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Tax breaks to cars convert to natural gas

May 28, 1997

By DAVE McMILLION

Staff Writer, Martinsburg

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - Jennings Poland said he gets the same performance from his specially-equipped state government car when he fuels it with natural gas instead of gasoline.

"It runs quieter with natural gas. You can feel it," said Poland, a hearing examiner for the state Division of Motor Vehicles.

Poland said he would convert his own car to use natural gas if the modifications were cheaper.

He soon may get some help on that from the government of West Virginia.

Beginning this year, the state will begin offering a direct tax deduction of up to $1,250 to people who convert fuel systems in their cars from gasoline to natural gas. The tax break is available to car owners for three years in a row.

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Combine that with the $2,000 gross income deduction that the federal government allows for people who convert cars, and motorists can pay off the cost of the work with the tax breaks, according to Jim Seibert of Kleenair Systems in Martinsburg, the only company in the Tri-State area that converts automobiles.

On average, the cost of converting a car to use natural gas runs about $4,500 and the cost of converting a car to use propane costs about $3,500, Seibert said.

The advantages of using natural gas are many, including its attractive price. The equivalent of a gallon of natural gas is 95 cents in Martinsburg, said Seibert.

Natural gas is cleaner to burn than gasoline, and increases the life of a car, said Seibert. Although it's too early to determine how long natural gas extends the life of cars, the Cleveland Rapid Transit bus system, which converted its buses to natural gas, now overhauls its bus engines every 500,000 miles instead of every 300,000 miles, Seibert said.

Seibert said the only drawback to using natural gas is the space required for the fuel tanks. In the back of Seibert's Ford truck are three fuel tanks, which carry the equivalent of 14 gallons of gas. By comparison, 14 gallons of gasoline would only take up one tank, he said.

Seibert said he thinks the bigger tanks needed for natural gas would preclude it from ever replacing gasoline as the primary fuel for cars.

Although natural gas is not as abundant as gasoline, there are natural gas stations scattered through the region. And if motorists are willing to change their habits a bit, they can rely on natural gas without much of a hassle, Seibert said.

Besides Seibert's shop along Fairfax Avenue, there is a natural gas station in Winchester, Va., one in Frederick, Md., 15 in the Washington, D.C. area and three in Morgantown, W.Va., Seibert said.

"I don't have any problem getting around on natural gas," said Seibert.

Apart from the tanks in the trunks of the natural gas vehicles, it's hard to pick out the vehicles that have been converted. About the only differences under the hood are special fuel lines and a small gas gauge.

Since Kleenair Systems was founded five years ago, it has converted about 650 vehicles, including about 30 for the Postal Service and 15 for the Clean Air Cab Company in Washington, D.C., Seibert said. Kleanair Systems also once converted a car for the late Commerce Secretary Ron Brown, Seibert said.

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