Getting Past the Cost of Saving Fuel

Truck auxiliary power units curb diesel waste, but the price tag can be a hurdle.

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Sometimes it's hard to get past the upfront cost of saving fuel.

Since I've been writing a lot about truckers, let's look at the new technology that is beginning to help them end the enormous waste of diesel that they burn while standing still. Truckers are required by federal regulations to take rest periods, meaning many long-haul drivers idle their rigs for hours to keep heat, air conditioning, radio, or TV on while they are at roadside stops. Also, they can be stuck in idle for long periods of time at docks or other loading sites.

It's estimated that more than 1 billion gallons of diesel fuel are burned annually in the United States by trucks that are standing still. That's 11 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions per year.

But auxiliary power units, or APUs, also known as idle reduction systems, that have come on the market are starting to take a bite out of that waste. These allow the trucker to run electricity in the sleeper compartment without idling the engine. The units that are fueled by diesel typically use one tenth the fuel that is consumed by truck idling. Some states and cities are beginning to require trucks to have APUs.

But the upfront cost of $6,000 to $10,000 for an APU (the higher end is for the units that run on batteries and don't use diesel fuel at all) is a stumbling block for many drivers and their companies. Adding to the burden is a 12 percent federal excise tax that is slapped on any heavy equipment installed in a tractor within its first six months of service—money that goes to the federal highway fund. The American Trucking Associations has asked the government to suspend collection of the tax on APUs to spur more truckers to make the investment in the fuel-saving equipment.

In the meantime, the Environmental Protection Agency's SmartWay Transport Partnership just unveiled a new Web-based financing clearinghouse to provide information on federal grants and state incentive programs that can help.

But consider this: For long-haul drivers who have a lot of idle time, an APU can save 1,900 gallons of diesel fuel each year. With diesel fuel at $4 per gallon, that's $7,600 a year that wouldn't be wasted on idling. Even a high-end unit, including the federal excise tax, would pay for itself in fuel savings within 18 months for those truckers if diesel prices stay this high. Obviously, the payback is longer for trucks that don't have as much idle time. And many of those smaller operators fear that if diesel prices stay this high, then well within 18 months they will be out of business.