The Schwan's Man (Hopefully) Cometh

A GMC C6500 Top Kick delivery truck is loaded at the Marshall, Minnesota Schwan's depot
Photo: Schwan's Home Service
We've been hearing a lot this winter about the shortage of propane fuel. Since November of 2013 the experts have been warning us that winter supplies of the fuel could dip below ideal levels thanks to a wet growing season, which required the large-scale use of propane-fired heaters to dry out the crop after the fall corn harvest. With a prolonged winter cold snap throughout many parts of the U.S. in early 2014, demand for propane has grown and suppliers can't seem to keep up. There have been allegations of price gouging as a result, as well as stories of people freezing to death because their propane heating supply ran out. The worry over the lack of home heating fuel has prompted governors of several Midwestern states to lobby the federal government for assistance, which they received in the form of $14 million in Low Income Home Energy Assistance funds. Other measures to help ease the squeeze at the statewide level include the easing of regulations on interstate propane purchases, and relaxed mileage rules for propane truck drivers. One way or another it seems, we will make it through the bitter winter and the propane dilemma will be one for the history books. 

Or will it?

Propane isn't just for the BBQ grill these days. There's a whole lot more to the world of propane than many consumers may realize. It powers forklifts, floor cleaners, refrigerators and even the local Schwan's frozen food trucks that pass through your neighborhood every other week. Yes, the trucks that bring delicious raspberry ice cream and zesty jalapeno bites to your on propane! Let's just hope the friendly delivery drivers aren't affected by this current LPG crunch because we need our popcorn chicken. Here's the story of Schwan's and why they made the switch to propane.

The Promise of Propane as a Motor Vehicle Fuel

A ball & stick 3-D model of Propane molecule ( C3H8)

Photo: UCLA  Department of Chemistry & Biochemistry

Propane ( C3H8) is also known as LPG, for liquefied petroleum gas, because it’s a byproduct of petroleum refining. Propane also occurs in “wet” natural gas as it’s extracted from the ground, and a large majority of propane fuel is now made from the natural gas extraction process. As a fuel for home heating appliances, grills and stoves...its ideal. As an industrial fuel it works well, too since it can be burned indoors due to the fact that once combusted, it emits only CO2 and water vapor. But it also is useful as a fuel for refrigeration and a fuel for motor vehicles...something the Schwan Food Company of Marshall, Minnesota has taken advantage of since 1974.


During the 1973 oil crisis, fuel prices spiked overnight. Gas was in short supply and lines of hungry cars & trucks had to be turned away from gas stations before the pumps ran dry. Delivery companies with large vehicle fleets, such as Schwan’s, felt the effects of the gas crunch. In an effort to avoid a similar problem in the future, Schwan’s proactively converted most of their fleet to propane power in 1974. That meant a new fuel tank, a special regulator / converter to turn the liquid propane into a gas, a propane carburetor kit, hoses and related hardware. The payoff for all this work came in the form of significant savings in annual fuel costs for the company, and increased profits.

Savings Realized 

Photo: Schwan's Home Service
Today, company officials estimate a $7,000 annual fuel savings for just one LPG-powered truck compared to a similarly-equipped diesel truck. The extra money in the pocket of Schwan's has allowed the company to invest in growing its fleet, rather than refueling it. According to Schwan's, in 1974 there were 2,000 delivery trucks. In 2014, that number climbed to 6,700 trucks nationwide and some 75% of those run on propane.

While cheaper fuel helps the bottom line, the clean-burning propane is also easier on the equipment. Unlike gas or diesel, propane doesn't dilute the engine oil, which means more of it protects your rings, bearings, and other essential moving parts for a longer period of time. Oil change intervals of 25,000 miles are the norm for Schwan's, which jives with other fleets running propane and CNG or compressed natural gas fuel. There have been accidents related to propane, but just like any other flammable fuel source LPG can be made relatively safe to handle. Schwan's fleet employees refuel their trucks at night, and are trained in best practices to keep accidents at a minimum.

Schwan's trucks with newly-fitted Bi-Phase Technologies propane conversions.  
Photo: Bi-Phase Technologies, LLC

The Greener $ide of Propane

Another benefit of propane as a motor vehicle fuel is lower emissions, most of it being water vapor and CO2. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has recognized Schwan's Home Service a "National Clean Fleets Parter" award, the result of the company's long-standing commitment to the clean-burning propane fuel. Schwan's isn't just committed to fueling up with propane, they purchased Bi-Phase Technologies, LLC in 1999 in an effort to design specialized propane conversion kits specifically engineered to work with Chevrolet and Ford gasoline V-8 engines. Their patented technology injects the propane into the engine similar to a gasoline fuel injection system, keeping the Propane in a liquid state, which corrects many of the performance issues with earlier Propane conversion kits. 

Bi-Phase's patented propane injection kit for Ford 5.4 / 6.8 liter & Chevrolet 6.0 / 8.1 liter engines.
Photo: Bi-Phase Technologies, LLC

In 2009, the US Department of Energy awarded Schwan’s Home Service a $500,000 grant to retrofit clean-burning propane kits from Bi-Phase on their newly purchased trucks in the Texas service area. (There are other incentives for using alternative fuels, but that's a whole discussion for another time.) Going 'green' continues to help the frozen food company deliver on its promise to customers, and in turn, Schwan's is hopeful that propane carries through on its 40 year promise.

What's Next? 

Its tragically ironic that the fuel Schwan's switched to following the gas crisis of 1973, is now in short supply. There's no saying whether the weekly Schwan's delivery will be postponed or cancelled due to a lack of propane this winter, but the company in many areas is likely feeling the tightening of the supply shortage. Anecdotally, the local trucks are still out in full force. One was on our street just last Thursday...but I swear I hadn't seen it for a long time.  I emailed and left a voicemail at Schwan's corporate office asking if the propane shortage this winter would affect home delivery or the company's outlook for year but I haven't heard back as of yet. If I do, I'll post an update to this feature. Let's hope for everyone's sake (and dinner table) that this winter lightens up and we can get back to throwing propane in our food trucks, and our BBQ grills very soon. 


Links and Acknowledgements

UCLA Department of Chemistry & Biochemistry


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