Home - Clean & Back - Day 2

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Day 2, Monday 3 August 1998

You seldom see rainbows along the Southern California coast, where I live; when we get rain, it's usually from an overcast sky with no opportunity for the sun to break through. As I pulled into El Paso this afternoon there was a brief sun-shower, and after I refueled and drove to my hotel a rainbow shone forth...


...which appeared to have its foot right about where the refueling stop was. That's kind of how I felt when I pulled in there, as if I had found the pot of gold at the rainbow's end! 321.6 miles is the longest I have ever driven between refuelings; I had maybe ten miles of range left. (I hope the photo above looks better on your 24-bit screen than on my 16-bit PowerBook display; rainbows are subtle things to photograph!)

The day began easily enough; the temperature was already in the eighties by 7 a.m. in Phoenix, but the drive to my refueling stop in Tucson was short, so I went close to the speed limit (I don't feel comfortable pushing truck tires at 70 mph too long--no offense to the tiremakers!) and ran the air conditioning. I refueled at a Southwest Gas Corp. site that was being refurbished, so the fuel compressor was off and the dispenser's gauges weren't calibrated--I probably got close to a normal fill-up, but we couldn't tell if it was a little short. Variable fill-ups are one of the quirks of compressed natural gas vehicles. With a liquid fuel you simply fill the tank to some standard level (full for gasoline, diesel, or alcohol, about 80% full for liquefied petroleum gas), and that gives you a standard amount of fuel in the tank. With CNG, however, the amount of fuel stuffed into the tanks depends on the pressure available from the filling station; a nominal fill-up for a light-duty vehicle is 3000 psi (pounds per square inch), or about 200 times atmospheric pressure (that's why the tanks are so sturdy!), but you never know if you're going to get less or more until you try.

I mentioned yesterday that I had an "ace in the hole" from the good fill-up in Phoenix; this took advantage of having multiple tanks. A "good fill-up" was 3400 psi (some places will give you up to 3600 psi, and transit buses use even higher pressures!), so since I didn't need to use the whole load of fuel to get to Tucson I closed the valve on the biggest of my four tanks and drove to my next refueling stop using most of the contents of the other three. Then, after I got about a 3000 psi fill-up in Tucson in those three tanks, I opened the valve on the fourth, which still contained fuel at the higher pressure, so that the system equalized at about 3100 or 3200 psi. This was about the equivalent of a gallon of gasoline more than I would have had if I had just filled all four tanks to the pressure available in Tucson. Every little bit helps...

I drove from Tucson to El Paso about half at 55 mph, half at 50 mph. There's a gentle climb out of Tucson through Texas Canyon at 4974 feet; I only had to drop out of overdrive for about one mile total out of the sixty miles to that point. Then things pretty much level out through the rest of Arizona and into New Mexico...

entering New Mexico

...so that you cross the Continental Divide at 4585 feet in the middle of a very flat high plain between the mountains to the north and south. (I guess when Bob Seger sang about "staring out at the Great Divide" he was a few hundred miles farther north, where the topography is rather more dramatic; I'll find out in about two and a half weeks!) There is a downgrade as you're going into Las Cruces, NM, which I enjoyed coasting down and hearing the speed of clicking of my fuel regulator slow! Next time I do this kind of thing, I hope they will have finished the refueling station they're building there; it will cut forty miles off the distance to the next refueling station after Tucson. As it was, I had fifteen or twenty miles to go to the Texas border and another 25 miles to get to the station on the far side of El Paso.

entering Texas

Sorry there aren't more pictures for today; stopping and resuming speed costs extra fuel, and I was watching the gauge very closely. Don't get the idea that I was sweating bullets, though; I had about ten miles of range left at the end of the long drive because I knew how much farther I had to go, and how much farther I could go (I am quite intimately familiar with the behavior of my fuel gauge, believe me!), so I adjusted speed and stops in order to match the two with some margin left. It might have been more artistic to sputter to a halt, out of fuel, just as I pulled up next to the pump, but a margin is there in case you have to cut into it! Actually, I did; when I rounded the big bend in I-10 at El Paso and came out of the shelter of the last mountains, the 5 mph headwind I'd been fighting turned into about a 20 mph head- and cross-wind! Not good for fuel economy, especially for a vehicle with as much "sail area" as my van.

The folks here tell me there's no particular time to expect that wind to start up or die down, so I'm going to leave early tomorrow in case I have to drive even more slowly to make it to Midland, TX. The distance is shorter than the long leg today, but the pressure seems to be down a bit in the El Paso fueling station, and a headwind would not be helpful. So I'm not gonna make like Sir Robin at the Gorge of Eternal Peril and holler "That's easy!" and then rush ahead. Non-Pythons can ignore that last sentence--it's an image that keeps coming back to me every time I catch myself thinking "well, the hard part's over"...

But before I turn in, I wanted to post some thank-yous. I didn't write any yesterday because I already had access to all the facilities I used that day, so the folks who are due thanks for that access are all on the general acknowledgements page for this website already. (I got a chance to thank my family in Phoenix for the visit in person, of course, but thanks again! I'll stay longer next time, I promise, and spend less time in front of my computer.) Today, however, Ed Hempelman and Tom Trujillo of Southwest Gas got me on my way from Tucson (and their company is the one that originally owned my van, and they took good care of her!), and John Reich, a.k.a. "Mr. Gas", of Southern Union Gas pointed me to the public (it even accepted my Visa card for payment, for pete's sake!) refueling station in El Paso. With regard to the whole Clean Across America And Back trip, Juan Vigil and co. of NGV Ecotrans in Los Angeles got me legal on short notice (old tanks, made before about 1993, have to be pressure-tested every three years--my add-on fourth tank doesn't require this, and you won't have to deal with it if you get a modern natural-gas vehicle) and checked the health of the CNG system; Mike Bolin of the Southern California Gas Company pointed me to NGV Ecotrans, and made several useful suggestions of questions to ask them for the checkup; and Jacqueline Zollar of the AAA in Torrance, CA worked overtime one Saturday to put together all my hotel reservations for me. Thanks to all of you!

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new 3 August 1998, revised 5 August 1998