Award Winning Fleet Sustainability

Mark Swackhamer, CAFM

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.      




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