Growing Focus on Cab Comfort, Idling Limits Has Fleets Trying New Power Alternatives

By Michele Fuetsch, Staff Reporter 

This story appears in the July 23 print edition of Transport Topics.

In 2004, NFI Industries began outfitting its 900 sleepers with diesel-fired auxiliary power units to cool the cabs without running the truck engines.

By 2010, however, the carrier was ditching the diesel APUs for battery-powered ones.

“We were a very green-conscious company, and diesel APUs are still running on diesel and put-ting out emissions,” said Bill Bliem, vice president of maintenance for NFI, which ranks

No. 24 on the Transport Topics Top 100 list of the largest for-hire carriers in the United States and Canada.

Today, NFI, Cherry Hill, N.J., is transitioning again, this time to electric.

“We just bought some of the Navistar tractors with shore power in them,” Bliem said. “You can plug in anywhere with those.”

Like boats at marinas, trucks with shore power can plug into electrical outlets that are sprouting up at truck stops across the country, with one of the latest at a Sapp Bros. location in Omaha, Neb.

In addition to cooling the cab, shore power also allows NFI drivers to run their hotel-like loads, Bliem said of the televisions, refrigerators and computers that are now present in cabs.

NFI’s experience mirrors that of other carriers, truck makers and equipment manufacturers that are seeking efficient ways to air-condition cabs with the engine off.

Some carriers told TT that a decade ago it was not uncommon to find tractors with sleepers idling 10 hours, burning a gallon of fuel an hour.

“Your average trucking company in America that’s running a single operation without APUs is probably at 50% idle time,” said Royal Jones, president of Mesilla Valley Transportation in Las Cruces, N.M., which is outfitting its fleet with shore power.

“We all measure by idle time and the fuel consumed . . . but idling these new models is the worst thing you can do to them,” Jones said. “It’s horrible for the life cycle of the motor.”

Despite the summer heat, Jones said, Mesilla, which ranks No. 72 on the for-hire TT 100, had a 6.4% idle rate in July.

It’s taken less than a decade for fuel prices and emissions restrictions to push the trucking industry from unrestricted idling to cooling solutions that include solar power and, possibly, a nationwide electrical grid for truckers.

“It’s really been quite a phenomenon to see . . . and it really speaks to all the different dynamics impacting transportation today,” said Rhonda Zielinski, director of on-highway vehicle strategy for Navi-star Inc., Warrenville, Ill.

“Most trucks now have a five-minute idle [shut down],” said Landon Sproull, chief engineer at Peterbilt Motor Co., Denton, Texas. “Fleets today are pretty conscious of their fuel burn.”

Twenty-nine states have truck-idling restrictions, as do some municipalities, according to the American Transportation Research Institute. But idling restrictions, fuel costs and emissions issues may not fully explain the push to find the best non-idling cooling system.

New hours-of-service rules that require longer, more frequent breaks for drivers, also may be increasing the pressure on carriers.

“If you don’t keep your driver comfortable, he’s not going to be driving for you,” said Zielinski.

Plus, new federal safety rules are winnowing the driver ranks, said Bill Gordon, vice president of Bergstrom Inc.’s aftermarket sales and sales of NITE, or No-Idle Thermal Environment, Bergstrom’s battery-powered, nonidling heating, ventilation and cooling unit.

“We [made our] 10,000th unit three years ago . . . our 20,000th was last year and our 30,000th” was in March, Gordon said. “We’re probably at about 35,000 now.”

Technology for cooling the cab has evolved so quickly that Bergstrom, Rockford, Ill., already is offering a solar option, partnering with a firm called eNow Inc. in Providence, R.I., that makes solar panels for truck trailers. The panels collect energy to run the NITE cooling system and charge it, too, Gordon said.

Federal initiatives also have sped the search for nonidling solutions for cooling the cab.

The transportation bill recently signed by President Obama raises  to 550 pounds from 400 pounds the weight exemption for trucks with idling-reduction equipment. The government also exempts the equipment from the 12% sales tax on trucks and trailers.

The Diesel Emission Reduction Act administered by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has provided millions of grant dollars to help carriers defray the cost of buying APUs. And EPA funded a 2006 study by the Texas Transportation Institute that came up with 15 major interstate corridors that could form a truck electrification network.

More recently, the U.S. Department of Energy used economic stimulus money to fund a $22.4 million grant to promote shore power, which several trucking experts said is the future for cooling the cab without using the engine.

“Our focus has really been on how we move from using petroleum to locally produced electricity,” said Ed Owens, supervisor of hybrid electric systems and materials technology with the DOE’s vehicle technologies program.

“We see that electrification provides greater opportunities for petroleum reduction than APUs,” Owens said.

“The future no doubt — and it’s already out there in some states — is plugging in your truck,” said Jerry Warmkessel, highway marketing manager for Mack Trucks Inc., headquartered in Greensboro, N.C.

“The vehicles need to be spec’ed with shore power, and all the driver needs is an extension cord and he plugs it into his truck [and] into the power pedestal,” Warmkessel said.

Skip Yeakel, principal engineer for Volvo Trucks North America, also in Greensboro, said shore power will become standard once people understand it’s the cheapest way to run nonidling cooling systems.

“Electricity costs . . . average about 8 cents a kilowatt hour, so do the math,” Yeakel said. “It’s incredibly cheap to plug in, as compared to idle your truck engine or, for that matter, even run batteries, because they have to be recharged.”

Yeakel also said one of the best things the government has done to promote electrification is give the $22.4 million shore-power grant to Cascade Sierra Solutions, an Oregon-based nonprofit that for six years has been helping carriers take advantage of the DERA grants to defray the cost of idling-reduction equipment.

With the DOE grant, Cascade Sierra partnered with a firm called Shorepower Technologies in Portland that puts its electric outlet pedestals at truck stops. Half the DOE grant is helping the firm install its power pedestals at 50 new truck stop locations this year.

“Shore power capability’s been around for quite some time, but it’s not been available at truck stops or rest areas where trucks park,” said Alan Bates, the firm’s vice president of marketing.

“What we’ve done is really just create an energy vending machine system,” he said.

Truckers pay $1 to hook up and $1 an hour as long as needed, Bates said.

“We’re just now getting going in terms of our footprint,” he said. “We’ve got about 20 sites currently operating, and we have another 40 that are in some form of design or construction. So by the end of this year, we’ll have over 60 locations.”

The other half of the DOE grant helps underwrite the cost to truckers who buy nonidling cooling systems with shore power capability.

Building the necessary infrastructure for a trucker electrical grid is going to be “a tough row to hoe,” Yeakel said, so in the meantime, manufacturers are offering the latest technology available in idling-reduction equipment.

Volvo and Mack offer a nonidling, battery-powered cooling unit made by a Madison, Wis., company, IdleFree Systems Inc., which features a shore power option, although both truck makers said that, for years, they have put shore power connections on their trucks. Volvo also offers a battery-run system made by Dometic.

Navistar, which makes International trucks, began offering a proprietary, battery-powered heating and cooling system in 2009 that has a shore power option and is made by Bergstrom.

“It’ll be [on] 20% of our ProStar production this year,” said Zielinski, double the demand from last year, she added.

Peterbilt, a subsidiary of Paccar, and Freightliner Trucks made by Daimler Trucks North America, also offer the Bergstrom no-idling system, which they have also branded under names of their own.

Kenworth Truck Co., another Paccar subsidiary, does not offer a nonidling cooling system but, upon request, will provide frame space and electrical lines so customers can select a unit of their choice to be added at the dealership.

Another air-conditioning option taking hold at some truck stops has drivers park alongside a compressor column with a portable blower that fits into the cab window and pay for cool air as long as they need it.

One such provider, IdleAir, a Tennessee-based firm, recently announced it is equipping 100 parking spaces at 13 new truck stop locations.

Despite new options on the market, diesel-fired APUs are still available and selling.

“I think there’s a need for more than one type of device out there,” said David Orton, marketing and communications manager for Cascade Sierra, which used the DERA grant money to equip thousands of trucks with APUs.

California, however, may have dampened the diesel APU market there by requiring the devices have particulate filters because their small engines produce emissions similar to older truck engines.

David Hancock, whose firm, Hodyon Inc. of Cedar Park, Texas, makes the Dynases diesel APU, said the devices are still in demand, in part because they’re less expensive than battery-run, nonidling heating and cooling systems.

Battery-run cooling systems can sell for $9,000 to $9,500, and reach $12,000 when installation is included, he said. “Ours is around $6,000 uninstalled . . . around $8,200 installed,” Hancock said.

He also said diesel APUs are still selling because the electric grid for shore power is spotty at best, and in extreme heat, diesel APUs cool the cab better.

Both diesel and battery-powered APUs, including the Dynases, often have shore-power capability. Carrier Transicold sells a diesel APU with a shore-power option, and Thermo King’s battery-based APU is shore power-capable.

There are about 2.4 million Class 8 trucks on the road, according to the 2011 Trucking Trends report published by American Trucking Associations. It is unclear, however, how many are equipped with non-idling cooling systems, said Terry Levinson, senior project manager at Argonne National Laboratory.

“It’s very difficult to gather that information,” said Levinson, who publishes the National Idling Reduction Network News, a monthly newsletter that tracks such things as grant availability, federal initiatives and state idling bans.

Levinson said of statistics on nonidling equipment: “There is no trade association for the manufacturers of [the] equipment, so the only thing I can tell you is I just read recently that EPA estimates that 30% of longhaul trucks have some sort of idling-reduction system on them,” she said. “I think that’s a very high percentage, actually, if that number is good.”