NORTH FEATURES


A Brilliant Idea

Connecticut contractor glows about the performance of his solar trailer and electric hand-helds
By Patrick White




The solar panels covering the top of this enclosed equipment trailer keep the firm's STIHL electric trimmers and blowers charged and ready for action.

Especially on hot summer days, the mowing crews at Madison Earth Care, Madison, Conn., used to pull up on job sites and look for some shade to park under. "Now I tell them, you can park the truck in the shade, but make sure you keep the trailer in the sun," says Bob Blundon, who recently equipped one of his landscape trailers to be a solar unit to power electric handhelds for his new "green" crew.

Blundon says the idea to try solar power in his lawn care and landscape business originated from his personal belief in the technology. This year he had solar panels installed on his own home. "I think solar is the future and it's the right way to go," he says.

Madison Earth Care

Owner: Bob Blundon

Founded: 1972

Headquarters: Madison, Conn.

Markets: Madison, Conn., and the Connectucut

Services: Custom landscape design, landscaping, landscape maintenance, lawn care, stone work, perennial gardens, landscape lighting, construction and containers

Employees: N/A

Website: http://www.madisonearthcare.com

Around the time his home went solar, Blundon heard reports about Stihl's new line of electric trimmers and blowers. He wanted to see if they would be a fit for his company, so he drove to Gano's Power Equipment in Colchester, Conn., and spoke with a STIHL representative.

"We decided we were going to try them out so we got some and installed an inverter in the trailer to run power off our diesel truck to charge the batteries as we drove from job to job," explains Blundon. The electric equipment proved effective, but he wondered if there was a way to take this green effort one step further.

"I kept thinking about the solar panels on the roof of my house and wondered if they might work on the trailer. So I started calling trailer companies to ask if that would be possible. But nobody really knew much about it, and they were quoting me some pretty big prices," he continues. "You could tell they really didn't want to do it."

It can be done!

Not dissuaded, he contacted the company that had handled his home solar installation, Aegis Solar Energy (http://www.aegis-solar.com) of Branford, Conn., and spoke with President Chris Lenda. "I asked him his thoughts and he said, 'It's simple. I can do that.' He looked at the chargers for the trimmers and told me that they don't draw very much power so it could be done with a pretty small system," says Blundon. "They had never done one before, and as far as I can tell nobody on this side of the Mississippi has ever done it."

At a cost of about $7,500, Aegis retrofitted a complete system onto one of Madison Earth Care's 22-foot enclosed landscape trailers. "They did a terrific job. The panels take up only about 10 feet on the top of the trailer," he explains. Even that may be a little overkill for the power actually needed, but the goal was to ensure power even during days without sun.

The solar panels create electricity that is converted to 110 volts, which powers the rechargeable batteries. The trimmer and blower batteries come with regular household plugs, so outlets were installed on the wall of the trailer. "All the guys have to do is plug the charger in the wall," says Blundon. "We tried to keep it as simple as possible."



Photos courtesy of Madison Earth Care.

Also in the trailer is a large battery that is continually charged by the sun and provides backup for those days when it's cloudy or rainy. "We can run fine for two or three days without any sun," he notes. It takes about 45 minutes to fully charge the trimmer/blower batteries, so each piece of equipment will run on one battery while a spare is charging. His techs just change batteries every two or three lawns.

One of the main benefits, obviously, is a reduced need for gasoline versus the company's traditional two-cycle trimmers and blowers. That saves money in two ways, says Blundon: first in the cost of purchasing gas and second in reduced maintenance.

"With the ethanol they're putting in gas, the equipment doesn't run as well and my guys are constantly ripping out recoils [trying to start the equipment]," he states. "The carburetors are screwing up, the guys are frustrated and the equipment is down. And between gas and oil, we were paying about $5 a gallon for all the frustration involved."



This Scag dual-fuel mower can be operated with either gasoline or propane. Madison Earth Care already had a propane filling station on site for filling tanks for customers' grills.

Unexpected plusses

The electric units, on the other hand, have worked as advertised, says Blundon.

"First, they're quiet. They're also lighter weight. And there's no recoil," he explains. He says the crews have also found an unexpected benefit as the electric STIHL trimmers rotate in the opposite direction from traditional trimmers, so all of the clippings are thrown away from rather than toward the operator.

"There's just much less fatigue in using them. We find that we're getting an extra three or four lawns done per week because the crews are more productive. So the savings are just in fuel but more importantly in increased productivity."

He adds that the electric trimmers are so quiet that crews can start trimming earlier in the mornings and get that out of the way first before starting to mow.

Blundon says the STIHL electric trimmers and blowers have stood up just fine to professional use. They may not be as powerful as large gasoline trimmers or backpack blowers, which, he admits, concerned his employees, initially. The employees now embrace their use.



Bob Blundon, shirt and tie, calls his rolling solar unit his "green trailer." It powers his crews' solar hand-held equipment.

"One of the problems I see is that everyone thinks that bigger is better. Well, we don't need trimmers that are capable of taking down fence posts," he jokes. The lighter electric units make the crews more productive, Blundon says. In fact, he adds, Madison Earth Care is now running smaller .080 versus heavier .095 trimmer line, which is getting the job done. "That's all you need for grass trimming," notes Blundon.

Madison Earth Care also added STIHL hedge trimmers to its arsenal, and Blundon reports the same increase in productivity due to their lighter weight and silent operation. "And with most gas-powered hedge trimmers, if you're not careful, the exhaust will burn the hedges. We don't have to worry about that now."

In addition to the electric hand tools, the rolling solar unit, which Blundon calls his "green trailer", now also boasts a propane-powered mower.

Dual-fuel mower

"We bought a Scag dual-fuel mower," he reports. "We can mow with gasoline or propane, which I think is an advantage. And this model has a 31 hp Kubota gasoline engine, so it's heavier duty and it's really designed for this use." He estimates the cost of the propane at 25 to 33 percent less than gasoline, a substantial savings.

Madison Earth Care operates a small garden center and already had a propane filling station at its facility (for customer's grills), so the transition to filling mower tanks has been easy, he reports.

Customers have taken notice and appreciate the environmentally conscious approach to lawn care, says Blundon. "We don't charge any extra for it. There may be a market for that down the road, but right now we're just experimenting with everything," says Blundon. "We've been doing this since the beginning of May and I can't find one downside. We were ready to try to figure out how to fix everything, and it's just worked. We've been very lucky."

With that in mind, Blundon says he will convert his other mowing trailer to solar next year, also equipping it with electric trimmers, blowers and hedge trimmers and, also, a new propane-powered mower.

"Landscapers are really slow and stubborn; we're really slow to change," he jokes. But even with 42 years in the green industry, Blundon wasn't afraid to take a chance and try to innovate.

Patrick White, based in Middlesex, Vt., is a freelance writer and editor who has covered the green industry in the past 15 years. Contact him at pwhite@meadowridgemedia.com.