How Long Until You’ll Be Plugging in Your Service Truck?

Zero emissions and alternative fuels could be on the horizon for work trucks, and pumpers will make the switch if and when it makes good fiscal sense.

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The NTEA — the Association for the Work Truck Industry — recently renewed its commitment to productive use of alternative-fuel vehicles as part of its climate change policy. In a release, the group explained that using advanced technologies and fuel options can help solve environmental challenges and lead us to zero emissions.

“Climate change is a serious global challenge that requires long-term commitments. NTEA recognizes the work truck industry is well-positioned to make a significant difference through continuing development of innovative new technologies to reduce fuel consumption and vehicle greenhouse gas emissions,” said Mike Kastner, NTEA managing director. 

As part of its stated principles, NTEA believes there are “multiple paths to a zero-emissions future.” It said the trucking-related industries play an important role in driving alternative fuel solutions and it’s imperative that work trucks are included in the national discussion. If you want to learn more about the NTEA climate change policy, visit

The message is all well and good, but pumpers are only going to use alternative fuel vehicles — particularly electric vacuum trucks — if they are up to the workload. Septic service providers will want to see multiple benefits to moving away from the internal combustion engine — advantages that will increase their bottom line and contribute efficiency to day-to-day operations.

A few challenges to switching away from the traditional diesel- or gasoline-powered propulsion are inescapable. However, it appears there are also benefits — particularly for the environment and support of domestic sources of energy — in migrating over to new ways of powering service rigs. I believe that if enough of the challenges are overcome with continued technology advances, pumpers will be happy to make changes that have the potential to leave their kids with a cleaner environment.

So what are the biggest challenges to overcome? 

Initial vehicle costs

We know there will be sticker shock when adopting a new technology, whether that’s powering trucks with electricity or retrofitting an existing fleet for natural gas, propane fuel or even hydrogen fuel cells. If we look at the experience with electric and hybrid personal vehicles, early adopters have paid a premium. The prices are coming down for plug-ins and gas-electric hybrid cars, and perhaps we can expect the same to happen when these power sources are built on larger truck chassis as well. 

Many pumpers tell me their profit margins are razor thin — that’s a topic for another column on pricing services for a sustainable return — and they just don’t think it will be realistic to significantly add to the cost of their next work truck. Fair enough. There has to be an attractive payoff period for any vehicle that is used to earn a living every day. When the accountant can make a case for higher upfront costs, pumpers may take a chance.

Reliable access to fuel

One of the first arguments you’ll hear when someone is opposed to using alternative-fuel vehicles is the lack of fueling infrastructure. A good example is the range of an electrical car. While the maximum per-charge travel distance of plug-in vehicles is longer every year, it is still debatable whether an electric-powered work truck could make it a full day before needing a time-consuming charge. What if you have to hit the highway? Can you count on finding a charging station when you need it? The same question goes for trucks fueling with propane or natural gas. 

I’m sure pumpers, and other businesses that rely on work trucks, will consider making the move to alternative power if and when the web of fueling stations provides practical access. My sense is that most small-business owners believe that reality is still far into the future. 

Saving money in a time of low diesel and gas prices

Making the case for electric- or natural-gas-powered work trucks seems a little harder today with traditional fuel costs stagnating. Remember more than a decade ago when gasoline and diesel prices were skyrocketing and suddenly there was surge of interest in biodiesel? Wastewater haulers were flirting with technologies to convert restaurant cooking oil and grease into fuel for their trucks. That interest flagged when fuel prices came down and I don’t hear a lot about biodiesel anymore.

But I’m old enough to know these price fluctuations happen over time and one day gas and diesel will probably go up again. And when they do, and operating costs flip-flop in favor of other fuel sources, pumpers will explore their options again. Like other business owners, pumpers will do what’s necessary to return the best value to their customers. 

Power to pull septage

The internal combustion engine can create a lot of horsepower in a “relatively small” and reliable package. Any alternative fuel options may provide similar performance, but pumpers will have to be shown these results before switching. Moving a heavy liquid load depends on lots of torque to the wheels. I’ve seen natural gas work vehicles providing that power in municipal operations, such as in street sweepers and other work trucks. I’ve also heard of electric work truck pilot projects starting up, but pumpers will want to see fleet testing of liquid transport trucks before they lay their money down.

There’s also the question about electric vehicles and operating a high cfm vacuum pump. Pumps used in this industry are typically operated through a PTO linked to a gas- or diesel-drive engine. In an electric vehicle, pumpers would want to see a practical way to power pumps with the powerful battery packs that move the truck down the road. It wouldn’t make much sense to run an accessory gas or diesel engine just to run the pump. 


After significant skimming of federal government websites analyzing the cost and benefits of alternative fuels — and there are hundreds and hundreds of pages to review — I’ve concluded there are a number of attractive reasons to keep an eye on future developments. Here are a few potential advantages to making a switch at some point:

Lower electrical vehicle maintenance

Electric vehicles, in particular, promise to require less maintenance and may prove cheaper to own over the life of the rig. If you’ve ever looked under the hood of an electric vehicle, there’s isn’t a lot to see. They have very few moving parts, and therefore very few things to break. With regenerative braking, four-corner maintenance behind the wheels is greatly reduced. Your brakes won’t wear out quickly. Aid in stopping isn’t the only benefit either. Electric vehicles produce maximum torque throughout the power band, which may be a positive for heavy trucks.

Making a clean, green statement

Responsibly hauling waste and ensuring cleaner groundwater, pumpers are in the business of improving the environment. Using trucks that consume less fuel, make less noise or have lower greenhouse gas emissions reinforces that environmental message. Keeping an open mind to alternative-fuel trucks is a way to tell your customers you care about your kids and theirs and the world they grow up in. 

Tax incentives may reduce costs

New technological advances often come with incentives for early adoption. As the industry starts to standardize cleaner options for truck power plants, the government may offer tax credits or other programs to prompt small businesses to take the leap. These incentives could be significant and worth watching. At some point, these fiscal sweeteners could tip the scales in favor of alternative-fuel vehicles and you’ll want to make the move. 

Energy at home

In recent years, great strides have been made to ensure most of our energy comes from domestic resources. In 2019, the U.S. imported only 3% of its petroleum. We have greatly bolstered our production of natural gas. And according to the federal government, electrical vehicles also play a role in reducing our reliance on foreign oil producers. Diversifying the fuel sources for our work trucks, as it turns out, makes the country stronger and is the patriotic thing to do. 


The NTEA is right to promote technologies that might help clean the environment and allow the U.S. to maintain energy independence over the long term. And as time-tested small business owners know, one thing is for certain: change is inevitable. We may see a day in the Not-too-distant future when pumpers will adapt to powering their rigs in new ways. When it makes fiscal common sense, they’ll be on board. 


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