Fuel Advantage: Big Numbers

It’s no secret that fleet maintenance managers are very careful about what they’ll allow in the fuel tanks of their trucks. And for every manager who confidently uses a biodiesel blend in his or her fleet, there’s another who won’t touch the stuff.

The reasons fleet managers stay away from biodiesel are varied, and, to the frustration of biodiesel proponents, not always based in fact. That’s why a consortium of Iowa-based biodiesel advocates launched “The Two Million Mile Haul,” a massive test of B20, a 20 percent blend of biodiesel, through two years and eight seasons of long-haul trucking, to try to put the myths and misinformation to rest once and for all.


“The purpose of the study was two-fold,” says Jon Scharingson, director of marketing for biodiesel supplier Renewable Energy Group (REG). “First of all, when we started this over a year ago—and even in the industry today—there was still a general lack of awareness of biodiesel out there, so we were certainly interested in awareness-building. Then I think there were probably some negative perceptions, some myths about the performance of biodiesel compared to diesel fuel. So, rather than just have anecdotal evidence, we wanted to have a long-term, quantitative study proving what we’ve seen in labs and in anecdotal findings of some of the benefits of biodiesel performance versus diesel performance in the real world over a long period of time.”

Those are some big goals, but this is a big test. Decker Truck Lines of Fort Dodge, IA, has dedicated 20 trucks—identical 2007 Peterbilts with Cat C-13s—to the test, running routes between Fort Dodge and Chicago & Fort Dodge and Minneapolis. The 10 control trucks are running on straight ULSD, and the 10 test trucks are running on B20 biodiesel from REG. The 20 drivers are dedicated to individual trucks (although the two groups of 10 drivers were flip-flopped after the first year).

Surprisingly, Decker Truck Lines is not a typical “early adopter,” and certainly not a fleet that takes risks. “We are probably a bit more conservative,” admits Steve Lursen, Decker’s special projects director. “We’re a little bit slow to change; we’ve taken a very cautious approach with new technologies.

“But we are in the heart of biodiesel production here in Iowa,” he says, “and our local economy is very much tied to renewable fuels, both biodiesel and ethanol. So, we’re looking to make a determination for ourselves, and we’re willing to share that information of the economic sense of biodiesel for an over-the-road fleet such as ours. Our goal is to break this down into a cents-per-mile analysis.”


With over one year and 1.6 million miles under their collective belts, the members of the consortium have already gathered quite a bit of information, and, although they will not make any definitive statements about the test results until the two million mile mark is reached, early indications are that use of B20 has neither revolutionized Decker’s operations nor caused any maintenance or operational difficulties. In other words, everything’s jake with B20.

According to Dr. Donald Heck, coordinator, biotechnology and biofuels programs at Iowa Central Community College, “I have the numbers through June, and nothing is really changing much, which is good news. Everything is working out pretty much as we have expected. There haven’t been any major changes since the last summary, which we did last October.” Think about that for a moment: that means the test trucks using B20 made it though a very fierce, record-breaking upper-Midwest winter without any surprises!

Does that mean it’s all been a bed of roses for B20? No. There has been a slight degradation in fuel economy in the 10 test trucks (which was expected), but, curiously, the variation in fuel economy between all 20 drivers is greater than the variation between the test trucks and the control trucks (which explains why the driver groups were recently switched). Ultimately, no conclusions on fuel consumption can really be drawn until the test is over.

Also, the test trucks have seen an uptick in the frequency of fuel filter changes. “Both groups occasionally have plugged filters, but we’re seeing more plugged filters in the B20 group,” says Dr. Heck. “Why that is, specifically, we have not been able to determine.”


Now that “The Haul” is nearly over, attention is turning to the question of engine wear. Because of the high lubricity of biodiesel, it is expected that the engines from the test trucks will exhibit less wear than those from the control trucks running ULSD.

“What we hope to find at the end of this test is a mechanical advantage with the use of biodiesel, and its lubricating properties,” says Lursen. “Injectors, fuel pump, valve train—we’re expecting to see reduced wear on those components.”

And that, in the end, could decide that “cents-per-mile” equation that is so important to Decker Truck Lines, and could convince a lot of other fleets that biodiesel is actually a safe bet.

For expanded coverage of the Two Million Mile Haul, watch for the Fall issue of Fuel Advantage, available soon at www.fuelpub.com.