Russo Lawn & Landscape likes what it sees in mowing with propane power. By Jessica Simpson

Russo Lawn & Landscape in Windsor Locks, Connecticut, is a family-owned, commercial landscape company. Established in 1990, Russo has grown into a large operation, at least for a landscape services business. It employs up to 80 employees during the summer and runs a fleet of 50 mowers. The company provides mowing and landscaping services in the spring, summer and fall, and snow removal in the winter.

Kevin Salters is the firm’s account manager and is thankful for the four-season business, however relying solely on gasoline-powered equipment began to pose winter storage issues and put a dent in the company’s bottom line. In 2012 he began looking for a more cost-effective solution.

Russo’s main objective was finding a fuel that wouldn’t degrade during winter storage or cause carburetor problems after sitting in a mower’s engine for too long. After evaluating the risks of wasting gasoline or ruining an engine, Salters began researching propane-fueled mowers.

Russo Lawn & Landscape

Founder & President: Mike Russo

Founded: 1990

Headquarters: Windsor Locks, Conn.

Markets: Connecticut and surrounding communities

Services: Commercial mowing, landscaping and snow & ice management services

Employees: up to 80 peak season

Websitehttp://www.russolawn.com

Salters initially discovered propane by conducting online searches and reading green industry magazine articles describing landscapers with positive experiences with propane. While he found more landscapers in the southern part of the country using propane, he still thought Russo Lawn & Landscape could benefit from the alternative fuel in the Northeast.

“I definitely did my research, calling on competitors, colleagues and mechanics who’ve been running it, and they only had good things to say,” Salters explains. “I realized the efficiency propane could offer when we started paying more than $4 a gallon for gasoline.”

The more he researched, the more Salters understood propane’s benefits beyond cost savings. Propane’s clean carbon footprint added another strong advantage to the fuel’s business case. The scales were officially tipped after he heard about one of Russo’s competitors dealing with the negative environmental repercussions of running gasoline.

“Somehow gasoline spilled near the air-conditioning unit of a commercial facility in downtown Hartford, Connecticut. Fumes were sucked into the building, causing an evacuation, because no one knew where they were coming from. Utilizing propane would have prevented the problem altogether,” he says.

“I had initially looked into propane for saving money, but after hearing about air-conditioning incident, I realized propane’s benefits for air-quality control issues. Then propane became a business driver in my mind,” he adds.

From research to realization

Russo moved forward with propane in April 2013 by adding six propane models to its 50-mower fleet. The purchase produced immediate benefits, including cost savings, reduced maintenance and positive feedback from customers. With propane at approximately 50 percent of the cost per gallon compared with gasoline, the company saved a significant amount on its fuel bills. It also noticed some positive changes in maintaining their equipment.

“The number of oil changes we needed was much less. Usually we change the oil every two weeks, but with propane it’s not necessary, because it’s such a clean fuel. We only change it every four weeks,” says Salters. “There is also less oil being used and less wasted oil after changing it.”

Russo Lawn & Landscape serves commercial customers, and while none of their current clients require propane, they appreciate the fuel’s environmentally friendly profile. Propane reduces harmful carbon emissions compared with conventional fuels, and in many places, propane mowers can be used on ozone action days when other mowers can’t.

“The places we do mow with propane are extremely happy. We maintain lots of condos and homeowner’s associations, and there are lots of individual residents following the green movement. They’re happy to see this, and being as environmentally conscious as we are, we’re more advanced than the guy behind us,” Salters notes.

Labor savings was another major benefit of the transition. Russo participates in a cylinder exchange program. Because their propane retailer comes out twice a week to switch out full tanks for empty ones, the company’s employees don’t have to spend time refueling at the gas station every morning.

“All we sell are hours,” explains Salters. “So wherever we save time, it goes to our bottom line. The efficiency of changing a propane tank rather than filling a mower with gas is way faster. It adds up to about an hour of savings per day.”

Additionally, propane’s closed fuel system eliminates theft. “Guys park their trailers in a parking lot on a 100-acre facility, and gasoline can easily be stolen. There’s no chance of that with propane,” Salters says.

Dispelling myths

At first, Russo Lawn & Landscape employees worried about switching from gasoline to propane. They worried that performance would suffer, and they’d heard rumors that propane mowers don’t start well.

“When the first mowers were distributed to the crews, there was a lot of hesitation,” Salters said. “Now the three crews that operate the propane machines won’t use gasoline anymore, and they promote these mowers to our other crews. Foremen who know there are mowers ready to be replaced are now asking for propane power.”

A certified mechanic converted four of the company’s propane mowers with MetroLawn kits. These included two Exmark Vantage stand-on units and two Exmark Lazer Z zero-turns. The other two are Exmark Lazer Z S-Series dedicated propane units featuring the Kohler EFI engines. Electronic fuel-injection (EFI) adds extra fuel savings.

All six mowers have performed above expectations, says Salters. “We found increased horsepower and ground speed, and the mowers appeared to cut better and throw grass clippings further. The crews would be more upset now if we took the mowers away,” he adds.

With such a positive response from employees and increasing awareness among clients, the company plans to continue converting and transitioning their current fleet. Its mechanic will decide how many mowers to get rid of after the coming season, and those mowers will be replaced with propane models. The Propane Education & Research Council’s (PERC) Mower Incentive Program will assist with the upfront costs of transitioning, providing $1,000 for each new OEM model and $500 for the company’s qualified conversions. Russo Lawn & Landscape is in the process of finalizing its application for its first six propane mowers.

“Being in this industry we feel we should do our part and reduce our carbon footprint and emissions,” said Salters. “We are stewards of the green industry, so we’ll continue our push of replacing mowers.”

To learn more about propane-powered lawn care equipment and the Propane Education & Research Council, visit http://www.poweredbypropane.org.