesel buses are from after treatment issues," she said. "That has downed a lot of our buses."

With the new buses, Hunt doesn't have to worry about that, pointing to a pipe that goes straight from the propane tank to the back of the bus. A diesel includes a dozen or so parts in-between.

Watch Hunt explain the differences below:

Aside from the environmental aspect, there's also a cost savings.

"The maintenance costs look to be lower," Corwin said. "There are far fewer parts in regard to emissions."

Corwin admits, propane doesn't get as good fuel mileage - maybe three to four miles a gallon versus seven miles with diesel - but the fuel is cheaper.

"The last time I purchased diesel here, it was over $3 a gallon. The last time we purchased propane, it was $1.26 a gallon. So, roughly a half to a third of the price," Corwin said.

The district's also saving money upfront using the Volkswagen grant. Corwin said a typical diesel bus costs anywhere between $120,000 and $125,000. Propane buses are closer to $132,000, but the grant money available to school districts pays for about a third of the price. 

Compared to an electric bus which could cost upwards of $400,000, Corwin said, propane buses are also less expensive to purchase, giving districts the ability to put more of them on the road for the price of one electric bus.

"I'm excited to see where we're headed," Hunt said.

If these buses ever travel out of town, there are a variety of propane filling stations to choose from, as more companies nationwide jump on board.

Contact reporter Brooke Hasch atbhasch@whas11.com. Follow her onTwitter (@WHAS11Hasch) andFacebook.

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