Biodiesel Pays Off for Travel Center, Wholesaler

“Biodiesel has opened a lot of doors for us.” That’s what the vice president of Sapp Bros., Inc. says of the renewable fuel’s effect on his company’s travel center and fuel wholesale businesses.

The Economic Advantage of Biodiesel

Sapp Bros., Inc. has experienced the benefits of biodiesel with two different businesses.

One is Sapp Bros. Travel Centers, which operates 17 travel centers stretching from Salt Lake City to Pennsylvania, many of them along Interstate 80. The other is a fuel wholesale business, Sapp Bros. Petroleum, which sells petroleum diesel, biodiesel, biodiesel blends, and other fuels and lubricants.

“Economically, biodiesel is a good thing to do,” says Kevin Cassidy, Vice President of both the petroleum and travel center businesses. “It’s also a sustainable fuel. It’s made us more competitive.”

Biodiesel economics spur interest

The company’s travel center in Peru, Illinois, offers a case study in these benefits. Located 100 miles west of Chicago on I-80, Sapp Bros. Peru is a full-service travel center that sees 750,000 customers a year.

It was one of the first travel centers in the state to offer biodiesel blends when it introduced the alternative fuel in 2005, according to Cassidy.

“The state of Illinois established a sales tax exemption on blends of B11 and higher that still stands, and it made sense to do it,” he says. “The B100 was priced attractively, below what our petroleum diesel cost. And we were able to offer a B11 blend at 8 cents per gallon below our No. 2 ultra-low sulfur diesel (ULSD). It went over very well with our customers.”

The infrastructure changes needed to introduce biodiesel were relatively simple. Sapp Bros. Peru converted a 12,000-gallon underground storage tank to hold straight biodiesel, or B100. Then as now, biodiesel is piped over to a loading station where petroleum fuel trucks come in, and Sapp Bros. uses splash blending by loading the B100 into the top of a truck’s tank. The truck then unloads the blended fuel into tanks that feed the diesel islands.

“To get started with biodiesel, our infrastructure upgrades were minimal,” Cassidy says. “It was around an eight-month payback on the cost.”

Utilizing B20

Cassidy is able to easily adjust the blend level and frequently goes up to a B20 blend.

“The blending economics make B20 a smart choice for us,” Cassidy says. “And I’ve had drivers say it’s cleaned up their fuel systems, cleaned their fuel injectors, and they actually get better mileage with biodiesel blends versus a regular No. 2 ULSD because of the clean injectors.”

The Peru travel center and the wholesale business run out of the location use B11 throughout the winter, and on milder winter days will move up to B20. Cassidy says by using a good cold weather additive, they’ve had no issues in storage tanks, at dispensers or with customers.

No matter the weather, he advises other travel centers to do their homework on producers and to purchase quality fuel.

“REG produces a quality product, they stand behind it, and they have the supply to meet our demand,” Cassidy says.

Biodiesel has made Sapp Bros. more competitive both against other travel centers and as a fuel distributor.

“Because we took the step and handled biodiesel, it opened up a lot of doors for us as a wholesaler,” Cassidy says. “And at our travel centers, having a diverse lineup of fuels attracts a bigger customer base. Besides filling up with fuel, they’re inside your stores. They’re shopping, maybe getting something to eat. There are benefits to bringing in new faces.”

The Bottom Line

Economics

Sapp Bros. pays less for biodiesel.
They can price biodiesel blends lower at the pump than ULSD, making them more competitive.
Helps drive in-store sales.

Infrastructure

Quick ROI on blending system.
Easy to switch blend level.

Watch: Sapp Bros. Explains Biodiesel Benefits

Biodiesel has made Sapp Bros. more competitive in the crowded travel center market. See the results.  

Looking Under the Hood at Biodiesel

Diesel technicians whose fleets run on biodiesel blends say performance stays strong with the renewable fuel.

As a diesel technician with 15 years’ experience, Joe Siadak knows truck engines well. But biodiesel taught him something new. 

When Mahoney Environment, where he is lead technician, decided to run its fleet of Class 7 and Class 8 trucks on biodiesel blends, Siadak had some concerns. He thought his team would see more fuel system failures and increased filter change intervals.

The reality, however, is there's been no impact on the performance of the 160-truck fleet, which collects used cooking oil from restaurants nationwide.

“It was very surprising that the failures and added work I expected to see just didn’t happen,” Siadak says. “It was as if we made no change at all.”

On board with biodiesel

His story is not unique. While some people make assumptions about biodiesel, the people who know diesel vehicles best inside and out — mechanics and technicians — and have experience with biodiesel say their fleets run great on the renewable fuel.

"I'm 100 percent on board with biodiesel," says Roget Ritchie, maintenance manager at Rochester Public Transit in Minnesota. "Our equipment has lasted and done a really good job." Rochester Public Transit has been running its buses on biodiesel blends for nearly 20 years. It started at a B2 blend, meaning the fuel is 2 percent biodiesel and 98 percent petroleum diesel, and gradually moved to higher blends. Today, the 55-bus fleet uses B20 in warmer months and B10 in the winter. "With the B10 in the winter, we haven't had any issues at all," says Ritchie, a diesel technician for nearly 40 years. "We change filters every 6,000 miles, and the equipment has run fine."

Fewer maintenance issues

One of the benefits of biodiesel is it adds lubricity that is lacking in ULSD. Diesel vehicles rely on fuel to lubricate the fuel injection system, including the fuel pump and injectors. Without enough lubrication, these components can experience unnecessary wear and damage. Proper lubricity management can also help engines run smoother, more quietly and cooler. 

"While we do not tear down injectors to see the impact firsthand, our injector replacement certainly has decreased since we started running on biodiesel," Siadak says. "I attribute this to the increase in lubricity the biodiesel provides."

Rochester Public Transit also has had fewer injector issues since moving up to B20 a few years ago, according to Ritchie.

Biodiesel also has a higher ASTM spec for Cetane compared with petroleum diesel. And Siadak says biodiesel’s cleaner burn has contributed to fewer after-treatment failures from plugged diesel particulate filters.

A good solution

There are other benefits to fleets that use biodiesel. One is that biodiesel reduces greenhouse gas and engine head emissions compared with petroleum diesel. Another is that biodiesel is often less expensive than petroleum diesel.

What Siadak and Ritchie are ultimately responsible for is keeping their fleets in peak condition. And in that respect, biodiesel gets the job done. 

“I’ve been working on Rochester buses since the mid1980s, and biodiesel has been as good if not better for the equipment than diesel,” Ritchie says.

And Siadak says anyone who thinks biodiesel hurts performance should look under the hood.

“If two trucks were side by side and one ran biodiesel and one didn’t, you would not be able to tell the difference,” he says.

Mahoney Environmental

  • Located in Joliet, Illinois
  • 160 trucks
  • Travels 9.5 million miles annually
  • Uses up to B20 

Rochester Public Transit

  • Located in Rochester, Minnesota
  • 55 buses
  • Travels 1.2 million miles annually
  • Uses up to B20