If you’ve been in the lawn service or chemical lawn care business for more than three years, you already know how fickle fuel prices can be. One year they can be up, the next year down.
This summer the price of gasoline and diesel fuel in the U.S. is down by about $1 a gallon compared to 2012-2014. The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), acknowledging that prices vary from state to state, predicts fuel prices are likely to remain at these relatively modest levels until at least September 2015.
Whether you take much stock in the government forecast or not, any reduction in fuel costs is good news, especially when this past winter you may have budgeted fuel costs to be significantly higher.
But just how good is this news? How about a 30 percent reduction from last summer, which is where gas and diesel prices stand now?
Say you are the owner/operator of a $1 million lawn service company, and for this season you budgeted fuel costs at 4 percent of revenue (not atypical for a lawn service business), and you estimated fuel prices would be comparable to what they were during the summer of 2014. Four percent of $1 million is $40,000, the amount you budgeted to keep service vehicles and your equipment running this season. Spending 30 percent less for fuel saves you $12,000.
You’ll take the savings, right? Of course you will.
So now that the fuel gods are smiling on you this season, is that reason enough to continue driving down fuel costs wherever you can? If you’re running that $1 million company that will reap that extra $12,000 in fuel cost savings this year, should that be enough, especially when you can increase those savings by a couple of thousands of dollars more by implementing a few simple strategies?
You shouldn’t even have to think twice about that.
There’s absolutely no reason not to keep reducing fuel costs. And that’s regardless if these expenses are 3 percent or 6 percent of revenue. Again, if you’ve been in the industry more than a few years, you can hardly have forgotten how suddenly fuel prices can spike due to factors beyond your control. But, what you can control is your business, and you should be using technology to reduce fuel costs. GPS and routing software are two tools that are revolutionizing fuel savings in service fleets.
Grasshopper Lawns saves with Real Green
Grasshopper Lawns Inc., Larksville, Pennsylvania, is just one of hundreds of successful lawn maintenance and lawn care companies now using GPS and routing software to get its lawn techs to clients’ properties in the most efficient manner possible.
“With us it’s all about routing,” says Michael Kravitsky IV, who runs the company along with his brother, Shawn. “We’re using Real Green for routing and their routing assistant program. Once you set up the routes using the program, and your guys follow the routes the way they are set up, then I don’t know how much better fuel savings you are going to get.”
Grasshopper Lawns has about 20 trucks. Its service fleet — cube vans, regular vans and even a couple of flatbed trucks — and its service area includes many communities in northeast Pennsylvania, so the company’s fuel bills are significant.
“As far as fuel efficiency goes, yes we do compare the numbers from year to year, but we don’t get overly excited about them,” points out Kravitsky. “As long as we beat the previous year’s numbers, we’re happy.”
One of the most appreciated features of the Real Green System — and one that offers additional fuel cost savings — is its Measurement Assistant. In a previous generation, lawn pros often walked a yard with a measuring wheel to determine how much to charge for a lawn application or maintenance. Of course owners or techs had to drive to prospects’ properties to do this. Today, thanks to software and satellite photography, owners or their sales people can, within a few minutes, view and measure clients’ properties and sell the service from their offices over the telephone.
“Sometimes a customer might say, ‘Well, you have to look at my lawn. How do you know what it needs?'” says Kravitsky. “I tell them, ‘Sir, we have a picture of it, and I can guarantee you that the first time we come out, your lawn is going to need fertilizer and weed control. We can get that rolling and if your lawn needs anything else, we will let you know.'”
Oregon firm takes sustainable route
Bob Grover and his management and production teams at Pacific Landscape Management, Hillboro, Oregon, are all on the same page when it comes to environmentally sound landscape care — fuel conservation being just one factor in providing their services.
“We are a commercial maintenance and enhancement company,” says Grover. “Going back 10 years, fuel costs had risen to around 3 percent. When fuel costs rose again around five years ago, the percentage increased to 4 percent. We have worked on several fronts to reduce fuel consumption over the past five to 10 years, and have cut the cost back to 3 percent of sales.”
Pacific Landscape Management, although offering a wider range of landscape services than Grasshopper Lawns in Pennsylvania, also embraces technology to keep its fuel costs in line.
The company, now in its 19th year, regularly updates its vehicle and equipment fleets with more fuel-efficient models. These include Izusu Eco-Max diesel production trucks, Toyota Prius manager vehicles, and company supervisors are now driving new Chevy Colorado pickup trucks.
Adds Grover: “We have converted most larger mowing equipment to propane. John Deere helped us with this through their relationship with the Propane Education & Research Council.” He acknowledges that the conversion rebates offered by PERC were a factor in that decision. Propane, although lower in energy than gasoline and diesel gallon-per-gallon, is historically less expensive during summer months and offers the added advantages of running cleaner than gasoline and virtually eliminating fuel theft and fuel spills.
Save by staying close to home
In the prim, bustling communities of Vernon Hills, Libertyville and Lincolnshire, just north of Chicago, Ron and Tracy Lester, owners of Architerra Inc., reinvented their company following the 2008-2009 recession. While fuel economy was just one of the smaller considerations in rebuilding and rebranding Architerra as “the neighborhood landscape services provider,” their efforts are paying off in significant fuel cost savings nonetheless.
“There are 37,000 houses in the market we serve, and while we obviously don’t work for everybody, we’ve decided there is so much work in our area we don’t have to travel too far,” says Lester. “We are committed to being the predominant brand in our area for service and quality, and we’re engaging people who want our brand and our service.”
Lester says his firm’s service vehicles average about 6,000 miles a year as the firm’s crews seldom drive more than 15 miles from its location in Indian Hills. Once one of his crews arrives in a particular neighborhood, it doesn’t drive very far to stay busy throughout the day. The company has done a great job, both in service delivery and in branding itself as the area’s landscaper of choice, in the neighborhoods where homes average about $350,000 surrounding its attractive headquarters and maintenance shop.
“When we looked at our expenses we saw that we have curbed fuel costs by around 25 percent since 2013,” says Lester. “Our fuel costs have dropped dramatically because we are not driving around a lot.”
Beyond that, Architerra is a stickler for equipment maintenance. “When we’re talking about reducing travel expenses, we’re not just talking about fuel, although that’s important,” says Lester. “There are other expenses, too, such as the wear and tear on your vehicles, tires, vehicle repairs. When I talked to our mechanic a few days ago, he told me our costs were down 20 to 25 percent.”
COVER PHOTO: ISTOCKPHOTO