After much research, conversion to propane begins at Lasting Impressions

Lasting Impressions Landscape Contractors in suburban Washington, D.C., is in the process of converting its fleet of mowers and trucks to propane power. It wasn’t a decision made quickly, and it’s not a change that’s taking place overnight. Instead, there was a lot of research and deliberation put into the propane changeover, explains Jim Flippo, company owner.


Six of the company’s 36 crews and three managers’ trucks are now running on propane.
CREDIT: DARREN PROCTOR/COURTESY OF LASTING IMPRESSIONS.

The research behind the move

“Back in 2006, I started doing some reading about it, initially for vehicles,” he explains, adding that when gasoline first topped $3 a gallon that year, “it was the first slap in the face for a lot of people.” Then, at the GIE trade show in 2007 and 2008, Flippo started seeing more propane mowers on the floor. “Then I started going to ‘alternate fuel’ seminars in Las Vegas and other places,” he recalls. “I learned about some interesting incentives the government has [for using propane]. I muddled through all of those pieces and kept asking more questions.”

It began to occur to Flippo that propane might make particular sense for Lasting Impressions (www.lilclandscaping.com), because the company has greenhouse facilities that already use the fuel as a heat source – to the tune of more than $25,000 per year. “It seemed like sort of a natural fit,” he states. With government incentives offering a tax credit of 50 cents per gallon to businesses with their own propane filling stations, there was added financial reason to make the move.

Lasting Impressions

Landscape ContractorsLocation: Washington, D.C.Clientele: Residential and commercialServices: Grounds maintenance; irrigation/special projects; landscape and design; turfand IPM; and golf services

Another factor that played into Flippo’s decision to move in the direction of propane was research showing that the fuel is better than gasoline for small engines, because it extends their life. “Ethanol has been a nightmare, and now we’re talking about higher rates of ethanol in gasoline, which is just going to make the problem worse. So, I really embraced propane,” he explains.

Finally, the lower emissions offered by propane fit with the company’s “going green” methodology. “We’ve done a whole lot of things to be green that might not have been financially beneficial at the time we did them,” says Flippo. For example, when growing annuals in its greenhouse operation, Lasting Impressions took the step of bringing back the plastic plant containers from the field, washing, sterilizing and reusing them. “It doesn’t really pay off economically, but I wanted to try to be environmentally responsible,” he explains. The company also takes its pruning debris and materials generated from tree work, grinds it and uses the recycled material to make mulch and soil. These and other environmentally minded initiatives are shared with clients, many of whom appreciate the effort.

Rising energy costs

Knowing that other green initiatives had proven successful helped propel Flippo to move ahead with the conversion to propane. That move seems to make even more sense now that gasoline prices are once again soaring – a fact that should be no surprise, he says. “[The oil companies] will keep doing it until the economy can’t absorb the hit, and then they’ll back off a little bit until they think they have another opportunity to make some money, and then they’ll run the prices up again,” he opines.

Flippo even went so far as to attend Congressional hearings on the subject of how venture capital investment is further driving up energy costs. Through all of his study of the matter, he discovered that propane prices have lagged behind gasoline prices by a little more than a gallon when costs rise. He also learned that the vast majority of propane used in this country comes from domestic sources, “so we’re not sending our money overseas – that’s huge. We’ve got ourselves a trade deficit that we can’t seem to fix, and this is certainly one area to lower emissions without hurting ourselves economically,” says Flippo. Europe and South America are way ahead of the United States in using propane power for transportation purposes, he points out: “Somebody here has to step up and say, ‘We’re going to move forward with this.'”


The company’s Maryland facility hosts a first-of-its kind propane refueling station.

The conversion begins

He’s determined to be one of those people. For 2011, Lasting Impressions Landscape Contractors has begun the move by converting its Maryland facility (they have four locations serving customers in Maryland, Virginia, Delaware and Washington, D.C.) over to propane. “Everything that runs out of here will be powered by propane, whether it’s a riding mower or a truck,” says Flippo. The company uses Exmark mowers, and he contacted the manufacturer early on to come up with the best propane mower solutions. “We’ve been talking back and forth, and they’ve been very helpful,” says Flippo. “I’ve found the discussions to be very beneficial, and I’ve found them to be as progressive as they can be in helping us.”

Flippo researched the possibility of converting his existing fleet from gasoline to propane, but says that in many cases “the numbers didn’t make sense.” So he continues to research various options. To begin the propane conversion process, he bought a new fleet of propane-powered zero-turn mowers (a combination of 72-inch, 60-inch and 52-inch units) for the Maryland facility, and continues to look for a good conversion solution for his 36-inch walk-behind mowers. Flippo says he wanted to convert the entire range of mowers being run out of that facility to propane, “because what landscape contractor wants to carry four different types of fuel on the back of their truck? With propane, you’re either in it or you’re not.”

Speaking of trucks, part of Flippo’s philosophy of converting completely to propane involves converting his current fleet of nine Ford trucks. He’s selected a third-party conversion specialist to change the trucks over. “They’ll all meet the 2010 Clean Air Act [standards], and that’s a very big key,” he explains. Flippo credits Lasting Impression’s fleet manager, Jim Rossi, with overseeing the move to propane within the company, and says Rossi has worked to research various options and keep everything organized.

Challenges for mower manufacturers

Flippo worked with Thompson Gas to set up a filling station at the company’s Maryland facility that comes with a card system – the first of its kind on the East Coast, he says – that allows employees to swipe an ID card and then fill up with propane, just as they would do with a credit card at a gas station. With maintenance crews filling up at the company’s facility, there’s no wasted time, or expense, when employees stop at the gas station to fill up on fuel. “That’s an example of a hidden cost savings,” he explains.

Flippo says there are challenges in finding mower manufacturers that are committed to the propane market, but he thinks that is starting to change. While there are some logistical challenges – for example, in making lower horsepower engines without electric start run on propane – Flippo feels these can be overcome as small engine manufacturers see more demand for, and thus become more committed to, propane engines. (Even smaller engines, such as those on hand-held trimmers, blowers, etc., will likely be battery-powered in the future, he feels.)

Add up the numbers

For the end user, Flippo says the biggest obstacle to converting to propane is making sure that the numbers work financially when purchasing fuel. “You need to buy propane at a reasonable volume to get a good price. You need to put in a filling station at your facility to take advantage of the tax breaks. Then the numbers start to make sense. Otherwise, there’s no cost savings, and no reason to convert,” he says. Partnering with local propane dealers might open opportunities for even smaller users of propane to secure low per-gallon prices, he suggests. And, as more and more people in the green industry move toward propane, the equipment options will go up, and prices will go down.

“Propane is cheaper and it’s environmentally sound. We are the green industry; we should be setting the pace,” states Flippo. He says that instead of waiting for regulations to force cleaner fuels in mowers and other equipment, the industry should be embracing new approaches. “This isn’t something we should be waiting for the gas companies and manufacturers and Congress to solve. We need to create the demand. Not everybody has to find a way to bring this into their fleet, but they really need to sit down and look at the options.”

Note: Keep an eye out in Turf magazine for a future article providing an update on how the move to propane has progressed at Lasting Impressions Landscape Contractor.

Patrick White is a freelance writer and editor who has covered every aspect of the green industry in the past 15 years. He is based in Middlesex, Vt., and is always on the lookout for unusual stories.