Turf Magazine - August, 2008

NATIONAL FEATURES

Mowing Goes Green

Low-emission turf equipment
By Marcia Passos Duffy

Ryan Ailes, fleet manager for Stap Brothers Lawn and Landscape of Hickory Corners, Mich., doesn’t worry about the spiraling cost of fuel for some of his mowers. Neither does Kelly Giard, founder and CEO of Clean Air Lawncare (www.cleanairlawncare.com) of Ft. Collins, Colo. Both of these lawn care professionals have had enough of the high cost of gasoline, and are now using alternative fuels for their mowers.

Some lawn care companies are converting their conventional mowers to new fuel sources, while others are buying green when their gasoline mowers give out. Whatever the choices, professionals are learning that it’s not only good for the environment, but also good for their wallets—especially with tax incentives by federal and some state governments to switch to alternative fuels (see sidebar).

Photos Courtesy of Toro.
Toro Diesel/bio-diesel Z mower in action. Inset, Cap to the Toro biodiesel mower.

Propane: more power, lower emissions

Ailes has over 20 mowers and each year converts two gas-powered machines to propane. He has two new Onyx EnviroGard (www.onyxsolutions.com) propane mowers and two former gas machines that have been converted to commercial propane. “The propane fuel to run these mowers are cheaper,” he said, adding that with the federal tax credit of 50 cents per gallon, he’s averaging about $2 per gallon of fuel.

The downside of propane, however, is that “workers say that the machines are a bit heavier.”

Onyx Environmental Solutions holds the patent for propane-powered lawnmowers, which it has licensed to various companies including Ferris (which has just launched a zero-turn unit), Bad Boy Mowers and others yet to be announced. “We’re working on licensing the technology to other large lawnmower companies right now,” said Jeremy M. Hahne, director of marketing for the Denver, N.C.-based company. The company sells a full line of propane-powered mowers called EnviroGard, ranging from a 22-inch walk-behind models to a 74-inch front-mount models. The mowers are equipped with Kawasaki Motors Corp. engines and are EPA certified.

“Historically, propane has run 30 percent cheaper than gasoline,” said Hahne. “Right now, it’s averaging about $1.25 a gallon cheaper than gas.” Propane is a clean-burning fuel, as designated by the EPA, and reduces emissions by about 80 percent as compared to conventional gasoline-powered mowers.

According to the EPA, as much as 10 percent of pollution in the United States comes from the lawn and garden industry; a typical consumer walk-behind mower emits as much pollution an hour as 11 cars, and a riding mower emits as much as 34 cars.

“Propane mowers not only emit very little pollution, but the fuel is easy on the engine,” said Hahne, who noted that engines using propane fuel last two to three times longer because of less carbon deposits left in the engine. The run time for propane is approximately the same per gallon as for gasoline. The propane mowers cost about 10 percent more than a conventional mower, and propane conversion kits are about $500.

Every year, sales of the Onyx EnviroGard propane mowers are up 100 percent. By the end of this year, the company hopes to sell 1,000 units. “We’re working with two lawnmower companies to get the price down ... by next season propane mowers will be the same as gas-powered machines,” said Hahne.

Riding a propane mower to prove a point

Dixie Chopper now makes a fast LPG zero-turn radius lawn mower. The Dixie Chopper units feature a 30 hp Generac propane engine, which is available in 60 and 72-inch cutting widths.

Photo Courtesy of Dixie Chopper.
Matt Land of Dixie Chopper on Route 66, on his way to Sacramento, Calif., on a propane Dixie Chopper mower. Land made the trip in three weeks.

“Our mowers are fast,” said Matt Land, director of sales and marketing, who aimed to prove his point by riding a Dixie Chopper propane mower from Springfield, Ill., to Sacramento, Calif. He set out on Earth Day in April 2007. “It took three weeks to get there,” said Land, who said the mower was geared up to go 30 miles per hour.

Alternative fuel mowers have been slow to pick up speed, but with the price of gas now over $4 a gallon it is an easier sell than just a year ago, said Land. “Fuel availability is critical, so we partnered with Ferrell Gas, which owns Blue Rhino,” said Land. “If a municipality wants to convert its fleet over to propane, there’s a company to step in and fill their needs. For this to work, the whole transition needs to be white glove turnkey—painless and seamless.”

Land said that the company has gotten more inquires in the past 90 days about the propane mower than in the past three years, as long as the mower has been available. “I’ve been wondering what it would take to wake people up, and I would guess it’s the $4 a gallon gasoline price,” he said.

French fry emissions

There are a variety of biodiesel fuels that use a mixture of diesel gasoline and biofuels (oils that are biodegradable and nontoxic, such as vegetable oil). Biodiesel comes in different levels from B2 (2 percent biofuel and 98 percent petroleum) up to B100.

In November of 2007, The Toro Co. announced five biodiesel-ready models designed for B20 blends of biodiesel fuel. “We have been looking for ways to make our products environmentally friendly, and biodiesel is a step in that direction,” said Ross Hawley, marketing product manager for Toro’s landscape contractor equipment line. The impetus for making the biodiesel line was customer demand, said Hawley, who said that the company is also looking into other alternative fuels, such as hydrogen fuel cells. Toro is working on B100 models that might be ready by 2009.

Finding biodiesel fuel is getting easier as more organizations are going green, said Hawley. The National Biodiesel Board has a complete listing of biodiesel filling stations across the country at www.biodiesel.org. Just like gasoline prices, the cost of biodiesel fluctuates. For the latest biodiesel pricing, see the Alternative Fuel Price Report put out by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Clean Cities initiative: www.eere.energy.gov/afdc/price_report.html. In its April report, it showed that B2/B5 prices and B20 prices for biodiesel were lower than regular diesel by about 16 cents. B99/B100 blends cost about 17 cents more per gallon than regular diesel.

Electric, backed up by solar and wind power

While electric mowers are often dismissed as not powerful enough for commercial work, Clean Air Lawncare (www.cleanairlawncare.com), a franchise lawncare company founded in 2006 that now operates in 20 locations across the country, uses residential Black & Decker electric mowers, as well as the company’s cordless trimmer for their landscape work. For bigger jobs, they use biodiesel-fueled mowers.

Photo Courtesy of Clean Air Lawncare.
A solar panel to power the Black & Decker electric mower sits on top of the Clean Air Lawncare truck. The company’s employees are Annie Carey, front, Rich Stranges and Katie Van Sant.

“We are unique in that we recharge our electric mowers with wind energy credits overnight and then with solar panels that are on our trucks during the day,” said Giard. The company prefers the electric mowers because they are quiet and 100 percent emission free.

The company charges a premium—10 percent more than conventional lawncare services—for its eco-friendly service. Despite the cost, growth has been brisk, and year-to-year the business has grown 200 percent, Giard reported. The company went franchise just this year and plans to operate as a full-service environmentally friendly lawncare company. “There’s lots of organic lawncare companies, but we’re adding the green mowing element customers really want,” he said. The cost to power the mowers are minimal—$20 a month per location, he said. “You do have to baby the (electric mower) equipment a bit, and it just doesn’t have the horsepower that a gas engine has ... so we take a bit more time to finish the work, but we end up with a good finished product,” he said.

Despite the differing opinions about propane, biodiesel and electric, most agree that gasoline-powered lawnmowers may soon become extinct. “One of these days, you won’t see any more gasoline-powered mowers in this industry,” said Land. “It’s neat that we’re on the cutting-edge of this change.”

The author is a freelance writer from Keene, N.H.

Incentives Available for Alternative Fuels

Courtesy of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Clean Cities

Federal Alternative Fuel Infrastructure Tax Credit

A tax credit is available for up to 30 percent of the cost of installing alternative fueling equipment, not to exceed $30,000. Qualifying alternative fuels are natural gas, liquefied petroleum gas, hydrogen, E85 or diesel fuel blends containing a minimum of 20 percent biodiesel. Fuel station owners who install qualified equipment at multiple sites are allowed to use the credit towards each location. Consumers who purchase residential fueling equipment may receive a tax credit of $1,000. The credit is effective for equipment put into service after December 31, 2005, and before December 31, 2009; the credit for hydrogen fueling property expires December 31, 2014.

Federal Alternative Fuel Excise Tax Credit

An excise tax credit is available for alternative fuel that is sold for use or used as a fuel to operate a motor vehicle. The credit is 50 cents per gasoline gallon equivalent (GGE) of compressed natural gas and 50 cents per liquid gallon of liquefied petroleum gas, liquefied natural gas and liquefied hydrogen. The entity eligible for the credit is the one liable for reporting and paying the federal excise tax on the fuel. Eligible entities must be registered with the IRS. Tax-exempt entities that fuel vehicles from an on-site fueling station can claim the excise tax credit and receive a direct payment from the IRS.

Federal Biodiesel Income Tax Credit

An entity that delivers pure, unblended biodiesel (B100) into the tank of a vehicle or uses B100 as an on-road fuel in their trade or business may be eligible for a nonrefundable income tax credit in the amount of $1 per gallon of agri-biodiesel (e.g. biodiesel made from soybean oil) or 50 cents per gallon of pure biodiesel made from other sources (e.g. waste grease). The volumetric excise tax does not apply to the sale or use of B100. Eligible entities must have a certificate from the biodiesel (B100) producer or importer identifying the product as biodiesel or agri-biodiesel, confirming that it is properly registered as a fuel with the EPA and that it meets the requirements of American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) specification D6751.

For more information, contact the IRS at 800-829-1040 or visit www.irs.gov.

More links to tax forms and more incentives, including those by state can be found at

www.eere.energy.gov/afdc/incentives_laws.html.