Vince Martinez (left) and Barry Adams, both with Orange County, work with a Vactor sewer cleaner that runs on compressed natural gas that meets air quality requirements.
Orange County RDMD Vince Martinez (left) and Barry Adams, both with Orange County, work with a Vactor sewer cleaner that runs on compressed natural gas that meets air quality requirements.

For the public works department in California's Orange County, the move to alternative-fuel vehicles is no pipe dream. It's a reality and becomes more integrated into the department's standard operating procedures each day.

In 1997, California's South Coast Air Quality Management District (AQMD) adopted a resolution encouraging all municipalities in its jurisdiction to switch to vehicles using alternative fuels. AQMD's Rule 1196 (Clean On-Road Heavy-Duty Public Fleet Vehicles) now requires public vehicle fleets in its jurisdiction to buy alternative-fuel, dual-fuel, or dedicated gasoline heavy-duty vehicles. The rule applies to all government agencies, water, sanitation, or transit districts with 15 or more heavy-duty vehicles.

Municipalities like Orange County and its public works sector now must specify new trucks to run on fuels such as compressed natural gas (CNG), liquefied natural gas (LNG), or other alternative fuels, rather than diesel. Thus, manufacturers and suppliers of new mid-size or larger trucks, sewer cleaners, street sweepers, garbage trucks, and similar vehicles need to equip them with alternative-fuel engines. This has presented no small challenge for some equipment suppliers.

As a result, Vactor, Streator, Ill., equipped a 2100 Series combination sewer cleaner truck with two Cummins engines that run on CNG. The truck was put into service in October 2004, and has shown excellent results to date, according to officials in the Orange County Resources and Development Management Department (RDMD), which is the operations and maintenance (O&M) group in the county's public works department.

Vince Martinez, a power equipment operator 1 with the RDMD, and the other sewer cleaner/vacuum truck operators remove debris from catch basins, storm drains, streets, and roads, before it can reach the Pacific Ocean. With more than 50 miles of coastline, the Orange County public works team has a big job.

“We can't prevent everything from getting to the ocean, but we sure try to,” said Bill Tidwell, RDMD operations manager. During the stormy winter season, that often means long days and nights on the job, vacuuming mud off road shoulders, and dealing with emergencies such as floods and mudslides.


Tidwell and Barry Adams, RDMD O&M manager, have some definite opinions on the future viability of alternative fuels. Tidwell, who holds a master's degree in environmental studies and has been teaching college courses for 25 years, has been a proponent of such fuels since the gas lines of the 1970s.

“Current alternatives like CNG are a bridge to future fuels such as hydrogen,” said Tidwell. “I feel strongly that this country needs to move as quickly as possible away from foreign oil. Long term, hydrogen makes the most sense to me, but it won't happen overnight. We may be talking 20 or 30 years.”

Two of Adams' chief responsibilities are to implement CNG fueling capabilities for the county, and to determine anything the O&M department will need to adopt alternative fuels going forward. Currently there are seven CNG fueling stations in the county. More are planned for the southern part of the county. A new CNG station that will have public access also is in the planning and approval stages.

Regular maintenance on the Vactor's CNG-driven engines isn't much different from other trucks the department uses. “I'd rate the CNG's overall performance about equal with the two diesel-powered vacuum trucks we have,” said Martinez. “It's quieter when idling, and CNG is better environmentally.”

Looking to the horizon, Tidwell sees a bright future for alternative fuels, and his employees will be there to help make it happen. “Our people are there when it counts, and they make it great to work here,” he said.

— Ron Martin is a freelance writer in Fort Atkinson, Wis.