In a couple of weeks, Hall County Schools will be rolling out some green school buses amid its fleet of bright yellow vehicles.
The school system has added 20 buses powered by liquefied petroleum gas, more commonly known as propane.
The new buses should hit the streets by the first of May, making Hall the first system in the Southeast to use propane-fueled buses.
“We’re very excited about it,” said Jill Corbin, a veteran bus driver who will operate one of the new buses. “We think they’re very nice, and they’ll be the first green buses on the road. And we’re excited about that.”
The buses, school transportation officials say, have many advantages over traditional diesel-fueled buses.
“You save on fuel, No. 1,” said Jewel Armour, Hall County Schools executive director of operations. “No. 2, it runs so much cleaner. There are no emissions, basically.”
Armour said the system is currently paying around $3.50 per gallon for diesel fuel, including delivery fees and taxes.
With propane, the total cost will be about $2 per gallon or less.
The cost savings over a long range could be great, Armour said.
Next year, the department estimates diesel consumption to be about 600,000 gallons.
The propane buses will save the system from purchasing an additional 60,000-70,000 gallons of diesel.
“We’ll save $36,000 this next year just on those 20 buses,” he said.
The “green” buses, however, come with a little higher price tag — about $9,000 more than the diesel ones purchased in 2008 for $79,000.
But, Armour said, the costs are made up in the maintenance of the buses.
Since the new engines run much cleaner, the buses will require fewer oil changes and less time in the shop.
The diesel buses, especially their emissions systems, give the bus shop all it can handle.
“We’ve had all kinds of problems with the emissions system,” Armour said. “It’s been a headache for us. With this bus, we don’t have to worry about it.”
Although Hall will be the first county school system in the state to use this technology, some municipalities in the area implemented it years ago.
According to Woody Wilkins, Georgia account manager for Ferrellgas, the company providing the tanks for Hall, DeKalb County has been using propane-fueled vehicles for more than a decade.
“It reduces oil dependency and it’s a very, very green fuel,” Wilkins said.
He said 90 percent of the propane fuel is produced domestically and it is the third-most-used fuel in the world.
Ferrellgas partnered with Bluebird buses about five years ago to develop a propane-fueled school bus.
The movement gained traction in the Northeast, Texas and California but not in the South yet.
“It really took hold; it just didn’t take hold here,” Wilkins said. “It should. It’s the way of the future.”
The buses are projected to get about six miles to the gallon, compared to the seven to eight miles per gallon diesel buses get. They will seat 72 passengers compared to the 89 diesel buses sit.
Until the larger buses go propane, Armour says the system will still use diesel buses for transporting students.
“We still will probably buy some of those down the road because they work well with long sports trips or large neighborhoods,” he said.
But the drivers who get to operate the new buses are looking forward to some new features.
Drivers can now adjust mirrors from the control panel, monitor the bus more efficiently with video cameras and enjoy a much quieter ride.
“I was just amazed,” Corbin said. “I drive a ’99 model and it’s very loud.”
The bus does not lose any power and drives the same as the diesel buses.
Armour hopes to get the buses rolling by the beginning of next month, but it could be sooner.
“I want to run them this school year,” he said. “I want to see what kind of fuel mileage we’re going to get.”
There will be three filling stations: the bus shop, East Hall High School and Chestatee High School.
The equipment was provided through a grant from the gas providers.
Hall County will start with 20 buses, and if they live up to expectations the bus fleet could move toward mostly propane-powered vehicles.
“This is likely the direction we’ll be going in the future,” Armour said. “It makes sense.”