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Claremont Tests Clear the Air on Propane : Pollution: The Police Department did its own survey after hearing complaints that cars using the fuel ran slowly. Pleased with the results, it will use the fuel in its cars.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Pleased by the results of a four-month test drive, the Police Department will convert its fleet of a dozen patrol cars from gasoline to propane to reduce air pollution and save money.

Officials with the South Coast Air Quality Management District and the California Energy Commission said they believe Claremont will be the only police department in the state running all of its cars on propane.

The conversion will cut smog emissions by more than 40% and will save Claremont nearly $900 a month, said Tom Baffa, the city’s assistant director of community services.

The South San Francisco Police Department fueled most of its fleet of squad cars with propane from 1971 to 1987, but switched back to gasoline because of sluggish performance.

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Burl Thompson, shop supervisor at the South San Francisco city yard, said propane worked well until the Police Department acquired 1984 Dodge Diplomats that accelerated poorly on propane because of newly required smog-control equipment.

Thompson said police officers constantly complained about the cars and lobbied for a return to gasoline. “They got tired of having bicycles outrun them,” he said.

But Claremont police say the propane-powered 1990 Chevrolet Caprice that they have been testing as a patrol car since October accelerates just as well as the same model running on gasoline.

Sgt. Gary Armstrong, who frequently drives the test car, said he hasn’t been in a high-speed chase yet, but “just around town, it accelerates real well.”

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The propane is stored in a steel tank that protrudes into the car trunk, but leaves plenty of room for a patrol car’s radio equipment. Armstrong said the tank is as safe or safer than a regular gas tank. Armstrong said: “I was told that if the car got hit by the impact it would take to explode (the steel propane tank), I wouldn’t survive the crash anyway.”

The test car was converted to propane by Eagle Propane Service of Montclair, which claims to have solved some problems that made propane-powered vehicles impractical for police use in the past. Gary Tiffany, Eagle general manager, said the acceleration problem has been overcome by adapting the computer technology that controls fuel flow on new cars. Tiffany said it costs about $1,800 to convert a patrol car from gasoline to propane.

The Claremont City Council Tuesday night approved an agreement with Eagle Propane Service to convert a dozen city-owned Chevrolet Caprice patrol cars to propane. Under the agreement, the city will pay Eagle $780 a month for the conversion costs and for use of the propane equipment over the life of the squad cars, about three years.

Baffa said the city now pays 75 cents a gallon for propane, compared to $1.06 for gasoline. Because of that, the city will save $1,674 a month--a net savings of $894 after deducting the cost of the propane conversion, he said.

Baffa said the conversion, which will take about a month, will reduce carbon monoxide emissions by half and hydrocarbons by as much as 40%. And because propane is a cleaner-burning fuel than gasoline, there is less engine wear and maintenance costs are reduced, he said.

James Lents, executive director of the South Coast Air Quality Management District, said Claremont’s switch to propane “will significantly reduce emissions.” In a statement issued to support Claremont’s action, he said: “Police officers in clean-fueled cars give new meaning to their promise to serve and protect.”

Claudia Barker, assistant director of the California Energy Commission, said the state is trying to encourage governments at all levels to look at alternative fuels, including electricity, methanol, compressed natural gas and propane to reduce air pollution and to promote fuel competition that will keep costs down.

Barker said she knows of no other police department in the state that has moved entirely to propane. “It’s a very good effort by a local government,” she said.

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