Man sees future in personal natural-gas fuel pumps - East Valley Tribune: Living Green

Man sees future in personal natural-gas fuel pumps

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Posted: Saturday, October 1, 2011 9:45 pm

Paul Gianakas saw a business opportunity in the cars of the future. To finance it, he had to part with cars of the past.

His 1965 Chevrolet El Camino left the garage and never came back. His 1968 Ford Mustang moved on to greener driveways.

The sale of those two hot rods and several others helped raise the $100,000 Gianakas needed to launch Ecofriendly LLC, a 3-year-old company in Gibsonia, Pa., meant to capitalize on a future of natural gas-fueled cars.

Ecofriendly installs personal pumps that unload compressed natural gas (CNG) into equipped vehicles, often installing the pump next to the car in an owner's garage. The option of at-home fueling comes at a time when enthusiasm for the cheaper fuel is undercut by a lack of infrastructure and significant upfront costs.

In 2008, Gianakas started to see an alchemy of factors setting the stage for his new business: enthusiasm for natural gas ballooned, the price of gasoline went up and took drivers' tempers with it; and the CNG car market began to develop on the West Coast.

Gianakas, who co-owns a construction company in addition to being Ecofriendly's president, sold his hot rods and started reading everything he could find on the CNG market: reports on natural gas reserves, how-to conversion articles, even bills before Congress touting the energy source.

About one-quarter of America's overall energy use comes from natural gas, but only about one-tenth of 1 percent is used for transportation fuel, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.

The company has so far sold eight units and expects both to turn a profit and open a Philadelphia office by the end of the year.

Part of the boost comes courtesy of companies such as EQT Corp. and Giant Eagle, both of which have opened regional public fueling stations for CNG vehicles.

The stations serve as security for customers worried about being stranded if their at-home unit breaks down, said Gianakas.

"They can use the public stations as a back-up," he said.

The at-home pumps operate much like a traditional gasoline fueling station. A hose from the pump clips into the gas casket and starts fueling once a button is pushed on the console. Smaller units fill at a rate of about 0.9 gallons per hour, and larger units can quadruple that rate.

"Most usually leave it running overnight," said Gianakas.

An at-home gas pump might not seem like the most aesthetically pleasing choice -- or the safest. The smaller, indoor units are as big as a carry-on suitcase and can be installed to hang on the wall. The units have a built-in leak detector that automatically shuts the pump down if a nick in the line is detected. A methane detector is also attached and, if any bit of the noxious gas escapes, the pump shuts down and an exhaust system kicks on.

And just in case: The gas tank inside a CNG car is bulletproof.

The natural gas used by Ecofriendly pumps is the same fuel that comes into the house to run the furnace, so the charge shows up on the gas bill.

All things considered, Gianakas pays about $1.15 per "gasoline gallon equivalent," which is the measurement with the same energy content as a gallon of traditional gasoline.

The fuel price can be tempting at a time when traditional gasoline prices hover near $4 per gallon, but the move to a CNG vehicle carries some heavy upfront costs.

A personal pump from Ecofriendly costs between $5,000 and $7,000. Converting a regular gasoline car to run on CNG can run up to $12,000 per vehicle -- though government tax credits can kick in and refund a majority of the expense.

The Honda Civic GX, still the only commercially available CNG car on the market, has a base price of nearly $26,000 -- or about $10,000 more than its more traditional counterpart.

It gets about 25 miles per gallon in the city and between 32 and 35 miles per gallon on the highway.

Robert Krile of Chicora, Pa., has a shallow well on his 32 acres that has provided gas to his home and trailer for nearly six years. An Ecofriendly pump was installed earlier this summer.

He expects to have his 2006 Jeep and 2004 Ford F-150 pickup truck converted in the next month or so. With the help of some mechanics he knows and an online tutorial, he plans to convert the cars himself.

"I'm mechanically inclined," he said. "I watched a video and I don't think it's that difficult."

Increased attention from lawmakers and a push for more pumping stations will inevitably raise the CNG profile, said Murry Gerber, former chairman and chief executive officer at EQT Corp.

Right now, running cars on CNG seems like a well-kept secret, Gerber, and the few who know it can seem like a close-knit fraternity.

That should change, he said, as the "will to create the infrastructure of stations" continues. There are about 830 CNG stations across the country, or about one for every five conventional gas stations, according to the Department of Energy.

Gerber's CNG ride of choice is a reconfigured Hummer, resplendently covered in a red, white and blue film that reads, "I'm a natural gas powered vehicle."

The Hummer, not exactly known for its fuel efficiency, might be an unconventional choice to run on CNG fuel. Gianakas is working on an unconventional CNG ride himself: He's started work on converting his 1971 Chevy truck.

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