Propane Slowly Builds Momentum
The adoption of propane-powered mowers by professional landscapers continues to grow thanks to the conversion of commercial gasoline engines to run on propane and, more recently, the production of Kohler’s Command Pro EFI engines. The Wisconsin-based engine manufacturer developed the engines (working off its successful EFI gasoline engines) in conjunction with the Propane Education and Research Council (PERC).
Why are landscapers paying the approximately $1,500 per unit to convert their mowers to propane fuel, or the premium for the state-of-the-art Kohler propane power plants? They are doing it primarily for economic reasons. Why not? Landscape company owners are business people, after all. Business people are in business to make a profit. Reducing operating costs helps them to be profitable.
There are other advantages, both environmental and practical, to using propane as a mower fuel.
- Results in fewer greenhouse emissions, which allow mowing on ozone-action days in markets where that is an issue,
- Burns “cleaner” than gasoline, so engines generally require less maintenance
- Greatly reduces spillage and the risk of fuel theft,
- Reduces the nation’s reliance on imported fuel. About 98 percent of the propane used in the United States is produced in the United States, either from crude oil or natural gas.
On the downside, gallon per gallon, propane contains less fuel density (i.e., less energy) than gasoline. It doesn’t deliver as much punch per unit of fuel. Even so, many landscapers are getting the performance they need, while also finding fuel cost savings. They say these are strong enough reasons to switch their fleets to run on propane.
Dave Barr, fleet/branch manager, Mainscape Inc., Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, reports that his company uses 60-inch-cut Exmark Lazer Z S-Series units powered by Kohler closed-loop EFI propane engines. Exmark teamed with Kohler in 2013 to offer the first propane commercial mowers featuring closed-loop EFI. Toro, months later, also began offering commercial mowers with the same engine technology. Kohler is reportedly in discussions to make available to other mower manufacturers its propane-fueled EFI engines in 2015. This includes the new 824cc (27- and 29-hp models) that go into production in the second quarter of 2015.
“We bought the propane mowers because fuel costs kept rising and propane was consistently $1.50 less than gasoline. We’ve recaptured our costs and everything now is pure savings and helps the bottom line,” says Barr. (Please note that the price of propane, like gasoline, fluctuates due to many factors.)
With 35 mowers in the fleet, Barr is able to purchase propane on contract, and his supplier has installed a pumping station and storage tank. “We buy our propane in bulk for additional savings,” says Barr, adding that his company also uses several 72-inch Turf Tracer walk-behinds, also propane. The Exmark Lazar Z S-series is the company’s workhorse, however.
“Of course there were other factors,” explains Barr of the decision to go the Exmark propane route. “There is brand loyalty. We’ve tried other mowers but the Exmark works best for us, even when we were gasoline. We haven’t experienced any noticeable change in performance from the gasoline models so we’re well satisfied,” he says of his firm’s propane units.
John Deere is also promoting propane technology. In this case, engine conversions by certified personnel at its dealer locations.
John Pontarelli, president, Proscape Landscape Management Corp., East Greenwich, Rhode Island, says the John Deere propane mowers offer his staff much better savings than converted units he used in the past.
“The propane conversion mowers from John Deere offer less downtime, stem time for fueling, are more efficient and allows our employees to be more productive. We believe in propane technology and began converting gasoline mowers to propane several years ago.”
Pontarelli says Proscape reached ROI in about 18 months on the conversions, mostly from fuel savings. Proscape’s fleet consists of an assortment of Deere ZTrak riders, Quicktrak standers and 52-inch walk-behinds. Many of the units feature Deeres’ Mulch on Demand decks and bagging capabilities. Pontarelli says his employees mow a considerable amount of damp grass and his John Deere mowers, powered by Kawasaki engines, don’t slow down in the thick wet New England grass.
Propane’s environmental benefits
But don’t discount the environment benefits offered by propane, continues Pontarelli. He says many clients, some with commercial properties, are looking for ways to lessen their carbon footprint and achieve LEED Certification. “We want to be as green as we can get and are even considering propane hand-held equipment,” he adds.
Schill Grounds Management in North Ridgeville, Ohio, is also committed to being a leader in providing sustainable services to retail, commercial, health care and other larger properties. The 20-year-old company run by brothers Jerry and Jim Schill uses bio-nutritional fertilizers, practices integrated pest management on clients’ properties, recycles its green waste, designs and manages properties with proven water conservation products and strategies. It also provides key staffers with hybrid vehicles.
By Earth Day 2015, Schill Management, which has four locations in northern Ohio, has set a goal of eliminating 48,000 pounds of nitrates, 12,000 pounds of phosphates and 45,000 ounces of concentrated pesticides from its services.
In line with its sustainable stance, the company is replacing its fleet of gasoline engine commercial mowers with propane-fueled units, in this case John Deere mowers featuring conversions done by certified personnel at Shearer Equipment. Over the past two years, Schill Management has bought more than 40 new propane-fueled John Deere mowers (zero-turn, walk-behind and stand-on models.). The company will be buying more next season to complete the transition.
“From propane-powered mowers to bio-nutritional fertilizers to green waste recycling, we have made a pioneering commitment to commercial grounds management solutions that are cleaner, safer, and cost neutral,” says Director of Operations Jason Dickey.
Did the very real prospect of reduced fuel costs also figure into the decision to transition the mower fleet? Of course, responds Dickey honestly. The northern Ohio landscape market, like all major markets in the United States, is incredibly competitive. Companies seek every advantage they can get, he adds.
And sometimes, of course, that advantage is being able to mow when other companies can’t. This past summer Stay Green Inc., Santa Clarita, California, took delivery of 35 John Deere propane mowers for use in Los Angeles and Ventura where these mowers are exempt from ozone action days that can otherwise delay mowing operations.
Convenient Propane Delivery Options
By Ron Hall
Propane fuel availability and storage are among the biggest concerns that landscape company owners have when considering using propane. It shouldn’t be, says Jeremy Wishart of the Propane Education & Research Council (PERC).
“By far and away, most contractors will prefer a cylinder exchange method. It is something that has been in place for 70-plus years. It’s a simple matter of exchanging an empty cylinder for a full cylinder, and your fuel provider does it. They will come to your site, and you never have an out-of-fuel situation,” he says, adding that the service costs from $25 to $30 a month.
Wishart, says propane dealers can also supply bulk tanks of 500 or 1,000 gallons or, for a large landscape company, a fueling station. The propane dealer will train and certify the people responsible for fueling the equipment. Costs for owning on-site propane infrastructure start at about $2,000 and can approach $10,000 says Wishart, PERC’s deputy director of business development.
“We urge contractors to not own the refueling infrastructure,” he says, advising contractors to leave the maintenance and upkeep of the infrastructure up to their fuel dealer.
Regardless of how you receive the propane – cylinders, a tank or an on-site fueling station – he says that propane is “a very secure fuel course with no ground contamination and no water contamination.”
Interest in propane-fueled mowers was negligible as few as six or seven years ago – that is before the shade gas “revolution” decoupled propane pricing from the pricing of crude oil. “Because of that, the pricing structure has changed dramatically, and the pricing of propane has really gone down on a per-gallon basis,” reports Jeremy Wishart PERC’s deputy director of business development.
“Not only are we (the propane industry) bringing improved emissions, but we are also bringing improved economics, and let’s face it, that’s really what sells in this industry,” he adds.
Those economics make even more sense when you combine fuel savings with national and state incentives for converting to propane, he continues. These include the national Propane Mower Incentive Program and the incentives offered by 14 states.
“When you combine the rebates you may be able to get a propane mower for less than a comparable gas mower,” he claims. For this reason and others, Wishart says that the propane industry is looking to secure a 10 percent market share within the decade. “We know the market is going to convert at some pace,” says Wishart. Presently, the propane share of he market stands somewhere in the 4 to 5 percent range, it is believed.