By Megan Quinn
The car that came through the gate of a large Midwestern scrapyard looked ordinary enough from the outside. Just before it went into the crusher, however, someone noticed something was definitely off. The distance between the back seat and the trunk was much wider than on a typical vehicle. When workers investigated, they found a compressed natural gas tank hidden behind a panel in the trunk of the car. “It’s under high pressure, dangerous, and needs special training to remove,” the company’s safety manager says. “It’s good we caught it in time.” Though the surprise fuel tank did not cause any injuries, the incident was a reminder that alternative-fuel vehicles pose unique hazards. “We need to get the word out,” he says.
Vehicles that run on gasoline or diesel alternatives, such as compressed natural gas, liquefied natural gas, or liquefied propane gas, are a small portion of vehicles on the market. Yet these types of vehicles are slowly making their way to salvage yards and scrapyards, where their hazards are easy to miss. When dismantling or processing vehicles, it’s important to watch for these hidden safety issues, says Terry Cirone, ISRI’s vice president of safety. Alternative-fuel tanks can be stowed in unusual places, and their contents are highly pressurized and flammable. “The last thing we want is for someone to put it in a crusher and it causes an explosion that sends debris flying,” the Midwestern safety manager says.
Alternative fuels on the rise
Alternative-fuel vehicles are not as common as gasoline-powered cars, but their numbers are on the rise, according to data from the National Fire Protection Association, which provides training on safe handling of AFVs. One reason for the growth is that some states offer incentives for fleet vehicles to run on alternative fuels to reduce carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide emissions, according to the Department of Energy’s Alternative Fuels Data Center. Illinois, for example, has offered incentives and grants for AFVs since 2003. The state recently updated its law to require 25 percent of state fleet vehicles purchased after Jan.1, 2016, to operate on CNG, LNG, LPG, or electricity.
Public bus systems also favor alternative fuels. According to the American Public Transportation Association, over 35 percent of public transit buses in the United States use alternative fuels or are gas/electric hybrids. Natural gas is the most prevalent alternative fuel used in buses, the U.S. Energy Information Administration says. In 2015, about 14,000 AFVs were on the road, and about 10,000 of those were heavy-duty buses that consumed 132 million gallons of natural gas, APTA says.
Many state agencies and public transportation entities made the switch to alternative fuels in the early 2000s, meaning these vehicles are starting to age. “The typical vehicle that ends up in a scrapyard is about 13 to 15 years old,” the Midwestern company’s safety manager says. That means an AFV purchased in 2003 might be coming to your scrapyard. Those 14,000 other vehicles aren’t far behind. The safety manager says his company, which processes both passenger cars and commercial vehicles, is taking note.
The problem of hidden AFV tanks has yet to hit Pull-A-Part, a self-serve auto dismantling company based in Atlanta. This is partially because the business buys passenger vehicles, not commercial vehicles or other heavy-duty vehicles more likely to have alternative-fuel capabilities. But Steve Levetan, Pull-A-Part’s executive vice president, says he’s keeping track of the trend. “We’re seeing a few of these, but not many, not yet,” he says. In Texas, where Pull-A-Part has two facilities, the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles logged just 1,276 registered LPG vehicles in 2017, which is just 0.01 percent of registered vehicles in the state. It’s still a 22-percent increase over 2016, and the log might not include vehicles with aftermarket parts converting them from conventional to alternative fuels. That detail raised his eyebrows, Levetan says. “The problem is, the number [of AFVs] used to be zero. So we know we’ll start seeing more as the years go on.”
Know the signs
One problem with alternative-fuel vehicles is that they don’t look that much different from a standard gasoline-powered vehicle. They might have a special sticker or placard on the bumper or on the fuel tank, but these are often absent when owners add alternative-fuel components to a conventional vehicle, Cirone says. “It’s easy to get these [conversion] kits online,” she says. Aftermarket kits can pose a hazard when the person installing the system doesn’t have the necessary training or uses “substandard parts,” NFPA says. This can make it harder to safely remove those components later on.
Aftermarket AFVs with substandard parts aren’t the only hazards. Standard AFVs can be just as hard to identify because proper signs might have been removed. Also, scrapyard employees might have never seen these types of vehicles before and don’t know what to look for, the Midwestern company’s safety manager says. As more of these vehicles reach their end of life, that needs to change, he says. Since the near-miss at the Midwestern yard, the company has started creating a training program so all employees can identify AFVs. “We train everyone when we hire them, and we train all the scale and equipment operators, so if [the vehicles] get through the gate and all the way up to the crusher, someone can still catch it,” the safety manager says.
Find out as much as you can about a vehicle before any employee touches it, Cirone says. When vehicles come into your yard, ask if any of them use alternative fuels or have been outfitted with aftermarket fuel sources. Fleet owners or dealers typically have a better sense of which vehicles might have alternative-fuel tanks hidden away or need to be set aside for special handling, she says. Be careful when a seller isn’t familiar with the vehicle’s history, she adds. “You won’t know what it is until you start taking it apart.”
The Midwestern company is investigating ways to check every vehicle’s vehicle identification number to identify whether it’s a hybrid or AFV, the safety manager says. That gives workers a heads-up before they even touch the car. “That process covers the cars we buy that were originally equipped that way, but unfortunately, we’re still going to have to rely on a visual inspection for cars with aftermarket parts,” he says.
When doing a visual inspection, look for unique badging that indicates a car might run on a fuel other than or in addition to petroleum, he says. Codes require CNG vehicles to have a blue, diamond-shaped placard on the rear bumper labeled with the letters CNG. LNG-fueled cars should have a similar diamond-shaped placard. These vehicles also might have an indicator on the dash, but it’s not required by code. The NFPA cautions not to rely on signage, however. “An absence of a marking doesn’t mean it’s not powered by alternative fuel,” it says in its training video, Gaseous Fuel and Fuel Cell Vehicles: Prepare to Respond. Instead, “assume any vehicle could be alternatively fueled unless proven otherwise.”
Alternative-fuel tanks could be located anywhere in a car, so be prepared to search in some unconventional places, Cirone says. In passenger cars, alternative-fuel tanks sometimes fit underneath the trunk liner; a doughnut-shaped “toroidal” fuel tank fits where the spare tire should go. In vans or pickup trucks, the tank might be in the bed of the truck or in the back of the van under a protective metal cover. Some might even be attached underneath the truck bed, NFPA says. Larger vehicles, such as municipal buses or garbage trucks, often have tanks mounted on the roof. Cargo trucks might have them tucked behind the cab, NFPA says. Keep in mind that you might not be able to see the tank itself if it is located behind a protective metal cover or in a cabinet.
Tanks aren’t the only identifiable feature of an AFV. Check for unusual fueling connectors and open up the fuel port to see if there’s a label that indicates CNG, LNG, or LPG fuels are in use, Cirone adds.
To remove or not to remove
Should you come across an AFV in your yard, stop and contact the supervisor, Cirone says. No one should move forward with processing a vehicle until a qualified safety professional has identified and removed all the hazards. The Midwestern company has trained several employees to remove the special fuel tanks, but they travel among multiple facilities and aren’t always on site when an AFV comes in. “If that person isn’t there when the hazard is recognized, we stop working [on the vehicle] until they can come,” the safety manager says. “If you’re not trained, don’t try and remove anything.”
He recommends reviewing your source-control plan to make sure it covers these fuel tanks and other sealed containers. Part of the danger is the high pressure under which the fuel is stored in the tank, which can propel a cylinder at a dangerous speed if someone accidentally shears or breaks off the valve, so avoid handling these tanks unless properly trained. “We have contractors that assist us with the cylinders,” he says.
Different types of fuel pose different types of hazards, NFPA says. Propane gas leaks can be dangerous because the gas is heavier than air and can settle into low-lying areas and asphyxiate nearby employees. CNG is odorized to alert workers of a leak, but it is compressed to up to 3,600 psi, making explosions a major hazard. LNG, on the other hand, can’t be odorized because the odorant freezes and blocks the system. LNG also has been cooled to minus 260 degrees F, meaning frostbite is an unusual hazard for this fuel, NFPA says.
Pull-A-Part has a set protocol for depolluting all cars before placing them in the yard for the public, Levetan says. “We inspect every single vehicle. Any contaminant or safety issue we identify, it is removed as part of our process before it ever goes out to a public area.” Employees drain the antifreeze, gasoline, and other fluids, and they take out car batteries. A professional also removes any unexpected fuel tanks and sets them aside in a safe area.
This isn’t just for the safety of customers who will be reaching into the vehicles to pull off car parts, he says. Any hazards salvage yards can catch now will help save lives once those cars go to a scrapyard. “We make sure these are removed so they don’t show up on the scrap side,” he says.
The Midwestern company safety manager hopes more scrapyards and salvage yards will start training their employees to find these hazards before AFVs become more and more common. “If we get ahead of this, we can hopefully prevent accidents,” he says.
Megan Quinn is reporter/writer for Scrap.
Learn more about alternative-fuel vehicle safety
The National Fire Protection Association has a series of training videos, handouts, and emergency response guides to help you identify and handle hazards from alternative-fuel vehicles. Visit www.nfpa.org/Training-and-Events/By-topic/Alternative-Fuel-Vehicle-Safety-Training.
ISRI Safety offers training handouts with information about AFVs, including photos of common fuel tank hiding places and a fact sheet about compressed natural gas, liquefied natural gas, and liquefied propane gas. Visit isrisafety.org or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
As alternative-fuel vehicles reach their end of life, ensure employees know how to spot their specific hazards to avoid accidents.