On the Road Toward Goal of Smogless Valley Days : Environment: A Canadian gizmo for the home just might replace the corner gas station.

<i> Richard Kahlenberg writes regularly about the environment for The Times. </i>

Natural-gas vehicles are coming to the San Fernando Valley to help clean up the smog.

Sure, you’ve heard this before. You may even have seen some of the vehicles. There are buses marked “powered by clean-burning natural gas” on our streets already.

But it’s soon going to be you and I at the wheel of the clean vehicles.

For those wanting to get involved now, patience is advised. There’s only one natural-gas refueling station in the Valley. To get your car converted for the new fuel, you have to drive to the South Bay.

But the Valley will soon have an experimental version of a new home appliance, called the Fuelmaker, on the campus of Cal State Northridge. Eventually we can use it to fill up on natural gas at home.


Prof. Tim Fox expects to have it running soon as part of the School of Engineering’s research on clean-fuel vehicles.

The Fuelmaker is a Canadian gizmo that can hook up to the gas line that serves your water heater or clothes dryer. Smaller than a dryer but larger than a breadbox, it costs several thousand dollars and is hard to get in the United States.

But it may replace the corner gasoline station in the smogless Valley envisioned by the Southern California Gas Co. and the engineering professors at CSUN.

It is already in wide use in some places, in Vancouver, British Columbia, for instance. There, all you do is call the local gas utility. They install one at your house and add $50 a month to your bill until it’s paid for. You pay for the natural gas that goes into your car at a rate equivalent to about 70 cents a gallon.

That is one reason that 10,000 people in western Canada are driving on natural gas. Another is that natural gas-powered engines last up to 300,000 miles.

And then there’s the part of the story that really interests the engineers at CSUN. The carbon and nitrogen pollution produced by such a vehicle can be cut down to one-tenth of what we get with gasoline-fueled vehicles. General Motors and Chrysler are already selling vans and trucks with this natural gas feature as original equipment.


So far only about 1,000 California vehicles are powered this way. They are mostly in bus and truck fleets that share industrial-strength compressors.

If your car or truck has been converted, you can drive it to a refueling station operated by the utility. There are about 50 in Southern California. The price is still a bargain, working out to 75 cents a gallon. (Fueling and conversion information is available by calling 800-GAS-2000.)

The home version of the Fuelmaker is, by the way, legal to possess here in California, just expensive. They run upwards of $4,000 apiece.

A conversion costs a little trunk space, too. The tanks look like scuba tanks, which they are cousins of, and are made of super-strong, lightweight materials sufficient to hold the natural gas when it is pumped in under pressure.

At this home gas station, you hook your Fuelmaker compressor to your car’s tanks at night. It whirls away while you sleep, refueling your car by morning.

If you’re worried that this whole business will blow up on you, the gas company points out that in the 60 years that natural gas has been used for transportation, there hasn’t been one fatality attributable to the fuel. By comparison, 2% of traffic deaths have something to do with gasoline.


Utility company officials occasionally stage safety demonstrations by firing guns at the on-board compressed natural gas tanks of a truck or bus. They’ve driven cars off the roof of tall buildings to show that the tanks survive the impact without leaking.