Two relatively recent introductions into the commercial mowing market—electronic fuel injection (EFI) and propane—are having a small but progressively larger impact on commercial mowing.

Both began making small inroads into the mowing industry about five years ago. Will those ripples build into waves to eventually wash over and change the face of commercial mowing?

No one (not even propane folks or EFI engine manufacturers) is predicting how fast or how robustly either of these will penetrate the industry. EFI comes at a cost, and propane, having less energy efficiency and not being as readily available as gasoline, is still largely unknown by most cutters.

Even so, change is in the air.

Let’s briefly look at propane as a fuel for commercial mowers, and also at EFI—what they are, and how they’ve found their way into the landscape market. Let’s start with EFI.

EFI is a system, relying upon an electronic control unit, to electronically monitor and provide a precise mixture of fuel and air to an engine’s combustion chamber for engine peak performance. Because of this, EFI can significantly reduce fuel usage, in some engines by 25 percent. Of course, less fuel used means fewer emissions.

In other words, engines containing EFI start easier (no choking), are more reliable, more fuel-efficient and are cleaner running than carbureted engines. A carburetor is, for the sake of simplicity, essentially like a coffee can with holes in its bottom. Admittedly, it’s an unfair description, but you get the idea.

By most accounts, the development of fuel injection began in the 1880s, and accelerated during World War I and World War II as warring nations sought more reliable methods to fuel the gasoline engines in aircraft.

Hot rodders and racers began tinkering with mechanical fuel injection in the years immediately following WWII. Their success in boosting the performance of their cars opened the eyes of automobile manufacturers. In 1957, Chevrolet offered a Corvette sporting a 283 cubic-inch engine with mechanical fuel injection. That same year, American Motors produced a pre-production Rambler Rebel with a fuel-injected 327 cubic-inch engine

In the next 20 years auto manufacturers – foreign and domestic – improved carburetor design and efficiency, but also trotted out versions of production vehicles with primitive (by today’s standards anyway) fuel injection systems. None proved reliable enough to excite the public.

Finally, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, development of electronic (rather than mechanical) fuel injection and stricter government emissions regulations sped up the elimination of carburetion in favor EFI in automobiles. Today, all cars feature EFI.

EFI is available (or soon will be) on commercial mower engines from three manufacturers – Kawasaki, Briggs & Stratton and Kohler. Kawasaki offers Direct Fuel Injection on several of its popular commercial engines. In 2010, Kohler announced the availability of closed loop EFI on 12 Command Pro engines. This fall Briggs & Stratton joined the EFI movement with its 810cc EFI commercial series, also featuring a closed loop system.

Propane is a hydrocarbon (C3H8) and is sometimes referred to as liquefied petroleum gas, or LPG. It is nontoxic, colorless and odorless, although odor is added to it to make the gas readily detected. It is produced from natural gas refining and crude oil refining.

The history of propane starts in 1910 when Dr. Walter O. Snelling, a chemist and explosives expert, began investigating the vapors coming from the gasoline tank vent of a Ford Model T. His curiosity led to a series of experiments that resulted in the discovery of the propane component in those vapors. In 1912, he and a colleague founded the American Gasol Company. A year later they sold their company to Frank Phillips, the founder of Phillips Petroleum Co. The propane industry was off and running.

Today, the Propane Education & Research Council (PERC) is a nonprofit organization in charge of promoting and expanding the safe use of propane. A 21-member board oversees and directs PERC.

Propane is used in home heating, millions of barbeque grills, many farm applications and in vehicle fleets, to name a few of its many applications.

A number of factors are making propane increasingly popular with commercial mowing businesses. They include:

  • The price advantage (gallon per gallon) that propane offers over gasoline because of the abundance of natural gas derived from U.S. shade deposits.
  • Technology allowing propane to be used in the small commercial engines, the first innovation being kits to convert gasoline engines to propane fuel and, more recently, the manufacture of engines dedicated specifically to propane.
  • Propane-fueled vehicles produce about 50 percent fewer toxins and other smog-producing emissions than gasoline engines.
  • If propane leaks, it doesn’t puddle but instead vaporizes and dissipates into the air.
  • National and state financial incentives for using propane.

The adoption and use of commercial mowers fueled by propane or employing EFI are still relatively small.

Read more: Powering Up Commercial Mowing