Home - Clean & Back - Day 18

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Day 18, Wednesday 19 August 1998

This turned out to be a day when it was necessary to be adaptable! (Apologies in advance for the pun...) I got on the road before dawn, driving through west Iowa in the morning mist until it burned off and I had a nearly cloudless sky overhead. Considering how much overcast I've seen in the eastern half of the country, I had been getting worried that my "driver's tan" (left arm below the shirtsleeve) was going to fade!

I made three fueling stops today; the first was in Omaha, NE, at the Metropolitan Utilities District fleet yard. Their compressed natural gas station is built around a very old compressor that takes a lot of attention to keep it running, but they have broken ground for a new, modern refueling station elsewhere at their facility. Lynn Wegehaupt, Dee Metzger, and Mary Mollner arranged my visit, and Jim Becker, who does their vehicle conversions, gave me a walkabout of their CNG vehicles after he filled up my van. He has converted around two dozen over the last several years, and this year alone they purchased about that many from the automakers, so this fleet has a substantial committment to CNG vehicles. And with that new station going in, they are ready and willing to fuel other fleets' or individuals' vehicles!

CNG van in Omaha

I wanted to show photos of some of the more unusual vehicles he converted for them; this is a Dodge van a little older than mine that has a large CNG tank on the roof! This leaves the underbody for a gasoline tank so it can run on both fuels (factory bi-fuel vans typically have smaller CNG capacity in multiple small tanks slung under the body in addition to the stock gasoline tank). He has also converted large crew trucks, like this one:

CNG crew truck in Omaha

Note that the utility box is not right behind the cab, as is usual--you can see the CNG tanks stored in the gap, nicely out of the way yet accessible. He says a big-engined, fuel-thirsty vehicle like this is a good candidate for a commercial fleet to convert because it will pay for itself rapidly with fuel-cost savings. There were also a bunch of CNG-only (dedicated) and bi-fuel pickups and vans in the yard that had been bought this year; you can get one of those from just about any Ford or GM/Chevy dealer yourself, and Dodge will be back for 1999...

Next I drove to Hastings, NE, departing I-80 for US Highway 281/34. The KN Energy station there requires a NATURAL Fuels Corporation fuelcard; I was going to pick one up tomorrow in Denver, but when I decided to route through Nebraska rather than Kansas City, Kim McKenzie of NATURAL mailed the card to the hotel where I stayed last night in Des Moines, IA! Thanks very much; it was useful today, and will be even more so as I go through Colorado the next couple of days.

I did encounter one glitch in Hastings. With gasoline, the refueling ports and nozzles have long been standardized, so any filling station can refuel any vehicle; with electric vehicles, by contrast, there is still an ongoing battle over recharging-equipment standards, with any given vehicle compatible with (at most) some common chargers and not others. With CNG, the situation is between these two extremes; any of the vehicles you buy from a major manufacturer these days will have what is called an NGV-1 fueling connector (a quick-release high-pressure coupling, as pictured on the home page of this website), but there are stations out there that still have fittings for other standard couplers. These tend to be at locations where most of the vehicles that refuel there are from one fleet; once they have settled on the older standard, possibly years ago, why should they change everything over if they don't expect to see a lot of NGV-1 vehicles coming through? (San Diego Gas and Electric did in fact make that changeover a couple of years back; it was a big job, changing nozzles on all their dispensers and fueling ports on all their customers' vehicles!) If you go to a station with nozzles that don't match your vehicle, however, you can still refuel using an adapter like the one in the photo below, attached to my van's refueling port.

NGV-1 to Hansen adapter

The trick is to make sure that there's an adapter there when you need it! Bill Fairbairn got burned one time while driving Cleanest Across America; fortunately, NATURAL was able to ship an adapter to him the same day on an eastbound truck. He lent this adapter to me; it's the one in the picture. You attach the blue push-pull fitting to the vehicle's NGV-1 port and the Hansen refueling nozzle to the other end (Hansen is the most common older standard--there's an even older one called Probe, which I've also seen on this journey). I was told that KN Fuels had an adapter, but it was locked up and there wasn't anybody around when I got there, so I was lucky I had one with me! Thanks again, Bill.

I had one embarrassing glitch at this stop, as I noted above. When you finish refueling and shut off the dispenser, there's still high-pressure natural gas in the fuel hose, nozzle, and vehicle port. The last step before you disconnect the nozzle is to turn a valve and vent this pressure from the hose and nozzle; this pressure drop causes the vehicle port to seal itself shut and the nozzle to unseal from the port, so you can disconnect and drive away. However, once I disconnected the nozzle from the adapter, I found that there was still high pressure inside the adapter, and I couldn't get it off my van because there was no vent valve on the adapter itself! This wasn't critical, but I didn't want that valuable, borrowed piece of hardware rattling around in my slipstream. Eventually, I closed the main valves on all four of my tanks (sealing the high-pressure fuel inside them) and ran the engine at idle for a minute or two to use up all the fuel in the lines; when the line pressure had been relieved thus, there was no force holding the adapter tight to the fueling port and I removed it easily. Inelegant and somewhat embarrassing, but easily avoidable, as I learned at my next stop.

entering Kansas

After reopening the valves on my fuel tanks, I drove on along US Highways 6/34 and 183 to Hays, KS. On reviewing what I wrote in the northeast about a week ago, I guess I sounded pretty negative about what William Least Heat Moon calls "Blue Highways", the smaller highways (colored blue on some old maps) that aren't part of the Interstate system. I guess the trick is that you don't go on them with the expectation that you're going to be keeping an Interstate kind of a timetable as I was trying to do; their more ambulatory pace was, in fact, the point of the journey in his book "Blue Highways". Certainly, I saw some nice scenery along them! However, in the Midwest, where these roads wind less and have smaller upgrades and downgrades, you can make good time and still enjoy the view.

I saw even fewer vehicles on the road to Hays than I had in the Mojave desert and the high plains, largely because the big rigs don't seem to use this route much at all. However, I didn't get nearly the feeling of loneliness I did in the southwest at the beginning of this journey, because even if you don't see people or vehicles or buildings, the evidence of humanity doesn't stop at the roadside: "amber waves of grain" stretch to the horizon in all directions. The sunflower on the sign in the photo above isn't just for show, by the way; as soon as I crossed the state line I started seeing fields of sunflowers as well as wheat and whatever it is they grow for cattle fodder that sits in those huge cylindrical "bales" in the fields once it's harvested. I also started seeing big rocker crude-oil pumps, of the kind I have long associated with Oklahoma (from my childhood journeys there); there must be a difference of laws or something between Kansas and Nebraska for them to be present on one side of the state line but not the other.

Hays, KS

Once I got to Hays, I pulled into Midwest Energy, Inc. Their station is regularly used almost exclusively by their own fleet (there's one college student in town with a bi-fuel car--good going!), so it is among the stations that hasn't converted from Hansen to NGV-1 nozzles--and they didn't have an adapter. Double thanks to Bill Fairbairn for lending me his! John Sjoholm (in the photo above), who arranged my visit and filled me up, showed me what I had done wrong in Hastings: once you turn the vent valve to relieve pressure in the hose, the nozzle, and the adapter, you have to remove the adapter from the vehicle and then the nozzle from the adapter! I had removed the nozzle from the adapter first. I still don't quite see why it works this way (some gearhead I am!), but I'll remember in the future if I need to use the adapter again.

When I began laying out the route for "Clean Across America And Back", and realized that I was going to have to stretch the limits of my range between refuelings, some of my friends suggested I bring along a five-gallon gas bottle so I could go get fuel and connect it to my van if I ran out. I had to explain that that works for propane (LPG) vehicles, but not CNG. However, the small cylinder John Sjoholm is holding in the photo above is something I could use for this purpose! It's a bottle that they use to provide a supply of natural gas (with pressure regulated down from 2000 pounds per square inch in the bottle to a fraction of a PSI at the connector!) when they disconnect a gas meter at a customer's building, so that the customer doesn't lose gas service while they work on the meter and the outside supply line. They can also give this kind of a "transfusion" directly from the tanks of a CNG vehicle! I wonder if I could plumb a barbecue grill into my van's fuel system...

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new 19 August 1998, revised 20 August 1998