LAND O’ LAKES — Just to show how cleanly a propane-powered school bus operates, Tad Kledzik swiped his hand inside the exhaust pipe and pulled it out to reveal — nothing.
“It’s much cleaner for the environment and our students,” said Kledzik, supervisor of transportation maintenance for the Pasco County school district.
The school district began test-driving a propane bus last week to decide whether money can be saved by shifting from diesel. The bus, on loan from school bus dealership Florida Transportation Systems Inc., has an 86-gallon fuel capacity and a relatively quiet engine compared to its diesel cousin.
“The bus driver doesn’t have to try to talk over the motor as well as the students,” Kledzik said last week as members of the school board checked out the bus during one of their meetings.
The bus, manufactured by Blue Bird Corp., is running routes for Gulf Middle, Gulf High, Chasco Middle and Calusa Elementary, all on the west side of the county.
The school district has use of the bus for at least two weeks and possibly as much as a month, Kledzik said.
School board members checked under the hood and went inside the bus, which was parked outside the building where they hold their meetings. The bus looks like any other school bus, but printed on the side is the boast: “Powered By: Clean Burning Propane Autogas.”
Fuel savings isn’t the only consideration for the district as it ponders the purchase. Such issues as maintenance and safety also are being considered.
“Any difference in a crash situation?” board Chairwoman Cynthia Armstrong asked.
Other than the cleanup, no, Kledzik said.
A Blue Bird propane bus caught fire in Chattanooga in August, but reports in trade publications said the fire originated in a wheel-end assembly and was unrelated to the propane. No one was on board the bus at the time.
The Indian River school district began using propane buses in 2009, making it the first Florida school district to do so, and now has 14, Kledzik said. Pasco has been in touch with that school district about savings it has seen with the cheaper fuel, but the district wants to collect its own data during this trial run.
Bluebird claims that a propane bus provides an annual fuel-cost savings of about $3,000 to $5,000 over a diesel bus. Mesa Public Schools in Mesa, Ariz., has reported that each of its propane buses saves the district about $6,500 a year, according to the Propane Education and Research Council.
Mesa Public Schools operates the largest school bus fleet in Arizona and has a goal of becoming the first district in the nation to run an all-propane bus fleet, the council reported this month when it presented Mesa this year’s Propane Autogas Fleet award. So far, Mesa has converted 89 of its 517 buses to propane.
Diesel continues to power most school buses nationally, but propane is making inroads. The Propane Education and Research Council reports that nearly 12 percent of school bus sales this school year are expected to be for propane buses. In raw numbers, that’s about 3,500 propane buses out of 30,000 projected to be sold.
“Previously, propane-autogas buses accounted for a very small share of the 460,000 schools buses on the road (nationally),” the council reported.
Propane isn’t the only alternative fuel Pasco is investigating. The district also is exploring compressed natural gas, Kledzik said. In November, he and Assistant Superintendent Ray Gadd plan to attend a symposium on the subject in Tallahassee.
“We’ll see what direction we want to head on this,” Kledzik said.
He said his hope is that the district can make a decision as quickly as possible, because the delivery of a new school bus can take up to 240 days after the contract is signed.
The Pasco school district has a fleet of more than 400 buses that transport about 37,000 students each school day. The district uses a 12-year cycle for replacing buses.