Precision Plumbing ditches its diesel-fueled service trucks for streamlined electric vehicles.

For Tom Robichaud, the owner and president of Boulder, Colo.-based Precision Plumbing, Heating, Cooling and Electric, transforming his service fleet to electric trucks is the right thing to do - for the environment, for his community and for his company.

The city of Boulder is no stranger to the green movement. It has an energy sustainability coordinator who works with commercial businesses to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by increasing energy efficiency and the use of renewable energy. In 2004, the Boulder Green Building Guild was formed to promote “healthier, resource-efficient homes and workplaces.” It has held a green building conference the last three years to identify opportunities and resolve challenges for Boulder green building professionals.

Precision Plumbing & Heating’s Tom Robichaud (left) and Carter Brown of Boulder Electric Vehicles. Photos courtesy of Boulder Electric Vehicles and Precision Plumbing’s Barb Gould.

In 2006, the city passed new residential and commercial green building codes requiring higher energy-efficiency standards - renewable energy systems for all new buildings by 2015 and carbon-neutral standards for all new construction by 2030. In 2008, Boulder County voters passed a measure allowing the county to issue private bond-funded, low-interest loans for green home improvements. The county also has a sustainability coordinator, who works with county municipalities, the University of Colorado, nonprofit organizations, utilities, and the private sector to improve and increase the sustainability efforts in the county.

Boulder Electric Vehicles’ electric service trucks may be the ‘ugly duckling’ of the service vehicle family, but they do get noticed on the road, which is a plus for any service company.

The electric service truck is the brainchild of one of Precision Plumbing’s long-time customers - Carter Brown, inventor and chief operating officer of Boulder Electric Vehicles. “The service industry is a market where electric vehicles can catch on - service trucks go on short routes where they can come in at night, plug in and be ready for the next day,” he explains. “I thought it would be a good fit for Tom.”

Brown contacted Robichaud several times about the idea before he agreed to a test drive. “My general manager and I finally decided to look into it,” Robichaud notes. “We took a drive around the area and decided we had to have it. It drives great.”

He describes the trucks as ugly ducklings, and he did feel conspicuous on the road. But noticable trucks are great marketing tools for any service business. “It’s a great way to make a statement,” he says.

Top speed for Brown’s electric service truck is 65 miles per hour with three power ranges. It can go 120 miles on a charge and then will need to be plugged in for eight hours. The average route for Precision service techs is 15 to 20 miles, so an electric truck can run all day and get charged up at night.

Robichaud installed solar photovoltaic panels on the roof of Precision’s 10,000-square-foot headquarters facility to provide 65 to 70 percent of the electric power needed to charge the trucks in specially built bays. He is also having the electrical panels at his service techs’ homes upgraded to allow them to drive the trucks home at night to recharge with a 220-volt outlet.

Precision Plumbing has a long history of donations to, or sponsorships of, local charity events. And Robichaud believes in being an active participant in his industry, including serving on the Nexstar Network board of directors for the last six years. He considers it a “professional responsibility” to give back to the community that sustains his business and the livelihoods of Precision’s employees.

That responsibility extends to cutting his company’s carbon footprint by investing in electric service trucks. Precision has about 25 trucks on the road each day, serving the Boulder and Denver areas. “The United States is too dependent on oil,” Robichaud notes. “Electric cars are the future. Everyone needs to do their part with energy conservation. There is no reason why a plumber can’t lead the way and set an example.”

While Tom Robichaud has installed solar photovoltaic panels on the roof of Precision’s HQs facility to provide most of the electric power needed to charge the electric trucks, he is also having the electrical panels at his service techs’ homes upgraded.

Andrea Everhart, Robichaud’s daughter, is Precision Plumbing’s vice president. She shares her father’s passion for improving the environment and the local community by investing in electric service vehicles.

“My dad is an amazing teacher,” she says. “It’s hard not to be passionate about it when we believe so strongly in what we are doing.”

Robichaud admits the switch to electric trucks is not entirely about being eco-conscious; it’s also about the long-term savings for his business. He estimates the company can save nearly $5,000 in fuel costs per truck per year by switching from diesel fuel to electric power. Currently, Precision spends about $9,000 on diesel per month. Compare that to 5 cents per mile with electricity, which drops the monthly cost to $1,500.

“I believe that by purchasing these electric trucks, I am properly managing the money our customers give us,” he says.

But Precision is Boulder Electric Vehicle’s first customer, so Robichaud is investing a lot of upfront money on the concept. He has committed to buying 20 trucks for a total of $1.4 million. The first vehicle will cost him $100,000, with the rest at a cost of $70,000 each. “Do I know for sure what the end result will be be? No, I don’t,” he says. “I know that I’m taking a hit in development costs; I understand there will be bugs in the first vehicle. But it’s a commitment I believe in.”

Tom Robichaud and his daughter, Precision Plumbing VP Andrea Everhart, are fully committed to transforming Precision’s service fleet to one that saves the company money and helps the environment.

So How Does It Work?

Brown and his team designed the electric service vehicle using an advanced fiberglass composite to fabricate the truck body, which makes it lighter - 5,500 pounds - yet still able to withstand gusty winds, an important factor when driving in a Colorado winter. The truck is more aerodynamic, improving the range and drivability, which contributes to less energy use. The prototype pictured on this month’s cover is a bit larger than the service vehicles being designed for Precision; they will be slightly larger than a full-size utility van.

The trucks use standard, all-season tires. To increase fuel-efficiency another 10 percent, a tire-pressure monitoring system will be installed in each truck, Brown says. Each truck will include an interior ladder rack (shelving also is available) and will be fitted with a GPS system.

The vehicle design includes regenerative braking technology, which converts some of the kinetic energy from stopping the vehicle to a useful form of energy that is fed back to the battery pack. This technology makes the brakes last three times longer, Brown notes.

But the real star of the show is the electric motor, which is two to five times more efficient than a diesel engine, Brown says. It has about 90 percent efficiency. More efficiency means less energy consumption, lower costs and less air pollution. In fact, there are no local emissions from electric vehicles, meaning a better work environment for drivers as well as cleaner and quieter neighborhoods.

Chargers are installed in the service trucks to transform alternating current from the wall to direct current that charges the battery. Boulder Electric trucks have different charger options depending upon the user’s power connection and need for charging time, Brown says. The lithium-iron-phospate battery pack is the “fuel tank” of the engine, able to store three times more energy than lead-acid batteries used in conventional gasoline-powered vehicles.

The batteries cost about $30,000 but will last 10 to 12 years or 300,000 miles (3,000 cycles), Brown says. He estimates the cost will decrease in 10 years to one-third of the current price.

A motor controller is the “throttle” of the engine; it transforms the direct current from the battery to a suitable current for the motor. Boulder Electric service trucks have AC motors.

Chargers are installed in the service trucks to transform alternating current from the wall to direct current that charges the battery.

Brown notes that these electric service trucks have more than a 20-year life cycle, they require very little maintenance and almost all the parts are made in the United States. A Boulder Electric Vehicle requires just three fluids: washer fluid, differential gear fluid and brake fluid. There is only one drive train, compared to a hybrid engine that has two drive trains. And you are still using, and paying for, fossil fuels. Electricity is more stable in price, he says, than the volatile oil-and-gas market.

“With an electric vehicle, there are no belts, no alternator, no spark plugs, no oil, no filters, no transmission, no distributor cap, no valves to adjust,” Brown explains. “It’s a giant, high-torque, cordless drill on wheels.”

He estimates contractors can save $3,000 to $5,000 per year in maintenance costs.

Eventually, Brown wants to expand nationally with a small manufacturing plant on each coast. The company is already giving quotes to companies overseas. And even though there is a higher upfront cost than with traditional service trucks, the payback is about three years. However, he is working on a leasing option for those companies leary of the sticker price. He’s also looking to build models with 150- to 200-mile ranges for companies with larger territories.

Precision is still awaiting the delivery of its first truck, which Brown hopes to deliver in December or January - a Christmas gift for Robichaud, he says. Once Precision drives it for three or four months and identifies the bugs in the vehicle, Boulder Electric Vehicles will manufacture the remaining 19 trucks.

Living and working green has been a challenge for Boulder residents, just as it is a challenge for anyone trying to change deep-rooted behaviors. A troubled economy has forced some residents to postpone or scale down sustainable residential and commercial projects. But that hasn’t stopped the team at Precision Plumbing, Heating, Cooling and Electric from realizing its dream.

“The right choice is rarely the easy choice,” Robichaud notes. “But we have to get away from old-school thinking. I’m OK with being an industry leader; it has to start somewhere. This is a sound business decision for my company in the long term, and it feels good.”