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Cleaning Up on Natural Gas Cars : Huntington Beach auto shop finds a lucrative niche converting vehicles to run on the lower-emissions fuel.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A walk around the Eikelberger shop is like strolling through the past and future of the automobile.

The past is represented by a black and burgundy 1938 Ford pickup truck awaiting delivery to a customer, or the rare 1951 Chrysler-powered Allard JTX roadster being restored.

The future is tucked away at the far end of the shop, where Bryce Eikelberger is drilling mounting holes under the hood of a new white Ford F-series pickup.

It is there that the Eikelbergers convert cars and trucks to run on natural gas, an alternative fuel that delivers nearly the same performance as gasoline at lower cost and with far lower emissions.

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Alternative Fuel Technologies in Huntington Beach is one of a handful of conversion shops around Southern California. The company grossed $1.8 million last year converting about 365 vehicles to run on either gasoline or natural gas. Despite competitive bidding, the company said its profit margins are respectable because of the special expertise required.

Bruce Eikelberger, Bryce’s dad and the shop’s founder, says the conversion business is being threatened by new rules from the state Air Resources Board. To keep afloat, he said he is ready to branch out his company into other kinds of business--or move out of state.

“We’re looking at offshore things and flat getting out of state. There are other states that don’t have these problems,” he said.

For now, though, Alternate Fuel Technologies has been making a good business from the alternative fuels craze. Parked in his shop is a Federal Express delivery van, one of several he is converting, and a white Ford pickup, being converted for the city of San Gabriel.

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He said other customers have been Southern California Gas, the governments of San Bernardino and Los Angeles counties and the South Coast Management District. But the biggest customer has been the city of Long Beach, for whom AFT has converted about 250 vehicles--from police cars to garbage trucks.

Municipalities and fleet operators have been enticed to undertake the $4,000 vehicle conversions because there are various grants and incentives available, all in the name of clean air. The gas company alone offers an incentive of $1,700 per converted vehicle.

“We want to clean up the air,” said Mike Marelli, natural gas vehicle sales manager for the Southern California Gas, which itself has 60 vehicles operating on the fuel it sells and another 140 on order.

Alternate Fuel Technologies is one of seven recommended converters in the area, he said, adding: “They do good work.”

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Bruce Eikelberger said that the conversion business was a natural for the company. He built his life around cars, first as a mechanic and engineer in a top racing shop in the 1960s and later on his own as a vehicle customizer. And early on, he discovered the appeal of alternative fuels.

In the 1970s, he converted a van to run on propane. When a gasoline shortage hit in the latter part of the decade, Eikelberger recalls driving by the gas lines. As a result, he developed a small business around propane conversions--although it was dwarfed by the larger business of converting vans to four-wheel drive.

In 1990, natural gas became more widespread as an alternative vehicle fuel. Government agencies, the gas company and fleet operators started installing refueling stations around the Los Angeles Basin as a way of fighting air pollution.

Besides the obvious benefit of cleaner air, natural gas is also cheaper than gasoline, he said. The amount of gas that is equivalent in energy content to a gallon of gasoline would cost about 75 cents.

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It also burns so cleanly that engines last longer, according to Eikelberger. He said his propane-powered 1979 Dodge van has similar properties to natural gas--and has run 400,000 miles without an engine rebuild.

But natural gas fuel tanks are bulky. A tank that could hold 35 liquid gallons has only the equivalent storage space for five gallons of gasoline.

Engines running on natural gas have a little less pick up and speed as gasoline burners. And there is still a limited number of refueling sites.

Eikelberger said he has tried to counter the disadvantages. Tanks are usually installed in car trunks or in the beds of pickup trucks where they do no interfere with interior space. The vehicles are configured so that they can run either on gasoline or natural gas with the flip of a switch--so the driver is never stranded.

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In the case of Long Beach’s natural gas-powered police cars, Eikelberger said the engine automatically switches to gasoline for extra performance when the driver stomps on the pedal, such as would be the case when becoming involved in a high-speed chase. There are no switches to change between fuel tanks.

“Police departments are a hard sell so we make it the most user-friendly thing we possibly can,” he said. “The cop doesn’t touch a thing.”

Long Beach has converted 250 vehicles, about halfway to its goal of 500, said Ralph Crouch, the city’s general supervisor of acquisition. He said Alternate Fuel Technologies has lived up to the terms of its contract and “I haven’t had a problem” with their work.

Alternate Fuel Technologies once had 12 employees, but Eikelberger said he had to lay off six at the end of last year. He blames the layoffs on the new rules issued by the state Air Resources Board.

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The rules say that companies must test their natural gas conversion equipment on every type of engine set for installation for at least 100,000 miles before it can be certified for use, the same types of tests that are required now of gasoline engines.

Such tests are so expensive and the market so limited at present, Eikelberger said, that equipment makers are not willing to make many of the tests. Without equipment that has been tested, vehicles can’t be converted to natural gas.

“The ARB, with its arrogant attitude, has pushed a lot of industry out of California and are putting a lot of conversion houses out of business,” he said. An Air Resources Board spokesman could not be reached for comment.

Alternate Fuel Technologies may be the next to go. Now 52, Bruce said he is nearing retirement and is considering moving the business to New Mexico. He would pass on the operations to Bryce, 31.

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It would certainly keep things in the family. Bryce is the only one of his four sons who has shown a major interest in the vehicle conversion business and Bruce Eikelberger’s wife--Bea Dallas, the company president--handles the paperwork.

If the conversion business gives out, he said, they can always concentrate on the another automotive specialty--such as restoring old cars or finding other kinds of custom work, such as building a car that is designed to break speed records for natural gas-powered vehicles, which is under construction in the shop. Being flexible is how the business has survived for 14 years at its present Huntington Beach site.

“This is a niche business. We climb into a niche until it gets crowded, then we look for a new one,” he said.


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