Times They Are A-Changin’

Come senators, congressmen

Please heed the call

Don’t stand in the doorway

Don’t block up the hal

lFor he that gets hurt

Will be he who has stalled

There’s a battle outside

And it is ragin’.

It’ll soon shake your windows

And rattle your walls

For the times they are a-changin’.

Bob Dylan, 1963

It must be true: history does repeat itself, for these words, popular in 1963, are true today as well.

Times… they are a-changin’!

Though the media has taken a somewhat pessimistic view and headlines scream panic-inducing “facts,” what’s happening in the world is not always a bad thing.

Consider this: for the first time since Depression-era American, Americans are learning to spend what they can afford. I’m excited by the prospect of my sons living lives free of overwhelming personal debt. What a revolutionary concept!

We’re experiencing something of a paradigm shift in the bus industry too.

A new school bus manufacturer has appeared in the industry, experts are transforming seating compartment issues, and manufacturers build buses that meet strict EPA requirements.

It’s the last that I wish to address here.

Within the confines of existing equipment and regulatory issues, our companies can join in on environmental initiatives.   In my past experience as a school bus operations director, we used alternative fuels for a decade, since long before they were required. One year we conducted a non-scientific study by pouring fuel from three different sources into mason jars. We placed those jars outside on a picnic table and observed what happened to the fuel in the varying temperature. We learned several things:

1. The fuel distributor we use had the best quality fuel, and theirs wasn’t the most expensive of the fuels.
*The fuel remained clear the longest.
*The fuel took the longest to gel in the coldest temperatures.
2. Lots of interesting things happen to fuel in the cold — and in the heat. For example, the density and color change.
3. There’s a lot of bacteria in commercial fuel.
4. The fuel doesn’t often gel in the buses, but it could gel in the fuel pump (which is why we require buses be always half full of fuel).

I was oddly fascinated by the fuel experiment.

Fuel and emissions have caught public attention nationwide. I studied some California emissions information several years ago, and was surprised to learn about harmful emissions from school buses. There were some flaws in the California tests and the results were heavily skewed by the action committee that published them, but it made me think about our industry and how we wanted to steward the world.

Ultimately we enacted a strict no-idle policy, instructing drivers to super heat their buses while driving, and shut off the bus while parked more than one minute. What happens in the cold? Same policy. Buses do not heat while idling. They heat while moving. The manufacturer’s suggested idle time on cold mornings is five minutes. There is no reason to idle a bus and every reason to avoid it.

Any new policy meets with some resistance and this was no different. To date, I believe we’ve achieved a fairly consistent success rate with our drivers. They know to shut off their buses.

Two employees reported satisfaction about our policy.

“I drove for another company the other day,” said Matt, our shop mechanic. “It didn’t take me long in the morning to realize how thankful I am for our no-idle policy. I left the bus yard with a headache and feeling nauseous.

“A driver reported the same physical symptoms while parked behind a bus left idling in a special-needs loading zone at one of the local elementary schools.

I’m thankful we’ve done what we could for our drivers and our students. Yet there’s no way to measure how our small efforts have impacted our environment.

The federal government is weighing in with their own suggestions for emissions standards. The new standards don’t change our idle policy, but enhance the effort to reduce emissions. The latest EPA requirements have resulted in a newly-designed engine to be purchased in 2010 buses. The newly enacted standard limits emission of nitrogen oxides to 0.2 grams per brake horsepower hour from 1.2 g/bhp. The problem with the standards is they won’t significantly change emissions until all old buses have been modified or replaced.

We wanted a way to more quickly improve emissions. A year ago we signed a contract with Project Green Fleet to retrofit our oldest buses with equipment that will limit their emissions immediately. It’s been an interesting project. We agreed to participate for five years. Periodically we need to report certain information to the Project so they can determine how effective the equipment is. In exchange, the retrofit of our vehicles is free. I’m excited to have data measuring the improvements to show our drivers and community.

I read some interesting statistics related to reducing emissions in the March 2009 edition of the Minnesota School Bus Operator Association newsletter, The Operator.

School buses save energy and money, declares the president of the association, Thomas Hey (Marshall, MN). Here’s how:

    • Each school bus driving 12,000 per year consumes 1,715 gallons of fuel.
    • Each school bus replaces 36 family vehicles.
    • The 36 vehicles consume approximately 6,500 gallons of fuel for the trips to and from school.
    • Using the bus instead saves 4,800 gallons of fuel per bus per year, resulting in a national savings of 2.3 billion gallons of fuel and more than $6 billion.
  • For the teen driver, the savings is substantial. The average student living five miles from school saves approximately $686 in fuel.

Thus, concludes Hey, “not only are we the safest form of transportation, we are also the most economical.”

Safe Driving!


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