Vehicles powered by propane autogas -- a bottled fuel consumers also use in barbecue grills and for home heating -- occupy a small but growing alternative-fuel niche, mostly for fleets of medium trucks, vans and buses.
Servicing propane autogas vehicles offers dealerships another source of business without a big investment, says Micheal Smyth, the assistant director of curriculum development and training for the National Alternative Fuels Training Consortium.
More than 185,000 propane autogas vehicles are in use in the United States, according to the Propane Education and Research Council. The group projects that figure will grow to around 220,000 by 2020.
Service technicians who are familiar with gasoline or diesel engines shouldn't have trouble mastering propane autogas systems, Smyth says. To work on propane vehicles, service departments don't need extra safety precautions or special tools or equipment, he adds.
Technicians need to be trained in the properties of the fuel, Smyth says. Although propane autogas is naturally odorless, it is treated with ethyl mercaptan, a chemical that has a smell often compared to rotten eggs.
Automotive fuel tanks for propane autogas are made of heavy-gauge steel, unlike the typical plastic fuel tanks for gasoline or diesel vehicles, Smyth says. Propane autogas gets from the tank to the engine via stainless steel fuel lines; once it's in the combustion chamber, it works like other fuels. Some vehicles can run on propane autogas or gasoline, Smyth notes.
"Any auto repair facility that's up to code for repairing gasoline or diesel engines is going to have everything they need," he says.
Although propane autogas is flammable, Smyth says that in some ways it's safer than liquid fuels, because it requires a certain concentration to ignite.
"If there's an unintentional [propane] leak, there's a concern," he concedes, but adds: "If you have a gasoline-powered vehicle and it leaks gas on the floor, that's a concern, too."