It takes a lot of energy to meet Americans’ demand for sausage.

Founded on the family farm in 1948 and expanded many times over the years, Stevens Sausage now has a 100,000-square-foot facility powered by propane boilers, heaters, ovens, and standby generators.

In Smithfield, North Carolina, Stevens Sausage Company’s 100,000-square-foot manufacturing facility requires a high-performance energy source to fuel its boilers, heaters, and commercial cooking ovens. And the company requires a clean, low-cost fuel source for its heavily used 13-vehicle fleet. While the energy challenge is demanding, the solution is surprisingly simple: Propane provides an affordable and accessible fuel source for both the manufacturing and delivery of the company’s pork products.

That accessibility is key, given the rich rural heritage of the family-owned operation that started with a few hogs and a legendary recipe for sausage seasoning. If you drive past 3411 Stevens Sausage Road in Smithfield, next to the sprawling manufacturing plant, you can still see the white house built by company president Tim Stevens’ great-grandfather in 1900. “The facility was built on the family farm years ago, and it’s always been there,” Tim Stevens says.

Performance and protection

Since its founding in 1948, Stevens Sausage has grown to a $12 million company that delivers its products throughout the Eastern United States. Today, the plant processes meat to make and package hot dogs, chili, smoked sausage, and other products, an operation that requires some heavy-duty equipment. With no natural gas available near the family land, the company initially turned to a patchwork of energy sources. Until 15 years ago, the facility used diesel-fueled boilers. “It was so dirty,” Stevens says. “I’m glad we got away from it.”

Spurred by stricter emissions requirements for its diesel vehicles, Stevens Sausage began investigating alternative fuels in 2013 and settled on propane autogas, which it was already purchasing in bulk for its manufacturing plant.

The company now uses propane to fuel its two 50-horsepower boilers that provide steam heat and hot water for the plant. Propane also powers five large ovens that can cook 10,000 pounds of meat at a time, as well as forklifts and heaters throughout the plant and in the ham aging room. Three 150-kW propane standby generators protect the facility’s computers, lighting, and vital refrigeration in the event of an outage.

“We have about four outages a year with thunderstorms and high wind,” Stevens says. “Most of them last 4 or 5 hours, and in some parts of the plant, especially during the summertime, I don’t want four hours down.”

Sausage synergy

When EPA emissions regulations for diesel vehicles prompted Stevens to explore alternative fuels for his vehicle fleet in 2013, he turned to the option that was familiar — and that he was already purchasing on a large scale.

“We wanted to find a logical and more affordable replacement for our diesel vehicles,” Stevens says. “After doing some research, we discovered propane autogas would not only be an easy transition, it would also fit our vehicle needs with less maintenance, reduced fuel costs, and low installation costs. It also suited our drive and duty cycles.”

“The fact that propane is a clean, domestic fuel is important to our company, but to be completely honest, we wouldn’t have done it unless it could show a strong ROI.”

The company kicked off a pilot test with a Clean Fuel Advanced Technology grant from North Carolina Clean Energy, which helped the company install ICOM North America liquid propane injection bi-fuel conversion kits on six Ford F-650 trucks. The grant provided Stevens Sausage an additional $8,500 per vehicle, making the ROI even faster.

Stevens Sausage’s propane supplier, Parker Gas, installed a refueling dispenser that worked with the facility’s existing 12,000-gallon propane tank. Because the company buys its propane in bulk for the plant and fleet, the fuel cost is greatly reduced.

A local propane retailer installed a single refueling dispenser off of Stevens Sausage’s existing 12,000-gallon propane tank. The installation was simple and inexpensive, Stevens says, and because the company buys its propane in bulk for both its processing plant and vehicles, the fuel is affordable too. The company uses approximately 2,000 gallons of propane for its plant and about 1,200 gallons of propane autogas per week. With the vehicle fleet traveling 234,000 miles a year, the cost savings over diesel add up to $100,000 each year.

Stevens Sausage now operates its entire facility and fleet of 13 vehicles on propane, and has a goal of kicking conventional fuels entirely by converting its lawn mowers to propane, Stevens says. “The fact that propane is a clean, domestic fuel is important to our company, but to be completely honest, we wouldn’t have done it unless it could show a strong ROI.”

The story of a great sausage isn’t complete until it ends up on a backyard grill, more than 60 percent of which are fueled by propane or natural gas. From farm to table, propane is the fuel that makes sausage sizzle.

To learn more about Stevens Sausage’s fleet conversion, and for resources for fleets considering a switch to propane autogas, check out the case study: Propane Autogas Mitigates Maintenance Concerns for Sausage Delivery Fleet.