“You’re taking a big gamble.” “You’ll pay too much for mowers.” “Those engines will never be as strong as the gas ones.” And, worst of all, “You won’t make it.”
Those are the sort of encouraging comments that Gus Mariscal heard from friends and fellow landscape company owners when he starting talking about converting his Indianapolis, Indiana landscape business over to 100 percent battery power.
But, feeling strongly about the negative effects of gasoline emissions and chemicals on human health and the environment, Mariscal “took the leap, and went for it” anyway.
He dismantled all of his gas-powered machines, recycled the parts, bought new battery-powered tools, and renamed his company Solar Earth Lawn Care, LLC. “Once I did, I started finding people who were very interested in an eco-friendly approach.” Besides chemical-free, emissions free landscape services, he also builds selfsustaining backyard ponds.
This happened despite the fact that “Indiana isn’t high on the green-state totem pole,” as he puts it. His success is a testimony that green power’s moment may have finally come, and not just on the ecofriendly West Coast.
Just a few years ago, the idea of running a landscape company solely on battery power seemed wildly impractical. Not anymore.
More and more manufacturers of heavyduty power tools used by landscape professionals—the blowers, trimmers, edgers and chainsaws—are making battery-powered versions that can hold their own in power and runtime against gasoline- and propane-powered machines. They’re able to do so because the lithium-ion battery technology has become that much better. The new batteries are far superior to the old nickel-cadmium batteries, with their ‘memory effect.’ That, along with the wimpy power they produced, are gone.
“It’s been more than two years since we went to the latest lithium-ion battery chemistry, and it’s proven to really work well,” said Mean Green Mowers CEO and founder Joe Conrad. It works so well that several Cal State University campuses are converting over to his mowers. Also, a large landscape maintenance service company has purchased a number of these machines.
The Cincinnati, Ohio manufacturer, the first to bring battery-powered commercial mowers to market, recently added a line of contractorgrade handheld power tools to its offerings. They include a backpack blower, a string trimmer and a chainsaw, all of which use rechargeable battery packs that can be switched from tool to tool.
“The batteries are safer, and more energy-dense, and we’re getting greatly increased runtimes than we got just a few years ago, without adding weight,” added Conrad.
All three contractors mentioned in this story work east of the Rockies. They’ve all said that their appeal to potential clients isn’t so much their eco-greenness, but something else. About 40 percent of Mariscal’s clients came to him simply because they don’t like the noise that gas engines create.
“Electric power tools are 50 to 75 percent quieter. I’ve had first-time clients email me, saying, ‘I was expecting you today, but by the time I headed out and saw my lawn, I realized you’d already been here. You guys were so quiet, I didn’t even notice.’”
George Carrette, CEO and owner of EcoQuiet Lawn Care, LLC, in Concord, Massachusetts, has nicknamed one of his electric leaf blowers ‘the holiday blower.’ That comes from an incident last year, that happened while he found himself playing catch-up over the holidays. “I was blowing leaves right under these people’s front window, where I could see the family enjoying their Thanksgiving dinner. I asked later if I’d bothered them. They said they hadn’t even noticed I was out there! That’s how incredibly quiet my battery-powered blower is.”
So why doesn’t everyone buy them? Conrad concedes that the biggest hurdle for most contractors is price. Battery-powered tools and mowers cost more upfront than their gas-powered brethren. “You’re paying for those expensive lithiumion batteries,” he said.
It’s analogous to buying a gaspowered mower, plus all the fuel it’ll use in its lifetime, all at once—say, 10,000 gallons of gas—about $30,000 worth. But Conrad says that the high upfront cost will be more than made up for in a short period of time. An electric mower or power tool will pay for itself in fuel savings over its lifetime.
“They’re more costly up front,” said Josh Flowers, owner of Eco-Lectric Landscape Maintenance in Bradenton, Florida; his company also does irrigation and landscape installation. “But since the battery-powered tools last just as long as the gas-powered ones, they save me money over the long run.”
“When I bought my first electric mower, I was worried about my return on investment (ROI),” said Carrette. “But after a month and a half of using it, I got ROI and then some. As soon as I realized how much business I could get by marketing myself as a ‘quieter lawn care service,’ I started to be a little bit less concerned about my wallet.”
Using battery power gave him a leg up over the competition, as he was the only one in the area offering this kind of service. Because of that, he was able to charge about ten dollars more for labor per hour than the going rate in his area.
“Other landscape company owners have told me that they lost money the first year,” said Carrette. “But I haven’t, in the whole three years I’ve been operating. Since I started, my business has grown five times bigger.”
In 2013, the DeWALT Company, Towson, Maryland, introduced a line of professional-grade cordless power tools with brushless motors and high capacity lithium-ion batteries. They conducted costing and profitability exercises with some landscape companies.
Their exercises showed that a twoman operation that cuts more than 65 lawns a week will save about $1,500 in year two, and $3,000 in year three, by switching to battery power.
“We found that, even when you add up the costs incurred in year one—buying all the new equipment, extra batteries and chargers—they’ll still break even,” said Jola Stephenson, senior product manager for outdoor power equipment.
“And that was the worst-case scenario. By year two or three, they would definitely start to see serious savings.”
The other thing you’ll save money on is maintenance. “On average, battery-powered equipment needs to be serviced one-thirtieth as much as its gas counterparts,” said Dan Mabe, founder and president of AGZA, the American Green Zone Alliance, a member-based organization that provides education and certification in zero-emission landscape maintenance strategies. “And there’s no fuel to buy. These differences are significant enough that even if there is a slight slowdown in work production, it’ll be more than made up for in reduced costs.”
Flowers appreciates that his battery-powered tools are virtually maintenance-free. “I’m not one of the handiest guys. That cuts my down time immensely, not having to deal with all of the gas parts, the oil, the filters and all of that stuff. It makes things a lot easier.”
More contractors are realizing the advantages of going electric. No more worries about ethanol corrosion, air quality restrictions, noise complaints. Because of all this, battery power’s moment may have finally come.
Stephenson thinks so. “When we first launched the new line of electric power tools, at GIE+Expo 2014, contractors were coming to our booth wanting to learn about it. The next year at the show, they were much more educated about the equipment, and wanted to feel and touch it. By last October’s show, they weren’t asking ‘Is this right for me?’ anymore. Now it was, ‘Where can I buy it?’”