While South Coast motorists and business owners are paying about $5 a gallon for unleaded gas, David Sullins pays less than $2 per gallon of fuel for most his fleet of a dozen vehicles.
Eight of Sullins’ vans, trucks and sedans are powered by compressed natural gas, or CNG. That puts him ahead of the game since state law soon will mandate much cleaner fuels such as CNG.
Sullins said his CNG vehicles run on fuel that costs $1.50 to $1.95 a gallon.
“CNG is powerful and smooth running,” he said. “It’s 70 percent cleaner than gasoline.”
CNG is clear, odorless and non-corrosive. Although vehicles can use natural gas as either a liquid or a gas, most vehicles use the gaseous form compressed to pressures of more than 3,100 pounds per square inch, according to the California Energy Commission. Unlike regular internal combustion car engines that use unleaded gasoline, CNG cars, trucks and vans only need oil changes about every 30,000 to 40,000 miles. Most gasoline-powered cars call for oil changes after 3,000 miles of driving.
“The oil is still clean and yellow when it is changed, but we do it to replenish the chemicals and lubricants that come in fresh oil,” Sullins said.
At the Peppers Estate in Montecito, where Sullins operates a residential care facility for the elderly, a “Fuel Maker” is used to gas up his fleet. However, he also can put CNG into his vehicles at a downtown Santa Barbara fueling station at the Southern California Gas Co. as well.
“There are so few CNG vehicles that there is never a line and always an empty pump waiting. It takes about four to five minutes to fill a car, the same as a gasoline pump,” Sullins said. “The Fuel Maker fills about 1.1 gallons an hour, so it is often put on for an overnight fill at the Peppers. It is simply hooked up to the natural gas line coming on the property. CNG is the same gas that runs everyone’s hot water heater and stove, but pressurized to fit in a tank and hooked up to your car’s engine. Most people don’t know it is that simple. After some carburetor and engine computer changes, CNG runs the same engine in a car that was used for gasoline.”
Sulllins’ fleet of cars, trucks and vans are used to service his two senior residential care facilities and the student housing he owns on the South Coast. Recently, he opened the Peppers Estate ballroom as a day center where seniors are transported in CNG-powered vehicles.
“I bought the first one, a Dodge Caravan, in 2005,” he said. Prior to that year, many Ford and Dodge vehicles had the option to be powered with conventional fuel or CNG. “Only carbon dioxide and water come out of the tail pipe,” Sullins said.
Sullins touted CNG as safer than gasoline. If a CNG tank ruptures, the fuel rises and disperses, being lighter than air. A regular gasoline spill poses a fire or explosive threat and contamination into the ground.
The down side of using CNG now is that there are few filling stations on the South Coast.
“If it catches on, there will be more,” Sullins said. “And, I think it will.”
Oil industry analysts estimate that 100 years of America’s energy needs are available in currently existing domestic natural gas. Almost all of the natural gas used in the United States comes from domestic or other North American sources, according to the California Energy Commission.