Fleet Operations Manager, Houston Independent School District
Mark, give us an overview of your fleet.
Our fleet consists of about 2,250 pieces of equipment. The largest portion of our fleet is school buses. Our school district has over 200,000 kids and we transport about 30,000 of them daily to almost 300 schools within the district. The largest part of the fleet is the school bus transportation side, but we also have a police department with 109 units in it. We have facilities, maintenance, over 700 pieces of equipment in it, and a food service warehouse. We are like a city of its own.
Congratulations on being named winner of NAFA’s 2013 ‘FLEXY’ award for Excellence in Public Fleet Sustainability. Tell us about the sustainability challenges you faced.
Our core business is K-12 education and it is very important that every dollar possible within our budget goes to the classroom; that is the most important thing. For instance, a city where their core business would be to make a safe, enjoyable, economically viable environment for the people of the city, a lot of times they may be able to spend extra dollars on emission controls or different things like that because it enhances their core function as a city. Consequently, our hurdles were that we had to find ways to reduce our carbon footprint, to reduce our emissions, but yet not increase the cost of operations and hopefully reduce our cost of operations.
And so it was a big challenge to find that happy medium. There are a lot of solutions to reduce your carbon footprint, but the ones that have to work within your business operations need to be cost neutral or at a cost savings; sometimes that is a challenge.
So what did you do?
To reduce our carbon footprint and reduce our cost of operations, or remain neutral on our cost of operations, we looked at a multitude of different solutions. There was a lot of grant money out there for our emissions reductions using tailpipe emission reductions technology, retrofits on vehicles. We utilized these when we could, then we started to look at alternative fuels: CNG, propane, biodiesel, hybrid, all electric, etc. Remember, the largest part of our fleet is school bus applications and a school bus application is kind of an interesting animal all on its own because they run in the morning and then they come back to base and then they run in the afternoon and they come back to base.
Our buses average about 15,000 miles a year so through a cost analysis CNG was not necessarily a viable solution for us. It would have actually increased our cost rather than decreased our cost. So after going through many different factors we went to a biodiesel blend, which actually neutralized our cost but decreased our dependence on oil, so that offset our petroleum use by 105,000 gallons of diesel per year. We currently run about 2.1 million gallons of diesel yearly.
Through some new technologies that are on the market with propane and liquid propane injection systems we started to bring propane into the fleet of about 1,000 school buses. We are running about 850–860 routes daily, transporting 30,000 students, so we started to integrate propane into one of our facilities with an 18,000 gallon filling infrastructure and 25 buses. We have expanded that; now we are currently finishing up, receiving an order of additional buses which will bring it up to 85 buses and then we are going to be purchasing more. The average annual savings for a propane school bus is $3117.00 per year in fuel consumption alone, and that is on a DGE (diesel gallon equivalency).
Do you have a sense for how your carbon footprint has been affected?
It has obviously been reduced. We are rerunning calculations at this time because we have new vehicles that are coming into the fleet. On the other end of the spectrum, on our non-school bus fleet, which we are running a little over 1,000 vehicles, one of the things that we have done is going to EcoBoost, the six cylinder engines, to become more fuel efficient. We are also bringing hybrids into the fleet.
We have GPS on almost all of our vehicles. On the school bus side it transmits all of our on-time and idle reports. We monitor idle reports and we report daily to the user departments vehicles that have excess idle time, which reduces the carbon footprint and fuel consumption.
Over the last year we have worked on what we call a “hard break report.” We are able to measure feet per second of deceleration of a vehicle and report on miles between events. This deceleration rate is a little harder than normal breaking so with this we notify drivers if there is an issue and then do corrective training if needed. This has let us change driver behavior.
We brought in a company who specifically designed an eco-driving training for our school bus drivers. This type of training is used Europe but it is not necessarily popular in the U.S at this time. The company did a train-the-trainer program and trained 16 of our in-house driver trainers. This past October we trained all of our drivers. We are running the program now and have seen over a 3 percent increase in MPG so far.
What does NAFA mean to you?
NAFA means everything to me, actually. Prior to working for the school district I worked for a company called CenterPoint Energy. It used to be Reliant Energy – same utility company. I started there in 1982 when they hired me out of Wyoming Technical Institute as an apprentice diesel mechanic. I went through their apprenticeship program and turned wrenches then moved into management. In 2003, I moved to the school district. When I was working on the floor for the utility company I remember people talking about MRUs, direct labor times and staffing levels. You would just hear a little bit of that was coming somewhere from upper management. You didn’t really know what it meant, but you knew you needed to be more efficient with your time because they were looking at how much time you spent working compared to hanging around at the desk doing paperwork, chit-chatting, etc.
When I moved to the school district, I had an opportunity to really make a difference and change things for the better. I then joined NAFA and started going through their CAFM program. As I was studying for the CAFM program I thought “that is where this came from,” thinking back to my CenterPoint days and the MRUs and direct and indirect labor tracking. Then it dawned on me that this had come from NAFA. Claude Masters, who is now NAFA’s President, was a supervisor at the utility company that I had worked for.
I looked at changing over to bio-diesel for probably six or eight months. I was trying to make the decision; I knew that I needed to do it. All of the price points were right, but what did I need to do to prepare? I went to one of the I&E conferences and discussed with many other fleet managers their experiences using bio-diesel and when I came back to Houston I knew exactly what I needed to do. We started using bio-diesel and we never missed a beat. The connections you make within NAFA are very important; the people here at NAFA are true professionals.
Mark has been in the fleet environment for over 30 years working in the utility industry and school transportation. He started his career as an apprentice mechanic after graduating from Wyoming Technical Institute in 1982. Over the last five years he has implemented biodiesel, propane, hybrids and eco-driving into the fleet and has been named as one of the Best 100 Government Fleets for the past three years along with winning may fleet awards including NAFA’s FLEXY for Excellence in Public fleet Sustainability. He has also presented at many school bus conferences and seminars (Texas Association of Pupil Transportation, STN Expo, Best 100 Fleet Seminar and Texas Association of School Business Officials) on the use of alternative fuels and GPS for identifying excessive idling and inefficient routing.