Propane car

Propane is commonly used to fire up a grill and heat homes, but now it is also being used to power 12 JMU vehicles. In coordination with Virginia Clean Cities, the Office of Environmental Stewardship and Sustainability has recently completed a vehicle conversion program as part of a nationwide conversion project.

VCC is a coalition backed by the U.S. Department of Energy that was created to promote and facilitate an increased use of alternative fuels. With a government grant, JMU has been working with the coalition to increase its alternative fuel usage on campus.

VCC has successfully converted 1,189 vehicles nationwide to run on propane since 2009, which is the largest government-backed conversion project in history.

“Through this program over the past three years we have displaced 9 million gallons of gasoline nationwide,” said Sabrene Graves, director of grants administration at VCC.

And JMU did its part, converting 12 of its 459 vehicle engines to propane, two of which are JMU Police cars. According to transportation manager Kelly Sites, five more vehicles are lined up to be converted once the Environmental Protection Agency certification passes and some minor kinks are ironed out.

Graves explained two different forms of vehicle conversion: bi-fuel and dedicated fuel. Bi-fuel allows a car’s engine to run on propane until the tank is depleted before switching over to gasoline. A dedicated propane engine runs solely on propane.

“Dedicated is better all around because there is no gasoline being burned,” Graves said. “But our nationwide infrastructure isn’t up to that point yet, because unless you are driving around a very small radius, it will be difficult to find places to fill your tank if it only runs on propane.”

JMU currently buys bulk-priced propane for $1.79 per gallon, and buys bulk-price gasoline for $3.18 per gallon.

“It’s not just cheaper, but it’s less harmful to the environment and it runs more efficiently,” Graves said.

She said that the engines need fewer oil changes and tune-ups when running on propane, which saves money and keeps the money that is spent inside the U.S. since 90 percent of its propane comes from domestic sources.

“Fleets that have a hundred or more propane vehicles usually get propane per gallon for a dollar or less depending on the state and the number of cars,” she said.

According to Graves, the transformation of a vehicle from gasoline to the bi-fuel gas and propane combination requires a roughly estimated $5,000 transformation kit and $1,500 worth of installation.

Graves addressed one of the main worries people have regarding propane — the fact that it’s flammable. She said that propane tanks are bolted down in the trunks of converted cars, and in crash testing, cars have been totaled and the tanks have not exploded.

“It is no more of a hazard than your gasoline tank exploding in a wreck,” she said.

Christie-Joy Brodrick Hartman, the executive director of the Office of Environmental Stewardship, said that they coordinated with VCC in part to promote alternative fuel transportation and a cleaner environment.

“We strive toward having a ‘greener’ campus and recycling, which is what our office is perhaps most known for,” Hartman said. “But we also have other commitments to JMU.”

One of those commitments is educating JMU students, aiding in environmental sustainability research projects like the integrated science and technology project and community engagement.

But Hartman said that her office doesn’t put its name on the work it has a hand in completing, and that it likes to work behind the scenes. Her office started the ISAT/Hillside project that recently added the compost trash cans in the dining halls, helped place the solar panels next to I-81 and helped raise the wind turbine on East Campus.

“The wind turbine over on East Campus is a great example of how we engage with the community, and the Hillside project is an example of how we aid in research projects of JMU students,” she said.

Hartman said she collects data from all branches and departments of JMU and reports the data to the Sustainability Tracking Assessment and Rating System.

“In the past it has been very difficult to apply to the ranking system because it wasn’t uniform,” she said. “Now that everyone just applies through STARS, we are hoping to rank high among Virginia universities.”

Hartman thinks that the collaboration with VCC over the past three years will benefit JMUs ranking.

“I’m confident that we will rank highly, because we do a lot of great things at JMU,” Hartman said.

But she also said that where JMU ranks in the list is ultimately of no importance in the bigger picture.

“What really matters is that through this STARS system everyone who is applying can create a dialogue with each other about what they are doing at their university,” she said. “When everyone can share their ideas and possibly implement them into their own campus, we can take one step closer to a cleaner environment nationwide.”

Contact Mark Overstreet at