TODAY’S TRUCKING: The Family Fuel
When you run the biggest farming operation in northern Ontario, plus a busy 12-truck fleet, the price of fuel matters quite a lot. So saving even just a penny a liter is a big deal. And when you switch the fuel that powers your trucks and get an extra 200 km on a tankful, you’ve gained again.
The fuel in question is a B20 biodiesel blend.
That’s part of the story at Koch Farms and Koch Logistics in Earlton, Ont., about seven hours due north of Toronto.
Norm Koch runs this huge operation with the help of sons Rob and Chad, who share the operations load. Rob tends to deal more with another side of the business, namely with their grain elevator — and construction of same for other customers — while Chad hangs mostly around the farming end of things and looks after the machinery. But they all share the general load while, as Rob describes it, “Dad holds the gavel.”
It would be hard to define success any better than by describing what you see here. A thriving family enterprise by any measure.
And when I say “huge”, I mean it. Norm farms 11,000 cash-crop acres, not all of them owned. Asked about the farm equipment fleet, he says he has “a bunch of combines” by which he means seven of the giants. There’s also a pair of multi-wheeled, 400-hp Case IH Steiger tractors, brutish things that could probably pull a dozen tree stumps out of the ground at the same time. Plus more smaller tractors and other equipment than they can count.
And those monster Steiger tractors are using 200 fewer liters a day on the B20 biodiesel that Koch has been using for nearly two years now, supplied by FS Partners, based in Stratford, Ont.
That sounds like a lot but doesn’t actually mean much until you realize that fuel consumption went from 700 litres down to 500 right away. A staggering drop in consumption that’s been consistent from the start.
“We noticed that saving in the first two weeks,” says Rob, adding that they were astonished. Not least because all they were looking for was a cheaper fuel at a time when the cost of straight diesel had risen pretty high and was looking like going higher.
Nowadays, the soybean-based B20 blend that FS supplies to the Koch operation is about a penny a liter cheaper than ordinary diesel, but this past spring the difference was about three cents. Ironically, given that price was the initial impetus for the biodiesel switch, it’s now irrelevant.
“We don’t even look at the cost any more, because the other benefits are bigger,” says Rob.
“The cost of biodiesel is slightly less,” adds Norm, “but even if it was more, we’d be fine.”
THE TRUCK FLEET
Koch runs a small but always busy fleet of 12 trucks, including nine Kenworths, a pair of older Western Stars, and a lone Peterbilt. All future purchases will be Kenworths, says Norm.
For the most part they pull B-trains with their own agricultural products but they haul customer loads as well. Three of the Kenworths are 2008/09 models running 2007-spec Cummins 525 engines in front of Eaton Fuller 18-speed gearboxes. Most of the older trucks are Caterpillar-powered.
The trucks were not the target when the biodiesel idea first arose, though there was some concern about the lubricity of ultra-low-sulphur diesel, such that they used an additive to combat it.
When the biodiesel proved itself in the farm machinery, they switched it to the trucks as well. And given that the B20 is inherently more slippery than straight diesel, they were able to dispense with the additive.
The increase in fuel economy is real, though they haven’t measured it precisely. They’ve been consistently getting an extra 200 km on a full load of fuel, and all their trucks have twin 150-gal (U.S.) tanks. That’s about 1,135 liters in total. Not a bad gain at all.
Asked how he likes the biodiesel switch in the trucks now that they’ve had a little over a year and one winter with the fuel, Norm says he’s pretty pleased.
“Things have gone well,” he says. “The three newer trucks especially do well, it seems. Much better fuel economy.
“Our understanding was that the biodiesel would mostly help the older engines, with less smoke and that, but it seems to be helping the newer ones more.”
The Kochs of Earlton are doing just fine the way things are.
There’s lots of smart money betting on the latter “second generation” biofuels, but there’s at least one family in northern Ontario that doesn’t need to look that far ahead.
The Koch fleet had no issues with the new fuel this past winter, though the blend was changed from B20 down to B5 through the cold months. In fact, Tom O’Neill of FS Partners, who manages the Koch fuel business, takes a conservative approach to the fuel he delivers to the 45,500-liter tank in the Earlton yard.
“Everything’s been running fine on B20,” O’Neill says, “but I made the call last week to cut them back to B5 as we’re already getting into colder temperatures up there.”
He notes that another of his customers, Rainbow Concrete in Sudbury, Ont., is “very forward-thinking” and has actually been running its fleet lately on B100 biofuel — that’s essentially pure soybean oil, no diesel in the mix at all.
“We got them up to B50 in the summer of 2009, then cut them back to B5 for the winter,” O’Neill explains. “This year we went to B60, then B70, then B80, and then the last load was B100.”
Last month, the fleet had 10 days experience with the B100 non-blend and there’d been no hiccups.
“They’ve got me awful nervous,” he admits with a chuckle, “but they’ve had no issues so far.”
ONLY ONE GLITCH
Getting back to the Koch operation, they’ve suffered only one small glitch in their biodiesel experience, and it was easily remedied.
Tom O’Neill reports that last fall there was a mysterious algae formation in one of the dyed-fuel storage tanks used not for the trucks but for the farm equipment. It was a steel tank — the clear-fuel truck tank is concrete — but there’s no obvious reason why that distinction should matter.
In any case the 25,000-liter tank was emptied and cleaned aggressively and the problem hasn’t come back. Being his conservative self again, O’Neill was just about to head up to Earlton to do another cleaning when we last spoke in September. Better safe than sorry, he figures.
THE BIODIESEL FUTURE
For all the success that Norm Koch and his sons are having with biodiesel, and that’s clearly quite a lot, the fuel’s future is a little cloudy. At least as far as crop-based variants are concerned.
Biodiesel proponents answer one common charge — that fuel sourced from soybeans, for example, plunders food resources — by saying that the edible components of the soybean are left intact after the oil is extracted, meaning no loss on the food front.
But it may not be enough. For one thing, most folks agree that there isn’t anything like enough land to make these first-generation biofuels broadly useful.
There are indeed laws in place to promote their use, however, and there are many commercial-vehicle operations — especially some municipalities — that swear by it.
The feds passed a bill two years ago mandating a five-percent renewable content in gasoline by 2010 and two-percent renewable content in diesel fuel and heating oil by 2012. The source of that “renewable content” wasn’t specified.
Critics traditionally cite the cold-weather gelling problem and maybe filter plugging with biodiesel, but there’s now a fair bit of evidence to suggest that with the right fuel and with proper management, the winter issue is a non-starter. The Koch experience is but one case in point.
Tom O’Neill, biased though he would obviously be, is adamant about this angle.
“Biodiesel acts similar to ethanol in gasoline,” he says. “It cleans the walls of every tank and fuel system it touches so proper filtering is a must.
“The gelling problem is either too much too late or too much too early,” he goes on. “You must blend the product in accordance with the weather. If the blend is too high you will gel up, guaranteed.”
O’Neill allows that there have been some such problems in the company’s own fleet, which runs B40 and beyond, and in some customer trucks as well.
“I’m not saying we haven’t had issues but they have been very, very minimal and a high blend or a dirty tank was the problem every time and was corrected with very little hardship,” he says.
All of that said, the long-term future of crop-based biodiesel is not quite as strong as it once looked like becoming.
For one, variations on the natural gas theme have taken the spotlight recently and that’s likely to continue. But there’s been an enormous amount of research done on other “bio” sources — organic waste and “woody” biomass, for example, even algae-sourced oils for the longer term — and the requisite manufacturing processes.