CANFIELD, Ohio – An 85-year-old company that has made the grade in providing fleets of buses to school districts in the region is preparing to embrace major changes as the transportation industry begins to shift gears to an electric future.
“The school bus is an ideal product for EVs,” says Paul Myers, general manager of Myers Equipment Corp., Canfield. “It’s got a set route. You know the distance of each route, what day it’s going to be driven and the times it’s going to be parked.”
Myers Equipment, established in 1937, sells new and used school buses manufactured by Thomas Built Buses, a division of Daimler-owned Freightliner. The company also sells ambulance vehicles, small commercial buses used for local transportation, truck components, and provides repair services for a wide variety of trucks.
The traditional transportation market stands to witness a transformation that might come sooner than many think, Myers says. Within five years, the industry projects roughly 30% of school bus fleets in the country will have zero emissions.
Myers thinks 30%, though, will likely be represented by three states: California, New York and Nevada, where EV adoption is strongest. As of now, it’s unclear how quickly Ohio and Midwest school districts will begin to convert their fleets to electric school buses, or ESBs.
“We’ve got one on order,” Myers says, which will be delivered to the Shaker Heights School District. Another Thomas dealer in Columbus recently delivered the manufacturer’s first ESB to a school district in Columbus.
Sales manager Matt Kalbfell says school districts considering upgrading their fleets to ESBs have opportunities to secure funding from the federal government. The Biden administration, as part of the bipartisan infrastructure law, has allotted $5 billion to school districts over the next five years to help them convert from diesel-powered buses to ones with low or zero emissions.
“It’s a large chunk. It’s enough to get people interested at the very least,” Kalbfell says. “Even if they don’t decide to go there, we’re having a ton of conversations with people who are exploring it because the money’s out there.”
Just weeks ago, the company displayed a Thomas Built demo ESB at the Canfield Fair. Kalbfell says the display attracted plenty of interest. “It was everybody from the average everyday citizen to transportation directors,” he says. “It’s definitely capturing people’s interest.”
There are many advantages to converting to ESBs, Kalbfell says: “You’re going to save on maintenance tremendously – no more oil changes, save on filters, fuel. And there’s none of the after-treatment that a diesel bus would require.”
An ESB has fewer moving parts, no combustion engine, and no tailpipe or exhaust system, he says.
The downside? The cost of a new ESB is about four times that of a diesel-powered bus, Myers says. On average, a new diesel-powered bus costs approximately $90,000, depending on the size and type.
Another issue sure to slow the widespread adoption of ESBs is that many have a battery range of only 130 miles as of today, Myers says. While these vehicles might be perfect for urban and inner city buses that travel set routes and shorter distances, as it stands now they’re likely impractical for rural school districts or events that require longer trips.
“If Canfield plays Dover in a football game, an electric bus right now won’t make it down and back on a charge,” he says. The only way that’s feasible is if two DC fast-charging stations are at each destination, he adds.
In most cases, the cost to school districts to ramp up to ESBs doesn’t stop with the purchase of the bus. For example, each district has to evaluate the cost of installing DC fast chargers plus other factors as well. ESBs take about three hours to fully charge with a DC fast charger, while a trickle charge takes some eight hours.
“You’ve got to get with contractors, maybe redo your parking lot. You need to get electric out to the charger and decide where you’re going to place the charger,” Myers says, “or where you’re going to park the bus.”
Kalbfell says sales associates and technicians at Myers are preparing for these issues and questions that customers will undoubtedly have as electrification enters the mainstream.
“We can help every step of the way,” he says. “We can walk people through the process since it is so foreign.”
Charging infrastructure across the state is a major requisite before Ohio can experience widespread adoption of ESBs. Until this technology improves and the EV infrastructure is built, “Diesel is still going to be a big player in the game.”
According to the U.S. Public Research Group, fewer than 1% of the country’s 480,000 school buses are electric-powered.
Nevertheless, Myers says, as technology advances, costs decrease and federal funding helps to offset the expenses of end users, ESB adoption could occur much faster than initially thought.
“I would say we have a meeting once a week with a different district or different customers inquiring about it and showing interest,” he says.
It’s a far different business than when Myers’ great grandfather, Paul E. Myers, formed the company 85 years ago, he reflects.
During the 1920s, his great grandfather had a small produce route that extended into Youngstown. Then he began to buy and sell automobiles, eventually setting up a REO Motor Car dealership.
The business model changed again during the mid-1930s when the company secured a Carpenter Body Works franchise to sell all-steel school buses. The partnership led to the founding of Myers Equipment in 1937.
The company continued to sell Carpenter buses until 1996, when it became a Thomas Built Buses dealer.
Today, Myers is the sole Thomas dealer that serves northeast Ohio and employs 35, Myers says. Its territory extends west from State College, Pa., to central Indiana, and north of Columbus. “Our competitors are in central Ohio and western Ohio,” Myers says.
Despite a difficult period during the first year of COVID-19, inflation, and supply chain delays, Myers says company sales are slightly ahead of its pre-pandemic levels.
As for the transition to ESBs, Myers says the company has five employees enrolled in various types of EV training through Thomas. Much of the training is ensuring that work on high-voltage components is performed safely and by following proper procedures and protocols.
“There are a lot of safety aspects to it,” he says. “It’s new technology that everybody’s got to learn.”
Pictured at top: Paul Myers is general manager of Myers Equipment Corp., which his great-grandfather founded in 1937. Matt Kalbfell is the sales manager.