Kansas Trucks Go Solar to Save on Fuel

Dec. 1, 2008
The Shawnee Fire Department is planning to cut its fuel use down with a little help from the sun.

The Shawnee Fire Department is planning to cut its fuel use down with a little help from the sun.

The department is experimenting to see if solar panels placed atop fire trucks can power necessary equipment within the truck so that the trucks can be turned off while on calls, rather than eating up fuel while idling. After nearly four months in use, firefighters believe the panels are proving to be effective.

Fire Chief Jeff Hudson said the panels were installed in July after the department had been considering ways to help the city's efforts to become more environmentally-friendly.

"This dovetails right into the city's new idle policy and sustainability initiative," Hudson said.

Firefighter David Wolff read a trade magazine article about a fire department in San Raphael, Calif., that had started using solar panels on its trucks. He quickly got in contact with the department and asked more questions about what it had done.

Then he did some research to see what Shawnee's savings could be.

Traditionally, fire trucks are left running to keep the hoses from freezing in cold weather, but also to keep essential equipment constantly charged. That includes the firefighters' battery-powered flashlights, portable radios, thermal imaging cameras and most importantly, the Mobile Data Terminal, which gives firefighters all available information on an emergency call, allows them to look up information like hazardous materials data and maps and serves as a communication link with dispatch.

In order not to kill the truck's battery, idling has been a necessity in the past. But fire officials thought that as long as equipment could remain charged, idling wouldn't be necessary on warmer days for medical, investigation and other nonfire calls.

To determine the city's savings, Wolff researched the average number of days that the temperature was below 40 degrees each year for the past few years and did some calculations, estimating that if solar panels were placed on all four first-responder trucks in the city, it could save $7,000 a year.

"Once we got into it, we knew that no matter what the price of fuel is, the city's going to save money," Wolff said.

The department spent $900 from its equipment maintenance fund to buy the solar panels, which are made with a hard plastic face that can stand up to the elements and have a 20-year warranty. The firefighters did all the labor themselves.

"Once we got all the materials, it just took an afternoon to put it in," Wolff said.

Wolff said that they chose to install the panels only on Engine 71, the most-used truck, as a trial to make sure the panels worked as expected. The Fire Department is scheduled to replace two other first responder trucks in the next six months, another factor in the decision to start with only one truck.

But the panels appear to be working well enough that the department is looking into grants and other funding source to purchase more.

"It's looking like it's working the way we expected, or even better than we expected," Hudson said.

However, several factors, like the onset of cold weather and the always-varying number of emergency calls received each day, have made it hard to come up with exact numbers of savings just yet.

"It's hard to get the data that we've saved X amount of money, other than the crews out of headquarters that run this truck say they've noticed a significant reduction in the number of times they're going to the refueling station," Wolff said.

Considering the 20-gallon truck is refueled several times a week, recouping the costs shouldn't take long.

"If the data holds true, our investment would be paid off in six months for one truck," Wolff said.

Republished with permission from The Shawnee Dispatch

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