Thursday, November 22, 2012

Automotive Thanksgiving

Today is Thanksgiving Day and I have been reflecting upon the things for which I am thankful. Since my mind always runs through ideas related to the automotive world, I have come up with a list of things to be thankful for in the related to cars and trucks. Some of these things are silliness but most of them are genuinely good.

1.       Fuel injection: My thankfulness for fuel injection goes hand in hand with my thankfulness for the fact we don’t have to rely on carburetors anymore. When it’s really cold in the morning fuel injection helps your car run smoothly. Not having issues with silly things like a choke, and fast idle cam adjustment and that kind of nonsense is a good thing. When it’s really hot outside fuel injection helps your car run smoothly. Since fuel injection runs at a much higher fuel pressure, things like vapor lock never occur to leave you stranded out in the hot desert. When it’s wet and rainy outside fuel injection helps your car run smoothly. Air density and humidity are automatically compensated for in ways that carburetors could never handle. All of these things are completely taken for granted by just about everyone who drives. I’m sure old people, anyone who has been driving for the last 30 years or so, remembers the problems associated with carburetors all too well.
Injecting a bit of reliability
2.       Japanese Quality: What I am thankful for here are the Japanese cars that began to sell very well back in the mid 80’s. These cars were small and awkward, but were so reliable they won more and more market share every year. By the time the Japanese manufacturers started to design cars that were not just reliable but were also the size and shape that Americans wanted, they were selling more of these “normal” cars than the domestics. This higher standard that was introduced by the Japanese lead to the domestics slowly raising the quality of their product. When quality goes up across the entire market the consumer ultimately wins.
1985 Honda Civic with reliability that was so far ahead
of so many other things.

3.       European Quality: My thankfulness for European quality relates to ride and handling. Anyone who has driven a BMW or an Audi knows exactly what I am talking about. These cars are well built from the standpoint of being so nice to drive it is just plain fun. I am not sure if I can think of a car that has better handling characteristics and ride quality all wrapped in the same sheet metal than something like a BMW M5. The downside of the Europeans is that they don’t last as long as the Japanese cars, but then if you can afford a Mercedes E class, you can always sell it before it starts to fall apart and then you can go buy a new one.

2013 Ford Fusion
4.       Domestic Quality: Cars are so much better all around than they used to be, that even the domestics are building cars that last a long time. This is what happens in a free market. If you think I am way off base here in my assessment of the domestics, then name some models from the big three that were genuinely reliable and nice to drive from the 80’s or 90’s. They are very few and far between. Ford stands out in my mind as the domestic manufacturer that is really getting things done right. They are doing well building cars that people want to drive and that will last. Chrysler is doing okay too but they haven’t stood on their own two feet since the mid nineties. They are currently owned by Fiat, and before that Mercedes, so they will go as Fiat goes. GM is still owned by the government and the UAW so there is not much positive there, especially considering that GM continues to lose market share, as well as see their stock price fall.

5.       Power Sliding Doors: I have expressed my appreciation for this feature in the past but I cannot express enough how great this future is when you are a family man toting young kids around with you everywhere. This is feature only available on minivans and it is one of the things that make minivans so much better than SUVs for hauling your rug rats around.

6.       Natural Gas Vehicles: Here I go again pumping up the technology that I enjoy so much. My thankfulness for CNG all boils down to the low cost of the fuel. CNG is currently $1.60 per gallon where I live while gasoline is $3.60. I also love that natural gas comes from my backyard. My friends and neighbors literally work in the natural gas fields that surround my hometown. I am thankful that I don’t have to give my money to countries that hate me in order to drive.

7.       Platinum Tipped Spark Plugs: This is really thankfulness for spark plugs that last longer than 10,000 miles. The platinum and iridium tipped spark plugs of today can easily go 100,000 miles before requiring replacement. This means that cars and trucks are much more reliable today and require less maintenance.

The new Ford 6.7 Powerstroke
8.       Diesel Engines: I would be more thankful of course if we had as many diesel engine options here in the U.S. as they have in almost every other country around the world. These engines are so powerful and fuel efficient at the same time that using them more often would really make a tremendous amount of sense. The problem remains that most manufacturers are not quite willing to take a chance on selling these diesel engines in our market. They are getting pretty close however, and I think we will see more of them soon.

9.       Forced Induction Systems: Turbo chargers and superchargers are becoming more popular every year. This is good news for all. Not only are turbos good for making fast cars faster, but they are excellent for making normal cars more powerful with allowing them to consume less fuel. One of the strategies that many car companies are using now is replacing V6 engines with turbocharged I4 engines, and replacing V8 engines with turbocharged V6 engines. In each of these instances the cars on question have the same amount of power when it’s needed but use a lot less fuel when it’s not needed.

10.   Freeways: These are great for traveling across stateliness in order to spend thanksgiving with family. Nothing is better than hitting the highway in a nice running car and cruising to someplace that you want to go. The old adage that it’s not the destination but the journey that’s important rings true for those that love a good road trip.

 Have a good Thanksgiving. If you have a computer to read this from along with internet access, and electricity to run it all then you probably have something to be thankful for as well.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Getting on the CNG Bandwagon

Much has been said lately about compressed natural gas as a means of fueling light-duty cars and trucks. Most people compare the cost of CNG to the cost of gasoline and they want to get onboard the CNG bandwagon. Paying $1.00 to $2.00 per gallon certainly has universal appeal. So what is the best way to get into this world of low cost transportation fuel?

The thing that makes CNG such a great alternative is that it can be adapted to any gasoline engine on the road. The only problem here is that the hardware and software needed to make this happen must be certified by the EPA for each individual application. This means that if you have a 2002 Nissan Maxima you likely won’t be able to convert it to run on natural gas at this time because there is no certified kit for this application.

With a bit of research, i.e. a Google search for CNG conversion kits, you will find all sorts of companies that claim that they can make any car run on natural gas. This is true; they make parts that can be fitted to any vehicle to allow it to run on natural gas. The problem with this is not only are these kits not EPA certified, but they are often such poor quality that they are more trouble than they are worth. The software calibration is too generic and the car never runs quite right. Major power loss will be experienced; increased emissions, and chronically illuminated check engine lights will be common.

Honda Civic NG (GX). Plenty of used civics on the market if you
know where to look.
The other issue here that is perhaps more important than power loss or check engine lights is the fact that CNG fuel systems are designed to handle gaseous hydrocarbons compressed to around 3600 psi. This is a major safety issue. If the components are of high quality and are installed by a certified technician who knows what they are doing then there is no hazard. With this high pressure though, the potential for danger is high if systems are installed by someone who doesn’t know the safety standards that apply to the configuration and installation of high pressure fuel systems.

Many of these problems related to non EPA certified kits and improper installation could be remedied easily if the Feds would streamline the certification process and make it cheaper for CNG system manufacturers to certify their products. Oversight here is important but it should be a little more intelligent. Also, with more educational opportunities for automotive technicians to pick up the necessary skills to work on these systems we could move towards more CNG systems in the many cars and trucks on our streets and highways.

Honestly the most important thing to worry about when it comes to making sure that any vehicle running on CNG is running properly is what is coming out of the tailpipe. Is it possible to make non certified kits work properly? Yes it is. Can this kind of work be done by any shadetree mechanic or a mechanically inclined car owner? No it can’t. With this I would say that what we really need are laws that allow certification of individual vehicles and installations, rather than a blanket certification for exact makes, models, and model years. This could be very easily accomplished, especially in areas that already have emissions testing in place.

The state of Utah is a great example of a state that has taken action on this. They have laws in place that say that as long as the vehicle passes the emissions testing in the most populous counties then they are officially not going to worry about whether or not the kit is EPA certified. The installation must also conform to National Fire Protection Association standard 52, covering gaseous fuel system installation. Even if the kit is EPA certified, the installation must meet this standard in order to pass the Utah state safety inspection. Now how long will it be before the EPA confronts the State of Utah regarding this law is unknown, but it does show that some governments are trying to do what they can.

An older Chevrolet Cavalier CNG
So if you want a vehicle that runs on CNG what can you do? If you drive a late model, full-size truck chances are you can get a certified kit and installation pretty easily. You can even buy a CNG powered pickup truck through your local dealership in some instances. The vehicles that you can buy brand new with the CNG systems installed are usually referred to as having a factory conversion. The auto manufacturers themselves work with third party companies to equip their vehicles with some very nice systems that integrate flawlessly and can be serviced by dealership technicians.

The other option that is much less expensive is to find a nice used vehicle from about 10 years ago when there were many options on the market. The domestic manufacturers got out of the game of doing factory CNG conversions because they got a little preoccupied with keeping their factory doors open and not going out of business. Because the auto industry has stabilized a bit in the last year or two they are getting back into the CNG game. From 10 years ago you can find all sorts of trucks and vans and large SUV’s that are still on the road and with very low mileage. The low mileage results from the fact that many of them were part of some government fleet and did not get driven much.
2013 Ram 2500 CNG. This is very nice factory equipped CNG truck.
If you don’t want a truck you can find a nice used Chevy Cavalier, Ford Contour, or Honda Civic that runs on natural gas. The Honda Civic is the only CNG powered vehicle that has been in continuous production since 1996. This is a great car but it is a dedicated system so you can only run it on CNG and it cannot be switched over to gasoline on the fly like the bifuel vehicles can.

Good options do exist; check the classifieds in large markets like Salt Lake City, Oklahoma City, or Los Angeles. I mention these cities because they are kind of the epicenters for CNG powered vehicles. Oklahoma and Utah have a tremendous amount of natural gas, and the pipelines that run out of Utah head straight to Los Angeles. The public gas utilities in these places have also done a lot to build infrastructure such as fueling stations. Most of the residents of Salt Lake City and the Wasatch Front of Northern Utah live within a few minutes of more than one CNG station so they there are a lot of CNG cars and trucks around. The Utah laws regarding CNG conversions mentioned earlier also make this area friendly to CNG vehicles. This is a good example of how government restrictions and the loosening thereof can help the private sector to build flourishing market better than anything else.

Filling up at home would be cheap and convenient.
You can purchase home fueling units that install easily as long as you have a gas line to your garage. These compressors can fill your tank slowly over a few hours. You can hook your vehicle up at night and by the time you head out for your commute in the morning it will be full. These machines are rather expensive but the cost of the fuel when filling up at home is outrageously cheap, often less than .50 per gallon.

When buying a used CNG vehicle, make sure that the CNG system is legal and that it works properly. Run away from anything that has a chronic check engine light, or anything that cannot be verified as EPA certified, or a factory installation. Also be aware that most CNG tanks expire after 15 years and must be removed from service. Some classified ads will say that the tanks can be recertified. This is not true if the expiration date for the tank as listed on the manufacturers label has passed. Each tank must also be inspected every 3 years for safety reasons. These inspections will be listed on a label on the tank not from the manufacturer  These inspections are cheap and easy to get from a certified CNG fuel system inspector. 

So consider your options. If you want to experiment with driving a CNG vehicle then find something old and cheap and see how you like it. If current trends towards more CNG options is truly on the horizon then in a few years you will have even more options. With this, you too can use cheap fuel that comes from our own back yard rather than from some exotic foreign location. Cheap clean fuel is real, and you can use it too.