POWNAL, Vt. -- Tornabene's Auto is diving into the liquid propane market by converting gas guzzlers to propane-burners, a move that is saving money and benefiting the environment.

Jody Tornabene, co-owner of Tornabene's Auto since 1982, had been researching the idea since last fall. Last month, he entered into a licensing agreement with Alliance Autogas, allowing him to serve as a fuel conversion center for all of Vermont and parts of Massachusetts, New York and Connecticut.

He started converting vehicles for his first client, the Bennington County Sheriff's Office, two weeks ago. Next week he is set to convert a few vehicles from Williams College in a trial run for the school's fleet.

Williams College did not respond to calls seeking comment on the matter.

Liquid propane, which is a derivative of natural gas, burns 70 percent cleaner than gasoline with a rating of 110 octane. In general it is 30 percent cheaper than gas. And because it burns so much cleaner, vehicular maintenance costs are also cheaper.

And most propane, about 98 percent, is produced in the United States.

"So we're not dependent on foreign oil," Tornabene said.

"I was somewhat skeptical at first," said Bennington County Sheriff Chad Schmidt. "But then they showed me the numbers and the conversion kit. When the fuel is cheaper and burns cleaner, reducing your carbon footprint, it makes good sense."

He said it is especially impactful for a police agency, as they leave their cars idling quite often for a variety of reasons during the performance of their duties. So cutting fuel cost and emission factors becomes even more important.

Schmidt said that of the 31 vehicles in the sheriff's fleet, 12 of them are eligible for conversion. The others are either too old or have not been certified for propane conversion by the EPA.

But converting 12 vehicles, Schmidt said, will save his department about $30,000 annually. And if the price of gas increases, the savings only goes higher.

"As that gap widens, your return on investment is that much quicker," he said.

And, he noted, when it comes time to sell the vehicles, their resale price "doubles or triples" because many other fleets run on propane and specifically seek propane-powered cars.

Conversion of a vehicle to liquid propane costs between $5,000 and $6,000 and takes about 15 hours. Technicians mount a pair of tanks, which total around 30 gallons, depending on the vehicle, in the car's trunk or under a larger truck. The fuel line is run under the hood and into an injector for each cylinder, while the propane system's computer is interfaced with the car's control module.

Once complete, the vehicle will run on either gas or propane, and the vehicle's range will essentially double, with the fuel capacity doubled.

In colder weather, the vehicle will start by using the gasoline, and when the engine heats up past 120 degrees, it will automatically switch to propane. The driver can manually switch from propane to gas and back with no discernible change in vehicle performance.

According to the Propane Education and Research Council, there are more than 147,000 on-road propane vehicles in the United States.

The U.S. Department of Energy reports that propane is stored onboard a vehicle in a tank pressurized to about 150 pounds per square inch -- or twice the pressure of an inflated truck tire. Under this pressure, propane becomes a liquid with an energy density 270 times greater than the gaseous form.

According to a report by smartplanet.com, the steel propane tanks are made to be puncture resistant, and thick enough to safely contain the pressurized fuel. Vehicles fueled by liquid propane have a better safety record than conventional gas or diesel in the European and Asian markets, where they have been common for some time. The website also shares a video of police officers in Georgia unsuccessfully trying to puncture a liquid propane tank installed in the back of a cruiser with handguns.

The Bennington Sheriff's Office also is installing a propane filling station -- for less than $15,000 -- at their new quarters on Route 7 in Bennington. Schmidt envisions the station as eventually becoming a common fueling point for other local agency fleets as they convert to propane.

"We figure that within four years, the conversion will pay for itself" in fuel savings, Schmidt said. "So with my fuel cost cut almost in half, and at the same time cutting emissions, how do you say no to that?"

Sgt. Joel Howard is driving what may be the first propane-powered police cruiser in Vermont.

"The car handles the same," he said, "but because of the higher octane, you can feel more power at the top end."

Because the payback happens faster the more the vehicle is driven, propane conversion wouldn't work for most people's private cars. But for fleets, the payback can come pretty quickly.

Tornabene noted that propane vehicles can refuel anywhere that a motor home can refill its propane tanks used for cooking and hot water. And Tornabene's has a filling station in south Pownal.

Propane prices are largely more stable than gas prices, so fleet budgeting becomes much more predictable, Tornabene said.

"This is a no-brainer," he added. "When it's about paying less money and being greener, it's an easy sell."

To reach Scott Stafford:
sstafford@berkshireeagle.com,
or (413) 663-3741, ext. 227.
On Twitter: @BE_SStafford