May 27 2020 06:00 AM

Parsons Landscaping found new opportunities by adding electric equipment to its fleet.

Matt Parsons, left, and a crew member show off the Mean Green mowers that Parsons uses to provide electric service for clients. Photos: Parsons Landscaping

Matt Parsons, president of Parsons Landscaping in Fort Myers, Florida, first tried out electric equipment when he began mowing his own lawn during a labor crunch. Rather than using his own company to take care of his turf, he saw it as an opportunity to test out some new tools to see how they measured up.

After running an electric mower and weed eater on his home lawn, he was impressed. The equipment worked better than he’d imagined it would. In 2008, Parsons began a systematic process of converting his fleet to electric equipment. It’s been slow and steady, and that’s worked well for his company.

We caught up with him to find out how it’s going today.

Parsons has seven Mean Green mowers in his fleet and says that he gets around six to eight hours of run time on each of them. He has invested in the solar panels on the mowers, which he says gives him about a half hour of additional run time. That’s been a worthwhile return on investment for the upgraded feature for him.

Parsons also purchased 15 electric blowers and 20 electric trimmers from Makita. With these investments, he is close to several of the crews being fully electric. Though he’s continuing to expand the number of teams using electric equipment, he still incorporates gas power as needed.

Customers definitely notice that the equipment is very quiet and that it doesn’t emit the typical gas smells. Parsons says there are certain client types who appreciate these benefits more than others. Homeowners associations and resorts, in particular, are keen on electric equipment. That’s where Parsons has developed his focus.

“One interesting thing that I’ve figured out is that when you sell clients on the idea of electric equipment being quiet, it’s not the client who necessarily cares, it’s their own customers,” Parsons says. “For instance, a resort really just cares that their turf is getting mowed well. They probably don’t care about the noise. In fact, they might even equate the noise with the fact that the work is getting done. But their guests care about that noise. This is true at HOAs, as well. The HOA board president is concerned about keeping all of the residents happy, and the residents don’t like the noise.”

Parsons shares a story about an HOA he worked with at which a woman who worked night shifts as a nurse and slept during the day told him she’d always been woken up by the mowers. Then, one day, she wasn’t.

“It dawned on her that she didn’t have to call and complain because she’d slept the whole time,” Parsons says. “It’s funny because it’s the lack of noise that people are noticing. But they do notice, and they appreciate it. Sometimes they might not have realized how loud it was until it’s gone.”

A hybrid model

Although most companies look to really differentiate their electric lawn care services as a separate service, Parsons says he has approached this transition completely differently. He hasn’t used it as marketing tool to upcharge customers. Instead, he’s incorporating it within his existing service plans where it makes sense for clients and his crew, such as HOAs and resorts.

“I think it makes us more attractive to those clients and that’s my main focus right now,” Parsons says. “In the future, I’d hope to get into a situation where customers demand all-electric and will pay a little more of a premium for that service. But right now, my hybrid model of using gas sometimes and electric other times has worked economically and functionally for us.”

Parsons says he would urge other lawn and landscape businesses to consider a hybrid model such as his, rather than banking everything on a completely electric model to start.

“I think there’s this mentality that you have to go all in,” Parsons says. “But I would suggest making the transition with one piece of equipment at a time, like I did. It’s a lot more manageable. You do not have to be all one or the other. Use electric where it makes sense and use gas where it makes sense. I would imagine trying to switch everything over all at once would be incredibly difficult.”

Going forward, Parsons says he is in the process of generating some marketing efforts that would better promote that his company is incorporating electric equipment. Up until now, they’ve really been perfecting the transition. But now, it’s time to let a wider audience know and build buzz in his market about it.

“Anecdotally speaking, customers have really appreciated it,” he says. “So, we’re in that process of incorporating it into marketing. I think most people like to know that their lawn care company is staying on the edge of what’s come out in terms of new technology.”

When it comes to barriers to adoption of electric equipment, the two biggest that Parsons has seen have been run time of the equipment and the upfront cost. It’s a significant out-of-pocket investment to go electric.

“The upfront cost is a definite drawback as these mowers are expensive,” Parsons says. “But you do get a good return on investment, so in the end, it does make sense. With the efficiency, it’s a significant fuel savings. You’re not making all those stops at the gas station anymore, either.”

In terms of production trade-offs, Parsons says that the mowers cut incredibly well but don’t mulch leaves as well. Overall, he says it’s a smoother, more preferable ride.

He’s also had some issues with the performance of electric blowers on certain properties and will substitute gas power where it’s needed. Having the capabilities of both styles of equipment is another reason why his hybrid model has been helpful to date, he says.

Internal changes

As he’s incorporated more electric equipment, Parsons says that there have been some internal changes that have been essential. Crews need to be retrained on how they perform day-to-day tasks. But Parsons says training and acclimating crews to the new technology is straightforward.

“We do have some new terminology now, like ‘battery management,’” he says. “Our crews have had to learn to manage their battery run times. We do our recharges on our trailers or sometimes the communities that we work in allow us to use their plug-in stations. We’re researching going solar in the future.”

Early on, crews learned the hard way with timing errors. A battery would run out while on the job and a new one would have to be brought on-site to get the equipment back up and running. But as with any big change, there are always bumps in the road. Overall, Parsons says these have been minor, and crews have adapted to the changes.

“As you adopt a new practice, there are always going to be challenges,” Parsons says. “I think we were a really good size to make this transition. We had 30 employees, 16 of whom were on maintenance, when we started converting to electric, and it helped that we weren’t too big. We were able to add equipment slowly and make carefully planned-out changes. We had time to learn as we went.”

One benefit that Parsons noticed as more electric equipment was brought in was a drop in the time requirement for engine maintenance.

“You get your Saturdays back, on maintenance,” he says. “There are no oil changes, no spark plugs and no fuel filters. Overall, the maintenance is a lot easier.”

While maintenance is overall less work, Parsons says that you do need to have some knowledge and understanding of how motors work in order to service electric equipment.

“I think Mean Green has done a good job creating a mower that you can understand and work on in-house, but for some there could be a learning curve on the differences from gas,” Parsons says. “We’ve had a few things that went wrong, but we’ve always been able to fix them and get back up and running. Honestly, considering you don’t get dirty, I’d rather work on an electric mower any day. In the end, I would say this is a simpler platform. It’s a battery system, and everything plugs into that. It’s pretty easy to understand.”

Parsons adds that success comes down to getting the crews to buy in. Ultimately, they’re going to be the ones running the equipment and they have to understand the benefits.

“I’m very hands-on and am always working with the crews. I think that made a big difference in a smooth transition,” Parsons says. “As with anything new that you implement, you need to get the crews on board in order to be as successful as possible.”

Fortunately, Parsons says that crews are happy with the transition to electric and they’re seeing benefits as well.

“You don’t realize quite how much exhaust fumes you’re making until you stop making them,” Parsons says. “With the electric mower, all you smell is cut grass, which is really nice. You also don’t have to wear protective earmuffs and honestly, you can hear your cell phone ring in your pocket. So, the quiet nature of these mowers benefits the crews too. Once they’ve used one of these machines, they really don’t want to go back.”

Parsons says there’s no doubt in his mind that the future for landscaping professionals will be based in electric equipment.

“The future of the green industry is electric,” he says. “Whether you get on board now or you get on board later, it’s going to happen. In my opinion, it makes sense to start implementing the equipment now.”

Lindsey Getz is a contributing editor to Irrigation & Green Industry and can be reached at lindsey.getz@yahoo.com.