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.

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