Feb. 19 2021 06:00 AM

Use these 3 tips to get the most out of battery-operated equipment.

For many landscape professionals, the business starts with a couple mowers and a truck. From the beginning, the mower fleet is often populated with whatever working machines the landscaper can find, whether gasoline or battery-powered. For many, fuel choice doesn’t come into play until the company is already well-established.

But Dan Delventhal, founder of MowGreen, has never used gas-powered tools in his Fairfield, Connecticut, lawn care business. For him, the reason goes back to his passions for conservation and environmentalism, which have been with him since childhood.

Thinking there had to be a way to care for his lawns at home and work without gas-powered equipment, he found an 18-inch reel mower down the street from his office. Pairing exercise with lawn work could make the perfect marketing pitch, he thought. Eco-fitness would be a way to get fit while working. Unfortunately, it proved too labor-intensive and time-consuming to be effective on the average suburban lawn.

He wasn’t about to give up. His first attempt to implement large-scale gas-free mowing services started with a Scotts 20-inch reel mower manufactured by American Lawn Mower. Looking for a wider cutting path, he contacted the CEO inquiring about plans for a push gang kit. None were in the works. So, Delventhal developed and manufactured his own model, the Reel2Reel in 33- and 48-inch models.

“Reel mowers have advantages and disadvantages when compared to rotary mowers. They don’t mulch leaves, which is a big drawback,” he says. “With this gang kit, it became possible to mow an acre in an hour or two. It was still two or three times slower than using commercial gear.”

Committed to finding a solution to improve efficiency without adding gas, he and a partner converted 22-inch Toro mower motors to run on hydrogen. The HydroMow project included a solar-powered electrolyzer for making hydrogen. The concept worked but was impractical for mowing five or 10 acres.

That’s when he discovered self-propelled electric and battery-operated mowers. In 2012, he purchased his first pieces of electric and battery-operated equipment.

“I was an IT guy who was doing lawns as a side job but could see that it was possible to run a commercial business with all electrical equipment,” he says.

Today, his fleet includes five 4-foot stand-on commercial mowers, two mid-sized mowers, a backpack blower and a multi-head tool. He also relies on six self-propelled 21-inch mowers as well as string trimmers, blowers, hedgers, snowblowers, chain saws and multi-head tools.

Delventhal was in a unique situation, to launch and scale-up exclusively with electric and batterypowered equipment. We asked him to share lessons learned along the way that can help any company incorporate these pieces of equipment into their traditional model.

Keep it simple

Since 2006, Delventhal has mowed more than 7,000 acres without gas, an equivalent to offsetting 7 million auto-mile equivalent emissions, he says. To do it, he has had to make sure he has enough batteries to operate during the day.

“Each crew takes a bag of batteries,” he says. “You have to have more battery power than you need so you don’t have downtime. The crews take seven to eight of each type and use four to five of them, especially when they are trying to blow wet leaves.”

He has found that batteries can last five to seven hours on a single charge and require about eight hours to fully repower. Batteries on the smaller tools last about 10-20 minutes depending on the task being performed.

As an example, he says a blower rated at 600 cubic feet per minute burns through a battery in about 10 minutes. Crews bring chargers to the job sites for recharging drained batteries. Most of MowGreen’s customers have made powering up easy by allowing them to use their power source. Of Delventhal’s 150 customers, only one will not allow them to charge on-site and a handful don’t have electricity available.

“The customer can really be on your side by letting you plug in chargers on-site,” he says.

Delventhal has also taken a unique approach to provide power on-site by converting a former news van into a self-sufficient power source on the go. The former van was used to cover the Olympics so it came with key features that allowed for charging tool batteries at the site from a backup battery on board. The battery can recharge while in motion or while parked thanks to an inverter, charger, special wiring to the engine alternator and wiring for electric outlets inside.

“It can also be plugged in to be charged from an external source or accept a plug to charge or power external sources,” he says. “We plan to add a solar panel or two so it can also charge from solar in addition to the backup battery while parked.”

Because backup batteries are integral to keeping crews operational, Delventhal focuses on standardizing and simplifying. That is a mantra he learned as an IT entrepreneur that is as important in the lawn care business.

“When buying electric equipment it’s easy to end up with an abundance of parts and batteries specific to each brand,” he says.

That complicates the workflow and frustrates staff. Sticking with one or two brands and their parts translates into more efficient employee training. He recommends exploring several options before purchasing to determine the best fit for your business model.

Sticker shock

The price of electric lawn care equipment caught Delventhal off guard. Battery- and electric-powered equipment are about double the cost of gas-powered models. He has invested about $120,000 compared to $60,000 for traditional models. Manufacturer estimates on cost savings helped him decide the upfront capital outlay provided an efficient return on investment.

“The equation manufacturers use is that companies can save about $7 per hour with electric equipment when gas is at $2.50 per gallon,” he says. “Running the numbers on that, I thought if I have 7,000 hours on my equipment, I can save $50,000 in gas.”

Comparing gas savings to the investment in equipment, he has figured his return on investment was less than five years, an acceptable breakeven for most businesses. He was also surprised that early electric models were not as powerful in terms of horsepower or blade speed as their gas-fueled counterparts. Over the last five years, he has noticed that performance has gone from subpar to comparable.

“While electric equipment is on par now, there are subtle differences,” he says. “If you’re used to blowing through a lawn at 13 mph and the blade cuts like butter you will find situations where you have to slow down.”

Another advantage Delventhal has found is that electric equipment decreases the time required for engine maintenance. There are no oil changes, no spark plugs, fuel filters or carburetors. The maintenance is less work overall, but some knowledge of how motors work is needed to service electric equipment.

“It’s important to keep gear lubricated where necessary and clean, especially around cooling fans,” he says. “This regime has been easy. We have done most of our maintenance in-house, but we used local service providers a few times.”

Repairs so far have been routine maintenance for any piece of equipment. Replacing tires, blades, blade motors, safety switches and controllers, contactors, and even welding on frame cracks are common repair items for any lawn care company. One thing he has learned is that idle Lithium batteries store best between 40 and 80 degrees at a 40% to 70% charge.

“They can withstand colder temps and less deliberate charge management but won’t last as long,” he says.

Selling the service

Lessening the environmental impact of lawn care on the environment is Mow- Green’s core mission, and Delventhal makes this part of the customer conversation. Certain clients share the same values making the pitch easy. For example, a nature center in Westport, Connecticut, specifically hired MowGreen for its commitment to zero emissions.

“They have outdoor areas for rehabbed wildlife, child recreation, nature trails and native pollinator gardens,” he says. “They also house a water quality testing and reporting entity, so they hired us for our values and mission.”

Similarly, the Discovery Museum in Bridgeport, Connecticut, saw hiring Mow- Green as supporting its mission. The science museum focuses on educating and entertaining children with an emphasis on science, technology, engineering and math. The museum holds workshops inside classrooms and in outdoor recreation areas.

“When Bill Finch, the executive director, hired us in 2018, he did so because they aimed to be the greenest science museum in the world,” Delventhal says.

Another key selling point Delventhal uses is that the equipment produces no noise. A community garden specifically hired MowGreen because its electric equipment was so quiet. Catering to clients who appreciate the benefits is the foundation of operating an all-electric fleet. When prospects cold-call to ask for a quote, he includes his mission in his sales pitch. The majority of customers squeeze as much on price as they can, but he has noticed a shift in their interest in lessening their environmental impact.

“We ask people if they care about the environment and talk about the emissions associated with lawn care,” says Delventhal. “We are finding people who are already environmentally motivated.”

The author is a freelance writer in Mechanicville, New York, and can be reached at ktnavarra@gmail.com.