Turf Magazine - May, 2010

NATIONAL FEATURES

Off and Running

National propane program for the green industry
By Patrick White

Jim Coker is on a mission to promote the benefits of an alternative fuel source produced in this country: propane.

Coker has been touting propane’s benefits in the lawn and garden industry for six years now, and he’s making serious progress. “Six years ago, I went out and introduced propane to all of the mower manufacturers, but they could have cared less. They said nobody was asking for it,” he recalls.

Jim Coker and Heritage Propane are providing training to lawn equipment dealers and large lawn care firms in the proper conversion and use of propane lawn mowers.
Photos courtesy of Heritage Propane.

Undaunted, and convinced that propane-powered mowers made tremendous sense, Coker became president of Onyx Environmental Solutions and began manufacturing and installing retrofit kits to convert mowers from gas to propane power. As lawn care professionals around the country learned and became excited about propane, mower manufacturers-buoyed by engine makers’ warranty approval-quickly followed suit. “Last year, with just one exception, every manufacturer had a propane mower at GIE [the Green Industry and Equipment Expo]. That’s how much things have changed,” says Coker.

While still representing a relatively small piece of the total market, thanks in large part to his efforts, propane mowers have become accepted and appreciated by many commercial users. So, Coker has now devoted himself to the next phase of propane adoption: educating the rest of the marketplace and creating a nationwide network to supply lawn care pros with convenient and cost-effective access to propane. Leaving his position with Onyx, Coker has joined Heritage Propane to create the Metro Lawn Program (www.gogreenmetrolawn.com). The goal is twofold: provide technical assistance in the conversion and use of propane mowers and bring costs down for lawn care pros opting to use the fuel.

“All of the manufacturers now have propane units, but there’s very little education and support to let dealers know how to sell and service these units,” says Coker. To help fill the void, he has started providing presentations at Kawasaki engine update classes around the country to help ensure dealers and repair shops are knowledgeable about propane mowers.

Coker and a team of experienced technicians also travel the country showing dealers, and even larger landscape firms, how to do the propane conversions themselves. “We want to technically train the landscapers and dealers to make sure they’re comfortable working on these systems,” he explains.

Coker says education has helped lawn care and landscape contractors see that propane mowers are viable, but they’re concerned about the costs involved. “If you stop by a local propane dealer, they’ll charge you more per gallon than gasoline,” he says. “What landscaper is going to do that if they have to pay more for the fuel?”

Getting commercial propane pricing below that of gasoline is critical to convincing landscapers to switch fuels and cover the cost of converting mowers. “In the Metro Lawn program, we guarantee propane prices below gasoline,” says Coker. Just as critically, the program supplies the necessary cylinders, which represent a big part of the investment in switching to propane. (The 33-pound cylinders used on lawn mowers are all standardized left-hand-thread attachments, meaning that the different types of propane mowers on the market can share the same tanks.)

At roughly $200 per cylinder, the costs for a lawn care company can quickly add up. “And, not only do you have to have a cylinder on your mower, you also have to have extra cylinders to swap them out,” adds Coker. With Heritage Propane supplying the tanks, the savings are significant. One participating lawn care company in Austin, Texas, goes through 60 tanks per week. “We do a swap out, so we have to buy 120 cylinders to accommodate that,” says Coker. That’s a savings of $24,000 to the lawn care company.

Another large lawn care company recently purchased 40 new propane-powered Ferris mowers, each carrying two tanks. To do a weekly swap-out would require 160 cylinders. Again, the Metro Lawn program provides the tanks at no cost to its propane customers.

In addition to lowering the cost of propane and providing free tanks, the Metro Lawn program also provides commercial cutters with convenient fuel delivery options. “We’ll do it any way the customer wants it,” says Coker. “We can set a large tank and the customer can fill their own tanks, we’ll do a tank exchange program, or we can do fill-ups on-site. We’ll do it whatever way best meets the customer’s needs.”

Heritage Propane’s Metro Lawn program provides lawn care professionals using propane lawn mowers with convenient tank delivery services. A locked cage is installed at the lawn care company’s facility and Heritage Propane will pick up empty tanks and drop off full ones.

For those opting for a tank swap-out program, Heritage Propane will install a case to allow tanks to be locked up outside of the lawn care company’s facility. “They put their empties in one side, and pick up the full ones on the other side,” says Coker. This eliminates the need for installation costs and licenses that are sometimes required when putting in a large on-site tank to allow self fill-ups. Some power equipment dealers are even opting to become “propane remarketers” through the Metro Lawn program. Entering the fuel market provides an important additional revenue stream for the dealer; one participating dealer in Texas sold 100,000 gallons of propane last year alone.

Coker says Texas has been the leading adopter of propane mowers, thanks in large part to cities like Austin where low-emissions propane mowers are mandated on many commercial mowing jobs. “Florida is also really starting to take off, but the interest is really coming from all around the country,” he says. Corporate headquarters are beginning to require the use of alternative fuels in lawn care contracts, and residential homeowners are also starting to demand the same, Coker adds.

With 450 locations across the U.S., Heritage Propane is set up to handle the demand. Coker says the nationwide coverage is important in being able to grow the use of propane in the green industry. “It’s something I feel very strongly about. I want to make the transition to propane very easy for the end-user, and I think being in the propane industry allows me to do that.”

He also points out, “It’s an American fuel, and the emissions are 70 to 80 percent less. Why wouldn’t someone use propane? There’s no negative in it. The only challenge is the cost of converting, but we’ve been able to help landscapers reduce their costs so much that their return on investment is now about 12 months.”

He acknowledges that propane may not be the right alternative fuel for every situation, but says it’s the perfect solution in the lawn care business. Thanks to six years of tireless work, more and more manufactures and end users are starting to agree.

“My feeling was that, without the propane industry getting behind this, it was never really going to take off,” says Coker. Now that there’s a national program in place to support users of propane power equipment, the sky is the limit.

Another national propane supplier that is turning its attention to the lawn and landscape industry is AmeriGas. “We’ve been supplying propane and tanks to the forklift market, that’s a huge part of our business. So, the concept isn’t new to us, we’ve been doing it for 50 years, it’s just the lawn care market that’s new, it’s just a different application,” explains Dave Jones, AmeriGas market sales manager for Southern California and Arizona.

With more lawn care professionals turning to propane mowers, AmeriGas has put together a national program to serve this growing customer-base. Those professionals using propane mowers can either call a special AmeriGas toll-free number, which connects to a knowledgeable call center, or use the “dealer locator” function on the company’s Web site (www.amerigas.com) to get in touch with one of more than 600 AmeriGas dealers throughout the country.

Landscapers can go to their local supplier to have their tanks filled, but Jones says the more convenient option is to have AmeriGas deliver the propane. “We can bring the propane right to their door,” he explains. “We offer a service where we’ll come out and directly fill the bottles at the customer’s site, or we’ll exchange the bottles, whichever is more convenient for the customer. We offer additional cylinders and lockable racks for the consumer to use, and we can deliver their propane automatically right to them for their peace of mind of not running out of propane. We’re trying to make it convenient for busy landscapers.”

For those using even larger amounts of propane, AmeriGas will even install a dispensing station at the landscaper’s facility, which they can use to fill their own tanks. “We recently did that for a landscaper in the Las Vegas area who has two propane-powered trucks in addition to a number of mowers,” says Jones. “Small, medium or large, we can set up a program for any size landscape firm using propane mowers. If someone has one mower and a couple of bottles, we’ll take care of them.”

Patrick White is a freelance writer and editor who has covered every aspect of the green industry in the past 13 years. He is based in Middlesex, Vt., and is always on the lookout for unusual stories.