Gassing up savings

Noblesville Police experimenting with compressed natural gas engine vehicle

Most residents think of natural gas as a fuel source to heat their homes or stoves. While compressed natural-gas cars have been zipping around foreign highways for years, for the first time in Central Indiana an emergency vehicle will travel the roads as the Noblesville Police Dept. is trying out the alternative fuel.

“We’re excited to be able to do this experiment. At the end of the day we’re doing it as a business decision,” Police Chief Kevin Jowitt said. “We’re just trying to look at any way we can spend less money. Vehicles are how we delivery our services. We have to have police officers out in vehicles. For that reason, it is a consistent function but an expensive function.”

Jowitt said the city was approached by a company that retrofits vehicles for compressed natural gas.

“We didn’t have it on our radar at all simply because we hadn’t thought about it,” he said. “There is a potential that if CNG works for the police department that we could achieve a pretty significant cost savings on fuel.”

Jowitt said a 2010 Chevrolet Tahoe was retrofitted with CNG – and certified by the EPA – at no cost to the city in order for the department to do research. He said the trial period will last three to four months.

“We’re trying to rotate it through the divisions,” Cpt. Brad Arnold said.

The NPD patrol fleet has 54 vehicles and approximately 50 to 60 percent are Tahoes.

 “Resale is high,” Jowitt said, adding the Tahoe seems to be a better value. “There’s more space. Officers keep caring more and more equipment.”

The department received the vehicle on June 27.

“I don’t notice any difference (in performance) at all,” Arnold said. “There’s less emissions, it’s environmentally friendly – one of the greener things that we have in the city.”

Arnold said the department used 94,000 gallons of gasoline in 2013. He said NPD purchases fuel at the Hamilton County Co-op at the market rate; however, the department does not have to pay taxes which save approximately 30 cents per gallon. Arnold said patrol fleet vehicles use 100 gallons per month.

CNG costs approximately $1.05 per gallon – about one-third that of gasoline – and has more stability in its prices.

“That’s the big question: ‘How much do you budget for fuel?’At any point there can be a huge swing up or down,” Arnold said.

“It reduces our dependency on foreign oil,” Jowitt said. “Natural gas prices are flat lined and we have a very adequate reserve in the United States.”

CNG also is a safer alternative than fuel. Jowitt said the 12-gallon storage tank is incased in Kevlar and takes up a 2-foot by 2-foot area in the trunk. In case of an accident, the system has redundancy features to limit leaking and its vapors evaporate quicker than gasoline.

“Natural gas is less volatile than gas. It’s harder for CNG to light or explode,” Jowitt said. “There’s a release should it be compromised. It is a safer vehicle than what they are driving now.”

While a CNG engine runs on natural gas, the vehicle is still powered by gasoline – making it a duel fuel vehicle.

“If the throttle is speeding at more than 80 percent the engine automatically cuts back over to gasoline,” he said.”If the CNG tank goes empty, it automatically cuts over.”

While the county has proposed plans to build a natural gas fueling station and purchase non-emergency CNG vehicles, the current closest station is on the southeast side of Indianapolis. To make Noblesville’s trial easier, a temporary slow-fill station compressor has been installed at the street department annex. Arnold said the compressor roughly provides a gallon of fuel per hour.

“It takes eight to nine hours for fuel. You plug the car in and fuel it overnight,” he said.

Arnold said the vehicle will receive “real time use.”

“Every two weeks it will rotate to a different officer,” he said. “I’m definitely eager to look at the numbers to see how we did.”

Noblesville Patrol Fleet

• Noblesville has 54 vehicles in its patrol fleet and approximately 50 to 60 percent (30 vehicles) are Chevy Tahoes. The others are Crown Victorias.

• The approximate cost of CNG is $1.05 and the NPD purchases gasoline at 30 cents less than market value (approximately $3.25 at time of print).

• Gas and CNG average the same miles per gallon but the gasoline container is larger than a natural gas tank.

• The NPD used 94,000 gallons of gasoline in 2013. Each patrol fleet vehicle averages 100 gallons a month.

• If the department made all patrol fleet vehicles run on compressed natural gas, it could potentially save almost $200,000 a year compared to gasoline. However, that price does not include the cost of installing the engines, which the department has not received a quote on yet.

What’s next?

In addition to testing out compressed natural gas vehicles, Police Chief Kevin Jowitt said the department is looking to purchase a smart car for parking enforcement. Jowitt said the new vehicle utilizes license plate reading technology.

“It will completely eliminate chalking of tires,” he said. “The officer just drives the row of cars.”

Jowitt said the smart car is safer to the officer doing the parking enforcement because they do not have to reach out or leave the vehicle unless writing a ticket. He said the camera system scans the license plates and can tell how long they have been in the same location electronically.

“Parking is a pretty significant topic in Noblesville. We want to make sure that we are doing our job as efficiently as we can and meeting the differing needs of downtown users,” he said.

Jowitt said the vehicle will cost in a year the same amount of money that the current enforcement scooter costs for a month.

“It’s the most expense vehicle in our fleet, including four-wheel drive Tahoes. It doesn’t get good mileage,” said Cpt. Brad Arnold. “A lot of police departments are using them (smart cars) for a variety of different things.

Jowitt expects to purchase the smart car later this year.

Robert Herrington

Managing editor of Current in Noblesville. A 1999 graduate of Noblesville High School, Herrington has been covering Noblesville and Hamilton County as a journalist since 2004. The military brat lived all over the east coast before calling Noblesville home since 1994. He and his wife, Maggie, live in the community with their baby daughter (and youngest Boston Red Sox fan), Caroline. From school board to common council meetings, First Friday events and summer concerts in the city parks, Herrington loves to attend and cover all that Noblesville has to offer.

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