Retiring Ol' No. 74: The 'Bean Bus'

The nation’s first biodiesel-powered school bus has made its last run
By Ron Kotrba | August 16, 2011

For longer than the lives of the students it carried back and forth to rural Medford, N.J., schools, yellow bus No. 74 has run on biodiesel. Joe Biluck, director of operations for the Medford Township board of education, recalls that he first started looking into biodiesel—soy diesel as many called it then—in 1995. This was before any state or federal mandates existed, and well before biodiesel had an ASTM fuel specification. But even, in those early days of commercialization, the benefits of biodiesel were clear, especially to Biluck. 

 “We were in the right place at the right time,” Biluck tells Biodiesel Magazine. “In 1995-‘96, when I was investigating this, there weren’t a lot of options out there for alternative fuels. So biodiesel seemed like the most appropriate fuel at the time.” Twenty-plus years ago, when Biluck says he was still “turning wrenches” for the school district, he started to hear about federal mandates for the public sector and state fleets. “We’re a quasigovernment agency,” he says, “so, I wondered, what options would I have?”

The Medford school buses transport about 3,500 students a day, Biluck says. “This biodiesel program was started because of the students.” For anyone who’s been a passenger on a school bus run on diesel, the distinct smell, laden with carcinogenic particulate matter, or soot, is sure to be one of the most prominent memories. “It has been proven that biodiesel improves air quality both outside of the bus and in the interior,” Biluck says, “and that’s the No. 1 reason for starting this program.”

In the early to mid-‘90s, EPAct encouraged, or mandated, really, state and utility fleets to incorporate alternative fuel vehicles, what Biluck says was referred to then as “bi-fueled” vehicles, and while Board of Education vehicles weren’t specifically required to go that route, he says he thought that those regulations could find their way into the school bus fleet and other vehicles operated by the education board. But the state of New Jersey had requirements on the books that said public vehicles used for the transportation of students were to be run on gasoline or diesel fuel. “There were no provisions for fuels like compressed natural gas or anything,” he says. “So if alternative fuels were wanted, they would have to change the laws to accommodate them.”

Biluck was told by the program manager in the Office of Clean Energy that there were federal monies available for state organizations, funding targeting the demonstration of alternative fuel vehicles. “So, I delved into it in ‘95 for that reason,” Biluck says.

When Biluck and others on the board thoroughly reviewed the regulations for the funding of alternatives, they realized that only vehicle acquisition, not fuel, was covered. “It’s ironic,” Biluck says, explaining that the funding supported the purchase of bi-fuel vehicles that could run on either petroleum fuel or, for instance, compressed natural gas (CNG), “but there was no infrastructure for CNG so they just ran on gasoline or diesel. But they were in compliance by operating a dual-fuel vehicle even though they almost always ran on petroleum fuel.”

In ’95, the DOE and the incentive program began accepting applications for not only the bi-fueled vehicles, but also for the alternative fuel itself. Biluck says they resubmitted the application for funding. The result was four years of extensive testing for the DOE. “The federal government wanted a well-defined program,” Biluck says. “They wanted side-by-side test groups,” to reduce or, if possible, eliminate variables between the test and control groups. Forty-four buses were used in the testing, half fueled with B20 from Twin River Technologies and the other half with conventional on-road diesel fuel. Not only did the program want to see Hot 505 emissions test results conducted in an EPA-certified laboratory, but Biluck also says the government wanted to see significant road-time, maintenance and repair history to establish a good baseline before the tests, in addition to generating extensive reports annually after the biodiesel testing began.

Biluck sent a note to the power plant manager for International Harvester, the predominant engine in the fleet, because he was concerned that using biodiesel might void the warranty. In response, he was told by IH that as long as service intervals were maintained, and they didn’t use more than 20 percent biodiesel, there shouldn’t be a problem. And there wasn’t.

As opposed to buying bi-fuel vehicles, which is a significant capital expense when replacing fleet vehicles, buying alternative fuels such as biodiesel has few or no upfront costs but, instead, requires more operating costs due to the fuel’s higher price compared to conventional diesel—something Biluck says is more effective budgeting for the state.

A New Mindset Later

Years of testing, generating report after report, finally came to an end. “After four years,” Biluck says, “the biodiesel units were 2 cents per mile less than the control.” This was unheard of. A new fuel that cost much more than conventional diesel fuel, and had no quality standard, could reduce overall fleet operating costs by 2 cents a mile. 

To put the cost savings into perspective, in a decade the Medford school buses travel 4 million miles, a long enough haul to circle the Earth 160 times. At 2 cents a mile savings using B20, this comes to about $80,000 every 10 years, or $8,000 a year. For a rural school district, where every penny counts as year after year rural township populations dwindle in favor of the fast-paced city life, reducing vehicle fleet operating costs is essential for survival.

While a premium is paid for the biodiesel, Biluck says on the backend it lowers overall fleet costs in several ways: the higher oxygen content of biodiesel reduces the rough idle. “It’s noticeably reduced,” he says, which means the buses idle smoother, reducing wear on everything from radiator bracket mounts to exhaust hangers, to the exhaust system itself, the life cycles of various pieces of equipment are extended by using biodiesel. “The particulate matter is reduced, so you get longer lasting mufflers,” Biluck says, “and you’ve got 32-feet of exhaust pipes on a bus. The fuel injectors last longer. So when you aggregate those across the fleet over time, the savings really add up." 

Despite biodiesel being a fairly new fuel without a specification, having known cold flow issues when proper measures aren’t taken, Biluck says, “I didn’t want the bus to stall out and have our kids stuck out in a rural area in the middle of winter, but we took precautions and we didn’t have any problems.”
The school board was so happy with its incorporation of biodiesel, they wanted to promote it. “It had a significant impact on the state and region,” Biluck says, “so we wanted to take full advantage of this and participate in a solution for energy independence.”

Medford is an agricultural community, so there’s a direct link between area soybean farmers and the school buses running on soy biodiesel. While insignia on the biodiesel-burning buses would have done the job promoting use of the ag-based fuel, Biluck says the board of education was not allowed to run promotion campaigns on school buses. “I would have promoted it,” he says, “with 44 buses, 44 rolling billboards.”

He tells a story about a bus driver who, shortly after the bus began fueling on biodiesel, kept experiencing stalling. Biluck would test the bus and never had an issue. After six or seven times of the bus stalling on the driver, the natural suspicion was that the reason was the new fuel. “So we tore into the engine,” Biluck says, “and found nothing wrong.” It turned out that the driver had a globe on a chain as a key ring, which hung down low enough so when she shifted gears, the globe caught on the shifter and moved the key enough to shut off the ignition. “She was condemning the fuel, but it was a trinket on her key ring the whole time,” he says. “People don’t like change, and it takes effort and education to counteract those [misconceptions].”

One day Biluck says he was casually looking through the list of buses required to retire. In New Jersey, C-chassis buses must go into mandatory retirement after 12 years of use. As Biluck was perusing the list, he says, “There was No. 74. The bus didn’t really have a name, although over the years the kids called it ‘the bean bus.’ Now those kids are 21, 22 and 23 years old. I hope they remember how progressive this was for the time.” After its pioneering use as the nation’s first biodiesel-powered school bus, old No. 74 will be either sold at auction or traded in for a new bus. But the impact yellow school bus No. 74 has had is still being felt. “Several hundred municipalities in the area have begun to incorporate biodiesel into their systems,” Biluck says, “I mean snow removal, buses, you name it, with no down time, no significant damage.” 

“This is a great biodiesel success story,” says Chuck Myers, a soybean farmer and vice chair of the United Soybean Board. “The Medford Public School District in New Jersey is a great example of how incorporating biodiesel into fuel programs can result in great benefits for everyone involved. Biodiesel is a fuel every American can get behind.”

The Medford board of education’s biodiesel experience was “sort of a springboard, if you will,” Biluck says. "It created a whole new experience and really taught us about the benefits of sustainable technology and renewable energies—to improve the bottom line, improve the environment and reduce energy dependence. Biodiesel opened our eyes to that.”

The board of education has a $22 million solar project (3 megawatts) underway that’s been funded entirely by private investors, which will help realize a $7.2 million savings over 15 years for the tax payer. “This reduces money for utilities, money that’s realigned back into the classroom for instruction,” he says. “There’s government assistance to help get over those higher upfront costs, and the long-term benefits are really cost reductions. There’s significant opportunity for all types of renewable energy here now, and it all started with biodiesel.”

Author: Ron Kotrba
Editor, Biodiesel Magazine
(701) 738-4942

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