Bug off!

August 1, 2005 By    

Propane-powered mosquito control devices are swatting down some impressive sales gains as engineering refinements and lower price points push the units toward mainstream acceptance among American backyard enthusiasts.

 Propane-fueled bug exterminators help rescue backyards from a number of biting insects, including mosquitoes, black flies, no-see-ums, biting midges and sand flies.
Propane-fueled bug exterminators help rescue backyards from a number of biting insects, including mosquitoes, black flies, no-see-ums, biting midges and sand flies.

Assorted resorts, institutions and other outdoor venues continue to snap up the devices to ensure guest comfort, and the increased affordability makes them a popular purchase for homeowners of all income levels.

“It’s definitely the fastest growing category within the 20-pound cylinder refill market,” reports propane industry consultant Mike Sloan, project manager for Energy and Environmental Analysis Inc. of Arlington, Va.

According to a study produced for the Propane Education & Research Council, mosquito control has captured 10 percent of the cylinder exchange market since its introduction in 1998. In 2003, the devices accounted for 40 million gallons of propane use (See chart).

Unit-sales doubled each year from 1998 to 2000, and 2004 purchases posted a 50 percent growth rate as close to 300,000 of the devices were purchased.

“It’s almost certain that the market will continue to grow,” says Sloan, predicting strong sales for at least five more years.

Demand may eventually top out, but until then propane marketers and other channels – such as big box discounters, hardware stores and other specialty retailers – are seeing brisk sales. Internet-based purchases also are attracting consumers to an array of similar-performing designs produced by competing manufacturers.

Propane Cylinder Refill Market
Propane Cylinder Refill Market

“They’ve gotten enough market penetration so that people know what the product is,” Sloan points out.

The devices mimic a human’s breath by emitting a plume of carbon dioxide (CO2), heat and moisture, and a short-range pheromone attractant, Octenol. The combination is irresistible to female mosquitoes (the ones that bite), no-see-ums, biting midges, black flies, sandflies and other flying insects. As the insect approaches the trap hoping for a human, it is quietly vacuumed into oblivion.

Propane dealers who carry these lines are perfectly positioned to gather increased business by offering assembly, technical know-how, unit placement advice and maintenance procedures.

Sloan says propane dealers can provide valuable service to their customers and reap name recognition for their business by selling the units.

“It’s hard to compete with a Home Depot (or other large discounter) on price if you’re just selling the physical product,” he explains. “But if you develop a relationship with the customer, the customer is going to come back to you for the propane – you can sell the service and the brand.”

Thinking outside the box (store)

Over a three-year period, the Perham Creamery Cooperative in Minnesota has moved more than 200 Mosquito Magnets, a line of four models at varying price points produced by American Biophysics Corp.

“It’s definitely helped our propane sales,” says Larry Dague, the feed department manager who oversees the product sales to customers ranging from high-end resort operations to working folks with mosquito-laden lakeside retreats.

“We’re becoming an authorized repair center. We take care of our customers.”

Perham’s sales strategy remains in line with the suggested retail price, yet the company’s service offerings present an attraction that larger operations just can’t beat.

“I’m not worried about the competition,” Dague says matter-of-factly. “We keep the customers satisfied.

“We beat Target and the other box stores on these. You walk in, it’s in a box and you have to put it together. If it breaks you’re screwed,” he observes.

At Perham, “If it breaks we give them a loaner so they’re not without one.”

About half of the Perham employees have units in their own yards, and they rave about the superior mosquito control capabilities.

“When you have something you believe in it’s a lot easier to sell,” Dague observes.

The company has an Internet site that pushes the products, and each year one is donated for bidding on a charity radio auction program. A lighted pole sign out front also calls attention to the product line.

When a sale is made, Dague goes to the customer’s property to pick the best site placement.

Patio passion

According to PERC and the Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association (HPBA), the outdoor lifestyle continues to expand. Recent industry findings show that well-designed outdoor spaces return more than 100 percent of their cost, demonstrating a strong return on investment.

Half of all American homeowners say that they are spending more time at home than they were five years ago. Thirty-five percent of homeowners have a finished outdoor room, while 34 percent say they are planning to design one in the next one to two years.

“Many of the most popular outdoor appliances available today are fueled by propane,” says Martha Baker, an outdoor living expert and best-selling author of The Outdoor Living Room: Stylish Ideas for Porches, Patios, and Pools.

“Beyond the grill, propane is an easy way for homeowners to power everything needed for their outdoor living rooms, from heaters to bug zappers,” she says.

When it comes to outfitting an outdoor room, most homeowners say they are likely to include outdoor lighting units (94 percent) and a gas grill (86 percent). Mosquito eliminators rank rather high at 79 percent, just above an outdoor fireplace or pit (67 percent). Just over half (53 percent) are likely to buy a patio heater.

“The whole outdoor room concept is really taking off,” concurs Bud Harris, general manager for Blue Rhino’s Specialty Division.

“People are spending a lot more time in their yards, and mosquitoes are the No. 2 reason people don’t want to go outside. (Rainfall remains the No. 1 reason.) “All of the diseases mosquitoes carry are just adding fuel to the fire. The tremendous growth in our company is unbelievable,” Harris says.

The firm’s SkeeterVac line is rapidly brushing away any buyer’s resistance, Harris contends, referring to retail price tags ranging from $179 to $399.

“We’ve made this technology available to the middle class. In the past it was available only to people with huge disposable incomes,” he recalls.

“When people first learned about the product it was pretty much reserved for upper incomes because the price points were up there. Now it’s affordable for everyone.”

And with it comes propane demand.

“We’re owned by Blue Rhino and FerrellGas, so our goal is to drive propane sales,” Harris explains, citing the opportunities available for motivated propane dealers: “A specialty retailer is always going to give you superior service.”

A window opens

“We move an awful lot of propane cylinders,” reports Jim Grigsby, president of American Propane with locations in Edmond, Okla. and Oklahoma City. The Blue Rhino dealer says it’s unclear how many of the 20-pound tanks are sold for mosquito control, although the SkeeterVac units are racking up suitable sales.

“It’s a (relatively) small percentage, but it has quite an impact.” Customers replace the propane supply every 14 to 20 days based on usage.

Unit prices from competing mass retailers is tough, and Grigsby believes that a propane retailer’s opportunity to cash in is limited to a certain time frame.

“It’s a great deal in a two-year window. After that, everybody sells them – your box stores are going to have them.”

To guard his margins, American Propane stays with the unit’s list price, he says. They succeed by focusing on the larger application units among customers who will pay for the service offerings that discounters can’t provide. and carrying different models than the competition.

A similar plan is in place at Delta Liquid Energy, based in Paso Robles, Calif.

“We carry two sizes and we keep them in stock,” says Robert Jacobs, vice president for retail operations. “It appears that Home Depot doesn’t keep them in stock, and Home Depot carries only one size.”

Consumers often select Delta based on the company’s dealer listing on the Mosquito Magnet Internet site. When people see it and take into account the service element, they are less likely to consider a Home Depot-type store, especially if the pricing remains competitive.

“A propane dealer can sell a Mosquito Magnet and compete with a big box store,” declares Jacobs.

Ownership’s willingness to market the product will dictate the success of the venture, according to Sam McTier of the McTier Supply Co., based in Lake Forest, Ill.

“Certain propane dealers get carried away and really sell these things,” he says. “In one state you’ll have someone who sells hundreds of them, and another guy will sell one every two years.”

While the margins for the device itself may not be very high, a Mosquito Magnet consumes about a pound of propane every 24 hours.

“It’s adding something to the marketplace,” says McTier, who points toward the maintenance add-ons that only a propane retailer can provide – particularly to high-end consumers. “These things need service. Delivering the cylinders is a consideration for these people, and they’re willing to pay the price for the service.”

Propane’s popularity with mosquito control continues to swell, McTier emphasizes.

“This is a big deal! We’ve sold a bunch of them, and we’re talking about millions of dollars in sales because they’re an expensive item.”

Residents in Minnesota, Texas and Colorado are the biggest buyers of the device.

The prospects for the devices are particularly appealing because customers are extremely pleased with their performance.

“They actually work,” McTier says. “I gave a Mosquito Magnet to my country club and it solved their mosquito problem.”

Refined technology

When propane-powered mosquito control was first introduced, an electrical connection was needed to run the suction apparatus. Today, propane-only models have hit the marketplace.

“People like the cordless nature of the product,” according to Marc Berliner, a Mosquito Magnet spokesman. “The product has been updated and the technology has been refined.”

“With a completely redesigned internal system and external design, we’ve improved upon our original trap by increasing acreage areas and producing a more efficient and effective user-friendly trap that offers mobility, ease of use and greater insect catches,” says Raymond Iannetta, president and chief executive officer at American Biophysics Corp.

Several manufacturers are marketing variations of the devices following a series of court wranglings over patent rights.

Nation’s buggiest cities provide ideal target markets

Canadian Mounties mounting effort to exterminate thefts of control devices

Flying insects are driving people buggy again this summer, a condition that propane retailers can remedy by marketing the various propane-powered control devices being sold today.

American Biophysics Corp. (maker of the Mosquito Magnet) and The Farmers’ Almanac (the 188-year publication famous for its long-range weather predictions) have ranked the “Top 10 Buggiest Cities” in the United States for 2005.

They are:

1. Boston, Mass.

2. Houston, Texas

3. Los Angeles, Calif.

4. Atlanta, Ga.

5. New York City, NY

6. Chicago, Ill.

7. Austin, Texas

8. Dallas, Texas

9. Shreveport, La.

10. Miami, Fla.

The “buggiest runner-up cities” are:

11. Nashville, Tenn.

12. Jacksonville, Fla.

13. Lexington, Ky.

14. Tampa, Fla.

15. St. Louis, Mo.

16. Pittsburgh, Pa.

17. Akron, Ohio

18. Minneapolis/St. Paul, Minn.

19. Portland, Ore.

20. Denver, Colo.

Joe Schnichels is the propane equipment manager for Cenex Harvest States in St. Paul, and he expects an upsurge in Mosquito Magnet sales throughout the Twin Cities region. “With all the rain we’ve been having it ought to pick up for us,” he says.

“Mosquito control districts around the country, from California to Texas to Boston, have warned that 2005 could be one of the worst mosquito seasons on record,” says Dr. Karen McKenzie, a medical entomologist with American Biophysics. “When you mix a wet winter season with a warm spring and summer, conditions become ideal for mosquito breeding.”

Advisories issued by regional mosquito control departments and public health officials have warned that the increase in mosquito activity could magnify the number of cases of mosquito-borne diseases such as West Nile virus and Encephalitis.

A wet spring and a hot, humid summer with above average rainfall are harbingers of heightened mosquito activities, especially in areas east of the Mississippi River, according to Sandi Duncan, the almanac’s managing editor.

“Factoring these long-range predictions with the number of metropolitan areas that have experienced some of the wettest and snowiest winters on record indicates optimal mosquito breeding conditions.”

To glean these ratings, the two teams reviewed the top 100 most populous metropolitan areas and then applied eight criteria considered to be real predictors of mosquito activity and problems. The predictors include: Almanac weather and temperature predictions; actual precipitation from September 2004 to the present; mosquito population/activity estimates from local mosquito control representatives in each city; 2003 and 2004 cases of West Nile virus; number of months with average daily temperatures above 50 degrees (when mosquitoes can survive); city populations; and past Mosquito Magnet sales in each area.

Actual and predicted weather conditions topped the list as the most important factors in determining this year’s predictions.

Anchored in Anchorage

In Alaska, the Anchorage Daily News in June ran an account describing record numbers of flying pests bedeviling residents of the North Star State.

“It’s the Incredible Return of the Bugs, sequel to last spring’s fierce hatch, and many people say they’ve never been pricked and pestered with such vengeance,” writes reporter Doug O’Harra.

“We’re talking jillions here: mosquitoes, aphids, dragonflies, midges, gnats, hornets, beetles and assorted creepy-crawlies with all those weird Latin names. But then, don’t we always say that?”

The situation up north is not that complicated or unexpected, according to Fred Sorensen, coordinator of integrated pest management for the University of Alaska Fairbanks Cooperative Extension Service in Anchorage.

“A winter of decent insulating snow, followed by early spring with no late frosts, basically created bug paradise. The jump start has put 2005 about three weeks ahead of schedule.”

Mounties mounting-up

There are similar problems across the border, as the Royal Canadian Mounted Police are busy trailing thieves who are stealing propane-powered mosquito control devices.

The Canadian Broadcasting Corp. has reported that several of the high-tech mosquito traps have been taken from stores and backyards in New Brunswick.

“They’re a pretty hot commodity right now, and especially at this time of year,” RCMP’s Cpl. Kevin Jackson said.

“People want to get rid of the hordes of mosquitoes that are in their backyard, and I do believe that there is an underground market for these things.”

Given the buggy conditions in New Brunswick this spring, Jackson says the bug-chewing devices would be pretty easy to unload on the black market.

That is, if the thieves don’t keep them for their own use, the CBC muses.

“I would submit as well there are probably a certain percentage of thieves that are stealing them because they don’t like mosquitoes as well, but of course this isn’t the proper and legal way to obtain a Mosquito Magnet,” Jackson says.

If you want to always get your mosquito (before it bites), Jackson suggests “homeowners and cottagers should be extra careful with their backyard bug-catchers, keeping them out of sight and chained up when nobody is home.”

Such sage advice should hold true in the U.S. as well.

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