When the Journal Times out of Racine County, Wis., reported over the weekend that a heavy-duty truck equipped with a compressed natural gas (CNG) fuel system was destroyed by fire on Jan. 21, the publication largely glossed over the fact that it was addressing a hot-button issue in the clean-transportation industry: natural gas vehicle (NGV) safety.
However, it might not be fair to call the newspaper on the carpet for this oversight. As it turns out, the operator of the CNG-powered truck – Franksville, Wis.-based Time Transport Inc. -Â is intensely safety-minded, but does not anticipate that the fire was caused by the truck’s CNG system.
Time Transport’s Mike Buchmeier tells NGT News that the incident is being investigated by the insurance company, and he cannot comment about what might have started the fire. However, he did say that the vehicle in question – a Peterbilt 382 day cab equipped with the Cummins Westport ISL G 8.9-liter natural gas engine and about 60,000 miles on the odometer – was having some performance issues, and the dealership picked up the truck to take it to its location for service.
The dealership’s driver was behind the wheel on Interstate 94, about two miles from Time Transport’s headquarters, when it lost power. A sheriff stopped to aid the disabled vehicle and the driver, and a fire erupted. Within 10 minutes, the truck was completely burned.
The first observation Buchmeier makes – and the most important one, in his estimation – is that the truck did not explode. Such an assertion might seem dramatic or fatalistic, but pressure-vessel explosions, let alone giant booms and fire balls, rightfully frighten people. As NGVs become more common in the U.S., these fears – which are often fortified by video footage of incidents involving NGVs from overseas – could erroneously undermine NGVs’ solid safety record.
All of the safety features on the CNG system on Time Transport’s Peterbilt 382 worked precisely how they were supposed to work, preventing an explosion or a more dangerous fire.
Buchmeier also notes that although he cannot speculate about the precise cause of the fire, he has enough experience with both diesel- and CNG-powered Class 8 assets to understand that a CNG-specific cause was not the likely culprit. The Journal Times had called the incident a ‘freak fire’ – the kind that claims diesel-powered trucks on American highways every day, he says.
So, at the moment, Buchmeier is not deterred in his company’s quest to add more CNG-powered trucks to its fleet, which currently numbers 42 trucks that almost exclusively run Milwaukee-to-Chicago out-and-back routes. The savings on fuel is significant, with the price of CNG as low as $1.59/GGE – and that’s just the retail price at various public-access Kwik Trip stations in Wisconsin.
In turn, the company will continue to deploy natural gas tractors. Time Transport already has 27 of them: 14 with the 8.9-liter ISL G, eight with the 350 hp configuration of the 11.9-liter ISX12 G, and five with the 400 hp ISX12 G. Ten more of the latter are being delivered in the coming weeks, and Buchmeier says the company intends to place an additional order very soon.
(Full disclosure: Buchmeier quips that he ‘reserves the right’ to change his mind about that new order if the insurance-company investigation into last Tuesday’s fire reveals that a CNG-related problem was, in fact, responsible for the accident. NGT News will be happy to follow up on the incident when the investigation is complete.)