Before you go down the religion road, the conversion we’re talking about is modifying trucks and mowers over to compressed natural gas (CNG) or propane.
This is a story about Rod Costa, a landscape contractor who wants to help the environment. At the same time, he needs to do what all small-business owners must, and that is to keep profits as high as he can, and overhead low. It’s a story about the obstacles he has faced trying to get both of these goals accomplished at the same time.
Although Costa has looked into converting to propane, CNG was a move that he’s been contemplating almost since the day he started his Akron, Ohio-based business, Virtuoso Landscapes, LLC, back in 2008.
The bulk of his business is in maintaining the landscapes of condominium, apartment and office buildings, as well as building hardscapes, repairing patios and solving drainage issues. In the winter, he pushes snow.
If you recall, 2008 wasn’t exactly the greatest year in which to launch a business, so Costa’s obviously not a man who’s afraid of a challenge. He first got interested in CNG when the cost of gasoline started reaching the stratosphere.
“Every time we’d go fill up a truck, it was $150. Fuel up all the mowers, $300—and we’d have to do that sometimes two or three times a week. I started thinking, ‘With all the technology that exists today, there has to be a better way.’” Costa first looked into buying some electrically-powered commercial mowers, having heard that there was one that could mow all day on one charge. “But that still didn’t make my fleet of trucks gasolinefree. And I didn’t want to spend a whole bunch of money on new mowers.”
Next, he thought about converting the commercial mowers he already owns to electrical power. That proved prohibitive, too—about $20,000 in all—and would only give him part of what he was looking for. What he really wanted was a single fuel source for his vehicles and his mowers.
Maintenance was another concern. No one in his area knows how to work on electrically-powered mowers. “If I have everything on batteries, I’ll have to put an electrician on staff,” he said.
While Costa has purchased battery-powered small landscape tools, and is still using them, a few of them proved disappointing. “We bought some battery-powered string trimmers, just to see how long they’d last, and if they would have the same amount of power as the gas-powered type,” he says. “The advertising claimed that the battery would last two hours, but it was more like 45 minutes. On one that we bought just last year, the motor has completely burnt out already.”
He began investigating other alternative fuel sources. “I even Googled solar power,” he says. Propane was the next option. But after doing the math, he found that the savings wouldn’t be as great as he’d have with CNG, especially after figuring in the cost of driving around to refill propane bottles or pay a delivery service. Converting everything would still be a pretty big investment up front, and would take a lot longer to make that money back.
“I kept coming back to CNG,” says Costa. “It’s a technology that’s been around for a long time, and it’s a clean-burning fuel. It’s readily available, the machines that use it need less maintenance, and are a lot easier to repair when there is an issue.” And, he’s found a mechanic who does CNG conversions who lives in the area.
Vehicles that are converted to CNG have another benefit, in that you can make them hybrids, able to use both gasoline and CNG. Once the CNG tank runs dry, you can switch over to gasoline. A lot of people prefer that, as they’re worried about not always being able to get to a CNG station.
“Right now, there’s no real infrastructure for CNG, but if there were more, the conversions would become cheaper,” he says. “Not a lot of people know how to do it, and it has to be done correctly, for safety’s sake. After all, you’re dealing with a flammable gas.”
For most landscape contractors who want to make a conversion, propane will probably be the go-to, since at the present time, it’s easier to obtain. “By turning over a fleet to propane power, contractors can save on fuel costs in a myriad of ways,” said Jeremy Wishart, deputy director of business development for the Propane Education & Research Council.
“Annual fuel contracts, increased refueling efficiency, and the reduction of fuel waste—all benefits of propane mowers—help contractors lower their fuel costs and make it a more predictable expense from month to month. Propane can also increase crew productivity by making refueling more efficient. This might sound like a small benefit to a contractor’s bottom line, but it can add up pretty fast.”
Still, Costa wants to make the change to an all-CNG operation, but he’s up against some real barriers. While there are two CNG filling stations in his area, both are about 40 minutes away from his shop. Having to drive so far defeats the whole purpose. The city of Akron runs its buses on CNG, but won’t let Costa buy from its station.
There is one source of natural gas that’s right there in his shop. As he explains, most homes around Akron are heated with natural gas. He has a gas line coming into his shop for his hot-water heater.
“All I really need is the compressor. I can hire a plumber to tap into the line that’s already there. But I need a compressor to convert it to a form that can be stored in a tank and used as fuel.” And that’s an expensive proposition.
He’d need a big one, able to fill four to six different pieces of equipment at a time.
A compressor unit large enough to do that would cost between $70,000 and $100,000. Add to that the cost of converting his three trucks, $8,000 apiece, and his three commercial mowers, $2,000 a pop. At present, it’s too big a capital investment to make.
The timing’s just not right yet. “Every year, I go into the season thinking, ‘How can I make the business better?’” says Costa. “Over the years, I’ve learned to trim the fat, cut out things I don’t really need.” He hopes that this thriftiness will help put him in a better position to start the conversion process.
“It’s a lot of money for me. If we have a winter without much snow, or if things get slow because of a drought, it could put me under. That’s the risk.”
Even so, at times, Costa says he’s been “at the edge of the cliff, saying, ‘I’m going to go for it, regardless!’ But then I step back and say, ‘I need things to be in a better place before I take that plunge.’” He’s not the only one who’s hesitant. He’s approached a few other business people about sharing a compressor. “When I send them information about CNG, they all say, ‘Wow! This is too good to be true!’ but they’re still afraid to put any money toward it.”