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Having a gas. Or not.

29 January 2018

Our recent sojourn to Australia to drive the new Nissan Patrol Y62 also saw us experience liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) hybrid powertrains.

The Aussie government did, until recently, offer a subsidised LPG gas conversion for citizens’ vehicles. We had a spin in a Nissan X-Trail 2.5 4WD that is fitted with such a system.

Essentially, a high-pressure tank is fitted to the vehicle. In the X-Trail a 60-litre tank was fitted in the space normally occupied by the spare wheel. A filling valve is mounted just above the standard fuel tank filler. Virtually all filling stations sell LPG gas. The price is unregulated so customers can shop around for the best deal.

It works like this. You stop at the LPG gas filler station. You attach a gas hose to the valve on your car. There are no fuel pump attendants. It then pumps gas until the tank is full. You detach the gas hose, and head off into the shop to pay your dues.

Inside the vehicle there is a gas level indicator, as well as a switch to select between fuel and gas. In gas mode, the engine uses a tiny amount of fuel, to keep the engine suitably lubricated.

Of course, if you run out of gas, you can always switch to petrol again, and off you go.

What about the numbers then? Well, over a distance of 362.2km the Nissan X-Trail used a total of 57.89 litres of LPG. That equates to a sum of R1.21 per kilometre. If it had run on petrol only, and assuming the X-Trail used an average of 11.5 litres/100km, the cost worked out at R1.54 per kilometre. These costs were worked out according to Australian prices, where a litre of LPG sells for Aus $0.69, and a litre of petrol for Aus $1.26.

The LPG proved to be cheaper than burning petrol. Apparently the verdict about the impact on emissions is still out. Some studies claim that LPG (which is a byproduct of the fuel-refining process) has much less of an environmental impact, while others claim exactly the opposite. Time will settle that debate, I suppose.

There is also the installation cost to consider. Without the governmental subsidy, Aussie customers can spend the equivalent of R30 000 to R50 000 for the LPG conversion. Since there is a gas tank riding in your boot, filled with flammable gas that is under pressure, cutting corners on the installation is not recommended. Reputable installers issue an official certificate. Apparently an LPG system also needs to be serviced every 10 000km.

The vehicle has to be registered as an LPG gas conversion with authorities. LPG cars feature an identification mark on their number plates in case of an emergency.

What about performance? Well, running on LPG gas, a petrol engine is said to shed a few horses. So it’s a situation of win some, lose some.
So what about South Africa then? Since our Government can’t get its act together to introduce better quality diesel (10ppm as the national standard low sulphur diesel), how on earth will we manage a new infrastructure for LPG? That’s the problem, right there: the infrastructure.

In Australia, there is an LPG pump at virtually every filling station. Here, if you manage to fit an LPG system to your vehicle, you can’t exactly head over to your local hardware store and demand the gas tank be filled up.

Will it take off here in Africa? Well, it may take some years, but there is apparently a small revolution going on in the minibus taxi ranks.
A company called Versus SA Autogas has reputedly converted more than 100 Gauteng-based taxis to run on LPG gas and fuel. There are said to be two LPG filling stations that provide (Sasol-sourced) gas for the taxis: in Eldorado Park and Diepsloot. It appears as if there are plans to open more stations in the future.

If the LPG conversions prove successful in the taxi industry it may well spill over to the mainstream market, too. If ever there is a tough crowd to please, the taxi one will be it.

Time will tell then, if we’ll have a gas. Or not.

What do you think? Are there merits to introducing LPG gas in our market? Or do you reckon it’s all just a bluff and that someone is cashing in big time? Send us your views to [email protected].

Text and image: Danie Botha