Growth in Bi-Fuel Chevy Silverado HD pickups

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Expect to see more heavy-duty Chevy Silverado pickups with what appear to be large black toolboxes mounted at the front of the cargo box. The tall diamond-plate metal enclosure actually houses a Compressed Natural Gas tank, which for 2015 is offered on all 2500HD and 3500HD cab types.

Regular cab, double cab, and crew cab single-rear-wheel Silverado heavy-duty trucks with 6-foot-6 or 8-foot beds can now be powered with a combination of CNG and gasoline systems. The CNG system on the 2500HD 4×4 LT crew cab test truck adds $9,500 to the pickup’s $42,655 standard vehicle price.

Advantages to owning a Bi-Fuel CNG Silverado with the 6.0-liter V-8 engine are lower fuel costs, greater driving range, and a 20 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. General Motors calculates that with CNG costing about 62 percent less than gasoline, a truck driven 26,000 miles a year can provide a $2,000 annual savings. Helping to accommodate the growing number of CNG pickups is the expansion of CNG refueling stations, adding to the estimated current 1,500 at a rate of 150 to 200 stations per year.

Driving range with the 36-gallon gasoline tank and CNG tank combined is an impressive 650-plus miles. Range using CNG only is 195 to 200 miles. Filling the CNG tank requires accessing the fill valve located behind a fuel door on the driver side of the tank cover. Filling time is about six to eight minutes.

Always starting on gasoline, the vehicle switches to CNG with a tap on a center-stack-mounted fuel-selector switch. After blinking for about 9 seconds, the amber LED light on the switch glows solid to indicate the engine is running on CNG. Switching to CNG in below-freezing weather can be a much slower process — taking up to 15 minutes. The CNG-to-gas transition is almost instant, and when the CNG tank is depleted, the switch to gasoline is automatic.

A single analog fuel gauge automatically changes to indicate gasoline or CNG levels. A bar-type gauge in the Driver Information Center instrument-cluster display shows the level of the fuel not in use.

Engine idling levels out a bit and acceleration is smoother when the switch is made to CNG, but there are otherwise no major driving-character differences between gasoline and CNG during normal conditions.

Changes come with the 6.0-liter V-8’s output numbers. Paired with a six-speed automatic transmission, it produces 360 horsepower at 5,400 rpm with gasoline and 301 horsepower at 5,000 rpm with CNG. Torque takes a dip from 380 lb.-ft. at 4,200 rpm with gasoline to 333 lb.-ft. at 4,200 rpm with CNG.

GM lists the 2500HD towing max at 13,000 pounds under both gasoline and CNG operation. The test truck is equipped with a $905 Trailering Equipment Package that includes a trailer hitch, auto-locking rear differential, and trailer brake controller.

Payload capacity for 2500HDs equipped with the $595 UB7 Performance Package is 4,306 pounds with gasoline and 3,651 pounds with CNG. Payload size is limited because the CNG tank cover takes up about a third of the bed space, but a plus is that the cover provides the convenience of extra cargo tie-downs.

Engine modifications are required for trucks powered by CNG because it burns at a much higher temperature than gasoline. Hardened intake and exhaust valves and valve seats are required to handle the higher combustion temperatures and reduced lubricity.

The CNG system is serviceable at Chevrolet and GMC dealerships, and is covered under GM’s five-year/100,000-mile powertrain limited warranty.

Like all 2015 Silverado trucks, the 2500HD sports an all-new exterior featuring improved cooling airflow; the design helps the engine maintain full power while handling demanding workloads in high temperatures.

The 2500HD rolls on 17-inch machined-aluminum wheels wrapped by LT245/75R-17 tires. Reducing the 26-inch step-up into the test-truck cab to about 17 inches are black 6-inch assist steps that add $700 to the price tag.

Once aboard the newly designed cab, occupants — front and rear — benefit from excellent headroom and legroom. Front seats are cloth with well-bolstered seatbacks, and the rear bench has 60/40-split cushions that fold to increase cargo space.

Upping comfort and convenience in the test truck is an LT Convenience Package: This $1,525 option adds a power driver seat, dual-zone climate control, MyLink audio system with 8-inch color touch-screen, rear-vision camera, rear window defrost, 110-volt power outlet, remote vehicle start, rear-window defroster, and front fog lamps.

Timing is good for Chevrolet’s new CNG-powered heavy-duty pickups. The popularity of CNG-fueled trucks is improving as a result of lower natural-gas prices, made possible by great strides in hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” technology — a method used to extract natural gas by injecting water and sand into rocks.