Which is Your Alternative Fuel Choice?
Have you noticed how expensive fuel costs are these days? Of course you have. No matter where you live in the country, the price for the lowest octane unleaded gasoline is well over $3.00 per gallon; for premium grades, it’s even higher. And in many places, diesel fuel prices are about the same as gasoline.
As a landscape contractor, you use a lot of fuel. It’s one of your major overhead items. In fact, for many of you, the cost of fuel has outstripped the cost of labor.
Price, however, isn’t the only consideration. Many cities have “ozone days,” when the use of gasoline-powered tools is limited or even banned.
A growing number of landscape company owners—and their customers—are concerned about the environment and the effect their practices have on it.
The manufacturers of commercial mowers are well aware of all these facts. Because you are demanding it, many more models using alternative fuels are now available, and more are on the way. Let’s look at each of these fuels and see how they stack up, both cost-wise and in terms of being ecologically compliant.
Propane The most popular and widely used alternative fuel for mowers is propane. It’s inexpensive and can be obtained practically anywhere. Many mower manufacturers have propane-powered commercial models, or sell conversion kits that are compatible with them.
Propane has a lot of advantages over gasoline or diesel. One of them is its lower emissions; another is its ability to be used when and where the use of gasoline-powered tools is restricted. Having propane-powered machines allows your crews to keep working.
One of propane’s biggest proponents is John Watson, owner of Knoxville, Tennessee-based Common Grounds Landscape Management, Inc. You could say that, in the beginning, his interest in the fuel was academic.
“About five years ago, we were asked to participate in a study conducted by the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, to compare gasoline and propane-powered mowers,” said Watson. “They said, ‘We’re going to give you two mowers. All you have to do is run them, monitor the fuel usage and we’ll come out and test them every week. You just buy the fuel.’” “I said, ‘I get two free mowers, and all I have to do is buy fuel and operate them? I think I can handle that.’” At the conclusion of the study, Watson was a believer. “We determined that we wanted to start converting some of our other mowers. We did 15 of them at that time.”
He’s done the math. “Our mowers run about five hours a day, four days a week, 34 weeks per year. The gallons-per-hour usage per mower comes out to 1.1 average gallons per hour for fourteen mowers; that’s a total of 9,520 hours for 10,091 gallons.”
The current price for gasoline in East Tennessee at this writing was $3.25 per gallon. Contrast that with the price Watson last paid for propane, $1.67 per gallon. The fuel cost per year, had they used gasoline at $3.25 per gallon, would have been $32,796.40. Watson’s bill for one year of propane was about half that amount: $16,862.59.
Watson was impressed by the quick return on investment. “Gasto-propane conversion costs about $800 to $1,000 per mower. The cost savings pays for the conversion in the first year, and you start saving money in the second and third year.” Maintenance costs are also less for propane mowers, boosting the savings even higher.
Common Grounds has its own filling station, built and maintained by the propane distributor. “We’ll have one propane bottle on the mower, one on the truck and one that our mechanic fills during the day. The crews just swap the bottles out,” says Watson.
Each bottle holds approximately four gallons. “When you change a bottle, you just screw the hose on and off. You’re not pouring, so you’re not spilling it on the ground.”
Other benefits include no more trips to the gas station, cleaner mowers and longer-lasting engines. “Plus, there’s no ethanol in propane,” says Watson. “And we don’t have to winterize these mowers. You sharpen the blades, tune them up, and then set them down for the winter.”
Still another plus is that there’s no pilferage. There can be a temptation for crew members to fill their own vehicles with the company’s gas when the boss isn’t looking. Since none of Watson’s crew owns cars or trucks that run on propane, this isn’t a problem. The bottles won’t fit barbecue grills, either.
One of the common objections to propane-powered mowers is that they don’t have the “oomph” that diesel or gasoline-powered models do. Troy Butolph, co-owner of Butch and Troy Landscaping in Bend, Oregon, agrees. “They just don’t have the power. Sometimes that’s not a big deal, but it is when you’ve got a crazy client who only wants you to mow every two weeks, and then you’ve got a forest to mow down. They bog down a lot easier, because they don’t have the power to muscle through all that growth.”
Jim Coker, director of Metro Lawn, part of Valley Forge, Pennsylvania-based Amerigas, says that the lack of power may be due to the use of cheap aftermarket adapters bought off the Internet. “You will get a power loss if you use one of these adapters. They can actually harm the engine.” (It should be noted that these adapters are not the same as the propane conversion kits sold by mower manufacturers themselves for their particular machines.)
Watson says that contractors can benefit from propane companies’ eagerness to sell gas year ’round.
“Propane is a traditional heating source. But nobody uses it much during the summer. They have to promote it to keep the pipeline moving, so they’ll sell it to you at wholesale rates. The propane companies even provide extra bottles, so you don’t have to buy them. It’s a win-win for everybody.”
Compressed natural gas
Currently only one manufacturer, Dixie Chopper in Coatesville, Indiana, has a commercial mower that runs on compressed natural gas (CNG). Territory manager Rob Mullins says, “This mower was a little before its time, but the people who have them, love them.”
The city of Sapulpa, Oklahoma, (a suburb of Tulsa with about 22,000 residents) has them. It bought three with 72-inch cutting decks earlier this year with a $36,000 grant from Tulsa Area Clean Cities. They’re being used to maintain more than 400 acres of city park facilities, including two cemeteries and a golf course. “We bought them around the end of May,” said John Waytula, Sapulpa’s director of Parks and Recreation. “We’re really happy with them.”
Unlike propane bottles which can be switched in and out, CNG tanks, per EPA regulations, are not removable. Waytula says that hasn’t been a stumbling block. His crews run the CNG mowers every day, “pretty much all day long, six hours. By the time they have to fill the tanks back up, the day’s pretty much over. We don’t have to go back and forth to the filling station.” He’s heard no negative comments from his staff about power loss or anything else. Another positive is that “when we have ‘ozone days,’ we can keep mowing.”
Waytula’s had no complaints on the maintenance front, either. “When you take apart a gasoline engine after several years of use, you see the wear,” said Mullins. “With propane, you’ll see it, but not as much. But on the CNG engines, you don’t see any.”
During the months of June, July and August, the per-gallon price for CNG fuel ranged between $0.76 to a high of $1.46, according to Waytula. Contrast that with the going price for diesel fuel in the same area, currently about $3.50 per gallon. “In those three months, we used 150 gallons of CNG, for which we paid $141.”
This brings up an important issue.
CNG mowers probably won’t grow that much in popularity until there are more CNG stations. “In Oklahoma, there’s a CNG fueling station on every corner,” says Mullins. “But if you drive to Nebraska, Arkansas or a lot of other states, the availability’s just not there.” While the mower itself, according to him, is “an extreme success,” the lack of places to buy the fuel hurts sales.
You’ve heard about the controversy over ethanol and its deleterious effect on small engines. E10 fuel, gasoline containing ten percent ethanol, has been around awhile; you may have been pumping it without even noticing. Recently, E15 was introduced; although currently available in only a handful of states, it’s being pushed more and more, as is an even higher blend, E85. Pump one of these into your mower, and you just might damage it and void your warranty.
John Deere seems to have solved the high-ethanol-content problem. Their Flex Fuel commercial mower, introduced this past July, can operate on any fuel blend up to E85. Chase Tew, product marketing manager with the company, explains the decision. “It started several years ago in the automotive industry, and with the rising trend of electronic fuel injection (EFI) engines in the outdoor power equipment industry. When you look at the larger picture of rising fuel costs, and increased ethanol availability, it just made sense.”
When you talk to landscape company owners and mower manufacturers, the consensus is that battery power “just isn’t there yet.” The batteries are too heavy, the thinking goes, and they just don’t provide enough power to keep up with the demands of a mower that must run six to eight hours a day, five to six days a week.
The Toro Company, headquartered in Bloomington, Minnesota, makes battery-powered mowers, but only for the golf course turf market. Dana Lonn, managing director of Toro’s Center for Advanced Turf Technology, explains that greens mowers are reel mowers, which take a lot less power than rotary mowers. “For commercial mowers, the challenge is to get the runtime up where we want it; it’s not there yet. And I’m not sure that we have a technology in our sights that will quite get us there.”
Clean Air Lawn Care in Fort Collins, Colorado, isn’t going along with the conventional wisdom.
“We’re the Whole Foods (an organic grocery chain) of lawn care,” said owner, founder and CEO Kelly Giard. “That’s the customer we’re targeting, and that’s the service we’re trying to deliver—a premium service for people concerned about the environment and their health.”
The company uses mostly lithiumion battery-powered mowers, blowers, trimmers and other tools, charged by an array of solar panels on their trucks. “The great thing about the lithium-ions is that I can have a guy on a commercial crew using a blower or trimmer go all day long with just two batteries, and that’s it,” says Giard. “We don’t need anything else.” Some of the mowers use lead-acid batteries, but those are “heavy and slow to charge.”
The lithium-ion batteries charge so quickly that crews always have one in use and one on the solar charger. When a mower or tool runs out of power, it’s swapped for the other one, and the unit with the spent battery is put back on the charger, in a process repeated all day long. Giard says the work they can accomplish with their battery-powered machines is very comparable to what gas-powered equipment can do.
The company’s mowers are on the small side, however. “We use 20-inch deck machines on our residential routes,” said Giard. “Sometimes we’ll use an in-between sort of mower, like a Hustler Zeon or a Kubota.” He admits that they’re not as powerful as the big zero-turns.
“We also use a self-propelled homeowner-type mower. A lot of commercial landscape guys think that’s a low-power, rinky-dink sort of product. In some ways, that’s true, but if you know how to use the piece of equipment, and what the limitations are, it works.”
More might is needed for maintaining properties larger than one acre, or where mowers must run six to eight hours a day. For those jobs, the company uses machines with 60- inch decks powered by either a canola oil- or algae-based B100 biofuel. The price for the B100 fuel is “somewhere between gas and diesel.”
Giard says, “The design of our solar system is special; the actual panels are stock.” His father, an electrical engineer, was one of the co-designers. “I worked with him back in 2006 through 2008, although we’ve tweaked the design over the years.”
“The electric equipment has come a long way, in terms of power and battery efficiency, since 2006,” says Giard. “I’d say we’re 95 percent as fast or powerful as our gaspowered competitors. Out in the field, with our solar charging system, not needing a gas can saves us a lot of time and money.”
Giard says that battery management and maintenance are key elements to working this way. “It’s a whole different operational world; it’s not as simple as just going out and buying a battery-powered mower,” warns Giard. “There’s a learning curve. The decks are a little shallower, so they have to be cleaned a lot more. And the blades have to be sharpened more often.”
Mean Green Mowers in Ross, Ohio, makes battery-powered commercial mowers that run on LiFePO4 (lithium iron phosphate) batteries, good for 1,500 charging cycles. CEO and president Joe Conrad says their machines’ advantages include “zero emissions, and about half the noise of gas-powered mowers. There’s no fuel to buy and no oil to change, plus no spark plugs, belts, pulleys, hydraulics or hydrostatics like you have on other zero-turn mowers.”
Conrad claims that the mowers, which can run about five hours before needing a charge, literally pay for themselves. “We’ve got the calculations on our website,” says Conrad. “You’d be saving $5.00 an hour with one of our walk-behinds. If you use it for 2,000 hours, you’ll save $10,000 in gasoline over the life of that mower, which cost you $5,000 to $6,000.”
Diesel and Biodiesel
If you own a diesel-powered mower, you may already know that you’re able to use biodiesel in it. Biodiesel is a biodegradable, nontoxic alternative fuel derived from biological sources. Emissions from biodiesel and biodiesel blends are lower than those from petroleum-based diesel fuels, making biodiesel fuels more environmentally friendly. There are various blends of biodiesel fuels, including B2, B5, B10, B20 and B100. Some biodiesel is made from used cooking oil. Some landscape contractors, like Scott Walker, owner of Pleasant Green Grass in Durham, North Carolina, make their own.
Starting with the 2008 model year, Toro announced that all its diesel-powered commercial mowers would be “biodiesel-ready,” equipped to operate on biodiesel fuels up to B20.
They also started making biodiesel conversion kits available for diesel-powered Z Master mowers produced prior to the 2008 model year.
John Deere also offers biodiesel conversion kits. Currently, some of their commercial products are certified to run on differing levels of biodiesel, from B5 to B20. From 2014 on, all of their commercial diesel-powered products will be certified to use B20 biodiesel from the factory.
Hydrogen? Maybe later…
A couple of companies outside the green industry have built hydrogen-powered mowers, but they’re quite far from mass-marketing them. Toro built some hydrogen-powered prototypes—two utility vehicles and a greens mower—about four years ago. “The prototype mower worked very well, actually better than our gas-powered machines,” says Lonn. “We mowed 18 holes with one fill-up of fuel. The challenge is cost and infrastructure; where do you get hydrogen? And the components were very expensive. It’s not viable in today’s economics.”
Not all manufacturers are jumping wholeheartedly on the alt-fuel bandwagon. Tim Cromley, marketing manager for Fort Collins, Colorado-based Walker Manufacturing Company, stands by EFI. “We’ve found great success with EFI. We’re seeing people saving fuel. It’s a smaller carbon footprint than carbureted gas, obviously, and more so even than some of the alternative fuels. Versus propane, EFI actually has an overall 40 percent better carbon footprint.” He adds, “We’ve taken a look at this, taking the lead from the automotive industry. Overall, the question would be, ‘Where are all the propane cars?’ We don’t see ‘em.”
The industry is still trying to figure out what’s going to be the winning strategy in this game. “I think everybody is trying to figure out what the clear direction is going to be, whether that will be propane, or electrical power, or CNG,” said Brad Unruh, senior product manager at Excel Industries in Hesston, Kansas. “I don’t believe anybody knows exactly what that is yet. Everyone is apprehensive about being the one who sticks his neck out, picks one, and then turns out to be wrong.”
The future may offer a smorgasbord of technologies to pick from.
“We’re going to be a much more multi-fueled world than we are today,” says Lonn. “It’ll be a mixture of batteries, biodiesels…even hydrogen might have a place. There’s going to be a whole bunch of fueling choices that’ll make sense, based on what region you’re in.”
Watson says that having a landscape company that uses a clean, alternative fuel has helped him attract customers. But he has a philosophy which supersedes commercial considerations. “We’re the original green industry, so we shouldn’t be the industry that pollutes. I tell our friends in this business not to let the rest of the world co-opt our green standing. That’s my mission in life.”
You may or may not share Watson’s passion, but as a business owner, alternative fuels deserve your careful consideration.