Lawn and landscape companies turning to propane and not looking back

May 3, 2011 By    

Jon Dozier was a tough sell the first time through the propane lawn equipment displays at the GIE+Expo in Louisville, Ky.

“I don’t know if I wasn’t looking at it right, if I couldn’t make heads or tails of it or if I didn’t think the savings were there,” the Georgia landscaper recalls of the propane lawn mowers he glanced over several years back at the trade show before going on his way.

To that point, Dozier’s only knowledge of propane was its role in cooking steaks on the grill or the occasional fish fry. So how could he take the fuel seriously and rely on it to power his Merry Acres Landscape & Lawn Maintenance mowing equipment?

His attitude changed last year during an opportunistic visit from a local propane marketer that turned Dozier’s business upside down. Russell Lemon, a representative from Modern Gas in Albany, Ga., had been pitching Dozier on the benefits of propane lawn equipment. And on this particular visit to Dozier’s Albany office, the timing couldn’t have been better.

“It happened to be the right time that we were ready to buy equipment,” says Dozier, who last June replaced his gasoline fleet with eight Gravely 60-inch zero-turn riding mowers. On top of that, the company purchased a Ford F-150 propane pickup truck, with the Roush CleanTech retrofit, from Trans Power Inc., with locations in Albany, Douglas and Valdosta, Ga.

“You have to put yourself out there and make yourself available to these guys, and when they say ‘no,’ it’s not final,” Lemon says of the propane marketers’ influence on lawn and landscape companies.

“You have to provide them with whatever they need.”

Landscape companies around the country have been making the same discoveries as Dozier and Merry Acres co-owner Jarrett Martin: Propane can power their equipment just as well – or better – as their gasoline counterparts, and some companies have had the luxury of time to prove the notable advantages propane equipment, through OEMs or aftermarket conversions, has provided to their bottom line.

Merry’s time
Merry Acres runs its equipment year-round, with Dozier estimating it will burn 10,000 to 12,000 gallons of propane in a 12-month period. Modern Gas installed a 1,000-gallon fueling station at Merry Acres’ facility, and the companies negotiated a 12-month price on propane. That supply contract [at less than $2 a gallon] enables Merry Acres to see significant fuel savings compared to the price of gasoline.

“We’ve always tried to be good stewards of the environment, but what got us looking into this area was a way to save money and increase our bottom line,” Dozier says. “It is an initial upfront expense to go propane. The trucks cost more, and the mowers cost more. But we’re thinking we will recoup our cost in the first year and a half.”

Initially, Dozier was hesitant about the propane lawn products, wondering if they would hold the same power and performance as those running on gasoline. The company has been pleased with the results, even noticing an increase in power on the propane mowers.

“We put them in some nasty situations, cleaning up a restaurant that’s been shut down for a while, and they blew right through that stuff,” Dozier says. “We never heard a strain on the mower, versus gasoline where the engine would bog down or slow up.”

Maintenance is also made easier on the propane mowers, as Merry Acres can double the amount of hours (now 100) between oil changes, “so our costs of maintaining it are down on our engine side,” Dozier says.

The company’s Ford F-150 is used daily by its maintenance manager to check on accounts, but Dozier remains curious about how fuel mileage would fare when a propane truck is worked harder, with a trailer and a heavy load of equipment in tow.

In March, Merry Acres purchased four conversion kits from AltFuel LLC and has been testing other lawn equipment on propane. As the company needs more equipment, Dozier says it will continue to consider propane.

“When we’re due to buy more trucks or when we’re due to buy other things, we’ll definitely look at it and see if there’s a way to get it with propane or a way to buy gas and convert it to propane,” he says.

Staying Competitive
No company has more experience using propane lawn equipment than Competitive Lawn Service in Downers Grove, Ill. It is said to be the first company in the country to operate its commercial crew, encompassing mowers, blowers, trimmers and trucks, entirely on propane.

Celebrating its 30th year in business, Competitive Lawn Service runs a converted propane fleet of 18 mowers (12 Wright Standers and six Bob-Cat and Wright walk-behinds), 12 Dolmar blowers and six Lehr trimmers. The company also runs four propane-fueled Ford F-Series trucks with Roush retrofits and a Ford dual-fuel truck from AJ Automotive Group.

“Every machine I have out there not running on propane is killing me,” says company founder Eric Hansen, who has put Competitive Lawn Service on the alternative fuel map with his push to propane, a process that began in 2008 when gasoline prices spiked. “I’d like to stop going to the gas station at all.”

With its converted equipment fleet, the company estimates that it will burn about 25,000 gallons of propane this year, running mainly April through December. United Propane, a Heritage company, helped install a 1,000-gallon fueling station at Competitive Lawn Service for convenient, cost-efficient and secure fill-ups. About 40 percent of that propane goes into the company’s trucks – two 2008 Ford F-150s, a 2010 Ford F-250, a 2006 Ford F-250 dual fuel and a 2010 Ford F-350 4×4.

“They’re like rocket ships; they’re extremely fast,” Hansen says of the trucks, which travel a small radius to customer sites, less than 10 miles from the office. “Hands down, they’re just real good vehicles.”

With a significant differential in per-gallon fuel costs between propane and gasoline, Competitive Lawn Service is saving about $2,500 per month. And Hansen is seeing other benefits with propane. With slight adjustments, his first converted propane mower has reached 3,500 hours in runtime, when they normally “blow up at 2,500 hours,” he says.

“What we’re finding is these engines last longer. Do they last twice as long? We haven’t proven that out yet, but they are lasting longer and we’re changing the oil every 100 hours as opposed to 25 hours,” Hansen says. “If we get an engine that lasts longer, has less emissions, that runs the same, with the same cutting, that’s how we’re picking up all that savings.”

Hansen is a self-described “small-engine guy,” always looking for ways to gain longer runtimes and advantages from his equipment. He likes to keep an open mind with all of the propane-related options on the market to help him make the best business decisions. Propane is helping him to achieve his goals and allows Competitive Lawn Service to differentiate itself.

Propane perspectives
When Baker Commercial Landscaping pulled one of its converted propane mowers, in operation for the previous five months, into the garage for an oil change, it made a notable discovery.

“When we drained the
oil, it came out as clear as new. It was almost crystal clear,” says Bob Jensen, sales manager for the Orlando, Fla., company. “When we pulled the spark plugs, we found next to nothing on them. Maintenance wise, this has been a huge benefit. It’s a clean-burning way to do business, and it saves us money and time.”

With help from Heritage Propane, Baker converted 38 of its John Deere mowers – 60- and 72-inch ride-ons and 48-inch walk-behinds – to propane last year.

For Baker, no more time is wasted at the gas station, pulling the lawn equipment off the trailers for refueling. The price “at the pump” is also a welcome change, as the company saves about $1.50 per gallon with propane compared to gasoline. Heritage refuels all of Baker’s cylinders on site, with the company estimating that it burns more than 300 gallons of propane a week.

Moreover, propane provides a 6.5 percent better fuel burn than gasoline, and its clean-burning qualities reduce engine repairs by about 30 percent, while keeping many of its commercial customers satisfied during business hours, Baker President Marc Blum says. The company also notices a better response to the firing system with propane, as the walk-behinds are easier to start than the gasoline models.

“We have no regrets. We’re not going back [to gasoline]; we’re never going to consider it,” Jensen adds.

Shannon Wilson might not either. He says he was “like a deer in headlights” when a representative from Metro Lift Propane, a division of Heritage, approached his company, Greenscape Services in Sarasota, Fla., about using propane in his equipment. That was about two years ago. The price of gasoline was a primary driver in the company adding four 61-inch zero-turn propane riding mowers – two Snapper Pros and two converted Encores – to his 12-mower fleet.

“It’s ridiculous. It’s pushing almost 4 bucks a gallon,” Wilson says of gasoline prices. “It makes it really tough. You have to pass that on, but it doesn’t make the customers very happy either. With propane, you can get a price locked in and it doesn’t fluctuate.”

Metro Lift supplies Greenscape’s propane through tank exchanges, with Wilson estimating a near 30 percent savings in fuel costs with the propane mowers. He says he hasn’t found any negatives with the units, noting the longevity of their clean-burning engines and fewer oil changes (once every eight months instead of three).

“It’s all about the tip speed, how the cut looks and the performance,” Wilson says. “And when you put the actual mower right next to the gasoline [mower] on the property, you can’t tell a difference.”

Wilson says he prefers not to use gasoline anymore and will continue to transition to propane mowers, with an eye toward adding propane vehicles and his own refueling station as well.

Cleaning up
Billy Leavell is encouraging more lawn and landscapers to help clean their industry through propane partnerships. Nashville, Tenn.-based Turf Managers LLC, which Leavell co-owns with Nathan Brandon, is running five of their 12 Exmark and Ferris 52- to 62-inch walk-behind lawn mowers on propane, servicing about 900 mostly residential customers 10 months out of the year.

The company first converted two mowers in 2008 in response to high gasoline prices and has continually added propane to its new equipment in stages, with plans to convert them all to propane.

“We were and still are concentrating on environmentally friendly practices, and this is just a natural step for us to be more environmentally responsible, and at the same time it does have its economical advantages to us,” says Leavell, crediting the guidance and support of Jim Coker at Heritage Propane.

Turf Managers, which receives its propane supply in tank exchanges from Heritage’s Metro Lift division, saves about $1.05 per gallon with propane. The company is able to pay off the $1,000 to $1,200 per-mower conversion cost in about one year, Leavell says. But there are other benefits as well, particularly with the clean qualities of propane.

“You don’t have to worry about filling up out of gasoline cans and the trash that gets in the gas tank and goes through the engine. The engines are much cleaner in that regard,” says Leavell, adding that the engines run and sound similar to gasoline.

“I didn’t meet a gas can that didn’t have a leaky nozzle; these cylinders attach just like a gas grill and you’re good to go,” he adds. “It’s not nearly as volatile in a transport type of situation. If a propane cylinder falls over, it might roll around, but it’s not going to spill. And I haven’t had one ounce of propane stolen – gasoline is liquid gold right now.”

Resources
According to the Propane Education & Research Council (PERC), there are 150,000 to 200,000 new commercial mowers sold each year, and the OEMs are making efforts to grow propane’s share to 15 percent by 2015. That could translate to more than 150 million gallons of propane sales each year.

PERC’s Marketer Technology Training Program educates propane marketers on opportunities in commercial mowing, among other applications. Visit www.propanecouncil.org/MTT.

Online
www.poweredbypropane.org/mowers
www.allpropanemowers.com
www.autogasusa.org

Propane lawn equipment manufacturers
■ Bad Boy
■ Bob-Cat
■ Cub Cadet
■ Dixie Chopper
■ Exmark
■ Ferris
■ Gravely
■ Husqvarna
■ Lehr
■ Scag
■ Snapper Pro
■ Zipper

Propane engine conversion options
■ Alliance AutoGas
■ AltFuel LLC
■ CleanFUEL USA
■ Envirogard
■ Roush CleanTech

Brian Feehan, vice president of engine fuel for PERC, says:

■ “Even though propane in commercial mowing was out there four years ago with two small OEMs [Envirogard and Dixie Chopper], and the adoption of larger OEMs points us in the right direction, this still needs to be viewed as an infant market and it requires us to maintain our presence and get stronger in it.”

■ “Our challenge today is working with the OEM dealers so they can understand what is available from a technology standpoint but also what is out there from a training perspective. It’s also providing the propane industry with information on product availability and how to incorporate it into their own businesses to grow gallons.”

Pictured above, Merry Acres Landscape & Lawn Maintenance co-owners Jarrett Martin, left, and Jon Dozier estimate they will burn 10,000 to 12,000 gallons of propane in a 12-month period running eight Gravely lawn mowers and a Ford F-150 pickup truck with a Roush retrofit. Photo courtesy of Merry Acres Landscape & Lawn Maintenance

Brian Richesson

About the Author:

Brian Richesson is the editor in chief of LP Gas Magazine. Contact him at brichesson@northcoastmedia.net or 216-706-3748.

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