Pittsburgh Post Gazette Article

Ecofriendly LLC develops natural gas station for home, farm
Friday, September 23, 2011
By Erich Schwartzel, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Bob Donaldson/Post-Gazette

Paul Gianakas’ EcoFriendly LLC installs natural gas fueling stations at homes and businesses. He has a fueling station in his own garage, which compresses natural gas from his home’s service line to fuel his Honda Civic.

Paul Gianakas saw a business opportunity in the cars of the future. To finance it, he had to part with cars of the past.

His 1965 Chevrolet El Camino left the garage and never came back. His 1968 Ford Mustang moved on to greener driveways.

The sale of those two hot rods and several others helped raise the $100,000 that Mr. Gianakas needed to launch Ecofriendly LLC, a 3-year-old company in Gibsonia meant to capitalize on a future of natural gas-fueled cars.

Ecofriendly installs personal pumps that unload compressed natural gas (CNG) into equipped vehicles, often installing the pump next to the car in an owner’s garage. The option of at-home fueling comes at a time when enthusiasm for the cheaper fuel is undercut by a lack of infrastructure and significant upfront costs.

In 2008, Mr. Gianakas started to see an alchemy of factors setting the stage for his new business: enthusiasm for natural gas ballooned as drilling in the Marcellus Shale accelerated; the price of gasoline went up and took drivers’ tempers with it; and the CNG car market began to develop on the West Coast.

Mr. Gianakas, who co-owns a construction company in addition to being Ecofriendly’s president, sold his hot rods and started reading everything he could find on the CNG market: reports on natural gas reserves, how-to conversion articles, even bills before Congress touting the energy source.

He claims to need about four hours of sleep per night.

Though Ecofriendly technically has been around for three years, Mr. Gianakas and his two partners didn’t see much activity until this past January. That’s because their initial supplier of the at-home pump, a Honda-owned subsidiary in Toronto called FuelMaker Corp., filed for bankruptcy in April 2009.

The bankruptcy was a major blow to an already-shaky CNG market, especially since it came from a company owned by Honda, the only current manufacturer of commercial CNG cars.

About one-quarter of America’s overall energy use comes from natural gas, but only about one-tenth of 1 percent is used for transportation fuel, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.

In January, however, an Italy-based firm called BRC FuelMaker announced it had acquired the bankrupt firm and would begin selling the pumps.

To help with marketing, Mr. Gianakas called his friend, Bob Alvin, a retired physician from Allison Park, and made a pitch about going into business together.

“I said, ‘I’ve never been a salesman, but let’s see what happens,’ ” Dr. Alvin said.

The company has so far sold eight units and expects both to turn a profit and open a Philadelphia office by the end of the year.

Part of the boost comes courtesy of companies such as Downtown-based EQT Corp. and O’Hara-based Giant Eagle, both of which have opened regional public fueling stations for CNG vehicles.

The stations serve as security for customers worried about being stranded if their at-home unit breaks down, said Mr. Gianakas.

“They can use the public stations as a back-up,” he said.

The at-home pumps operate much like a traditional gasoline fueling station. A hose from the pump clips onto the gas casket and starts fueling once a button is pushed on the console. Smaller units fill at a rate of about 0.9 gallons per hour, and larger units can quadruple that rate.

“Most usually leave it running overnight,” said Mr. Gianakas.

An at-home gas pump might not seem like the most aesthetically pleasing choice — or the safest. The smaller, indoor units are as big as a carry-on suitcase and can be installed to hang on the wall. The units have a built-in leak detector that automatically shuts the pump down if a nick in the line is detected. A methane detector is also attached and, if any bit of the noxious gas escapes, the pump shuts down and an exhaust system kicks on.

And just in case: The gas tank inside a CNG car is bulletproof.

The natural gas used by Ecofriendly pumps is the same fuel that comes into the house to run the furnace, so the charge shows up on the gas bill.

All things considered, Mr. Gianakas pays about $1.15 per “gasoline gallon equivalent,” which is the measurement with the same energy content as a gallon of traditional gasoline.

The fuel price can be tempting at a time when traditional gasoline prices hover near $4 per gallon, but the move to a CNG vehicle carries some heavy upfront costs.

A personal pump from Ecofriendly costs between $5,000 and $7,000. Converting a regular gasoline car to run on CNG can run up to $12,000 per vehicle — though government tax credits can kick in and refund a majority of the expense.

The Honda Civic GX, still the only commercially available CNG car on the market, has a base price of nearly $26,000 — or about $10,000 more than its more traditional counterpart.

Not to mention the travel that might come with buying one: Mr. Gianakas drove to Ohio to pick up his Civic GX. The model is expected to be available in the Pittsburgh-area market sometime this year.

It gets about 25 miles per gallon in the city and between 32 and 35 miles per gallon on the highway.

Recent drilling in the Marcellus Shale has boosted gas reserves and kept trading prices low, but Mr. Gianakas also has installed pumps that use gas from the decades-old shallow wells that cover Western Pennsylvania.

Robert Krile of Chicora has a shallow well on his 32 acres that has provided gas to his home and trailer for nearly six years. An Ecofriendly pump was installed earlier this summer.

He expects to have his 2006 Jeep and 2004 Ford F-150 pickup truck converted in the next month or so. With the help of some mechanics he knows and an online tutorial, he plans to convert the cars himself.

“I’m mechanically inclined,” he said. “I watched a video and I don’t think it’s that difficult.”

A bill currently before the state House of Representatives would create tax credits to mitigate the cost of conversion for car owners like Mr. Krile.

The “Marcellus Works” bill is before a committee and, as with anything dealing with the controversial topic of gas drilling, has been colored by party politics.

“Tax credits represent over half of the package. This does not cost the taxpayer. Rather, it follows the conservative principle that lower taxes will create jobs,” said Rep. Stanley Saylor, a Republican from York, in a statement.

Increased attention from lawmakers and a push for more pumping stations will inevitably raise the CNG profile, said Murry Gerber, former chairman and chief executive officer at Downtown-based EQT Corp.

Right now, running cars on CNG seems like a well-kept secret, said Mr. Gerber, and the few who know it can seem like a close-knit fraternity.

That should change, he said, as the “will to create the infrastructure of stations” continues. There are about 830 CNG stations across the country, or about one for every five conventional gas stations, according to the Department of Energy.

Mr. Gerber’s CNG ride of choice is a reconfigured Hummer, resplendently covered in a red, white and blue film that reads, “I’m a natural gas powered vehicle.”

After stepping down as the head of EQT in 2010, Mr. Gerber loaded up the Hummer with his wife, Cindy, and dog, Seamus, for a cross-country tour touting the benefits of the alternative fuel.

The Hummer, not exactly known for its fuel efficiency, might be an unconventional choice to run on CNG fuel. Mr. Gianakas is working on an unconventional CNG ride himself: He’s started work on converting his 1971 Chevy truck.

Erich Schwartzel: eschwartzel@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1455.
First published on September 23, 2011 at 12:00 am