Can gas remain king?

August 1, 2010 -  By

Commercial cutters are warming to the COST SAVINGS and environmental benefits offered by alternative fuels.

Tall and outgoing, Eric Hansen’s youthful enthusiasm keeps him investigating better ways to serve his landscape clients.

While his tightly run, 30-person Competitive Lawn Services is best known in the Chicago suburb of Downers Grove for providing reliable service the past 28 years, the past three years he’s been moving it in a “greener” direction. He uses propane-powered mowers and handheld equipment, which he is field testing. His service trucks, including a propane-fueled Rousch Ford F-350,  proclaim “Green Propane Power.”

He sees four benefits to propane versus gasoline:

  1. propane mowers emit a smaller amount of  harmful exhaust emissions,
  2. it burns cleaner and with less carbon and he saves money with fewer oil changes and reduced maintenance costs,
  3. his units are quieter, and 4.) it’s less expensive. Usually.

“Landscape companies should be looking for green initiatives that they can adopt. Using propane is something that we can do,” says Hansen.

Propane (also known as LP gas or LPG) is one of several alternative fuels now being used in mowers. Others include biodiesel, compressed natural gas (CNG) and ethanol.

Their use within the industry is growing, but it’s not clear by how much.

The Outdoor Power Equipment Institute (OPEI), whose members include most mower and engine manufacturers, doesn’t track the shipment of mowers manufactured or converted to use these fuels. It does track annual mower shipments as a whole, and more than 90% of the 131,798 new 2010 commercial units are powered by either gasoline or petroleum diesel, the vast majority by gasoline.

“The air-cooled gasoline products for the professional mowing industry represent good technology. The life of the engines match fairly well the rest of the components on the products,” says Mark Pavcik, product line manager for John Deere’s professional mowing equipment. “Contractors get good value during the life of their machines, and they’re good at keeping records, so they’re always moving up or trading out their machines.”

Pavcik wouldn’t get an argument from the thousands of commercial cutters who have built their businesses on gas and diesel-powered units.

Hansen admits he’s ahead of the curve in his choice of fuel, but he’s pretty sure he’s on the right track.

“Commercial properties and larger corporations are demanding green from the top down and some are requesting that alternative fuels be used on their facilities,” he says.

Boosting development of these new fuel choices for mowers and other maintenance equipment are the U.S. EPA and the California Air Resources Board (CARB), which are pushing lawn and garden engine manufacturers to reduce exhaust and evaporative emissions.

Cost savings

But the biggest attraction, at least for end users, is probably cost. While labor is the biggest expense of delivering service, the cost of fuel and equipment are significant, fuel being the most unpredictable. By not making every gallon of fuel work as efficiently as possible, owners forfeit dollars out the exhaust of their mowers. This is true regardless of energy source. The memory of $4.50 a gallon gasoline and hated fuel surcharges three seasons ago lingers in owners’ minds.

And, yes, alternative fuels offer the possibility of measurable savings.

For example, as this article was being prepared in mid-summer, Ferrell Gas in northern Ohio quoted a price of $1.88 per gallon of propane for, say, a one-person mowing operation. Because of the modest amount of propane purchased, the company charges for pickup and delivery of the 33.5-lb. cylinders. However, a landscape operation using, for example, 200 gallons of fuel a week could expect to pay $1.63 per gallon. This includes free, twice-weekly pickup and delivery by the supplier. Compare this to $2.79 per gallon of gasoline in the same region.

Be advised,  however, propane prices can be volatile because supply is affected more dramatically by weather and production issues than either gasoline or diesel. Even so, because propane is used for winter home heating, the price falls about the time that spring mowing season begins. About 90% of the propane used in the U.S. is produced domestically — 75% of that in Texas from natural gas and crude oil refining.

“It’s amazing how far LP gas has progressed since 2005 as far as availability,” says Warren Evans of Dixie Chopper, the Coatesville, IN-manufacturer that started selling propane-powered mowers in 2006.

Evans, in a spring roundtable sponsored by the Propane Education & Research Council, listed these advantages of propane versus gasoline:
› less carbon in the fuel
› fewer oil changes
› less engine wear
› better fuel stability
› no chance of fuel contamination
› no fuel spillage
› less chance of fuel theft
› easy to store

Evans says that Dixie Chopper has been running propane-powered vehicles for three decades.

“When I got my drivers license in 1981 the first vehicle I learned how to drive was a shop truck powered by propane,”  he says.

At least 10 manufacturers now offer mowers with engines that operate on propane. And there’s a growing market for conversions from gasoline to propane power, as well.

Getting started

For his part, Chicagoland’s Hansen is taking it one step at a time. In 2008, after finding out as much as he could about alternative fuels, he ordered two 17-hp, propane-certified Kawasaki engines that he had installed on commercial mowers. Each conversion cost him $800.

Because he was using less than 700 gallons of propane that season, he paid top dollar for the fuel. After meeting state and local regulations he was permitted to install a fill site at his shop.

Hansen has since been ramping up the number of propane-powered units his crews use. This season he’s expecting to use more than 5,000 gallons of LP gas and, of course, he’s buying it at a better price. He says the propane industry, which is aggressively attempting to build its presence in the landscape market, needs a “step-by-step guide” to help owners like himself.

“The interest in alternative fuels is in its infancy at this point,” says Garry Busboom, director of research and development for mower manufacturer Exmark. Nevertheless, Busboom predicts industry adoption will grow as property managers and owners, especially those responsible for government and large commercial properties, seek to reduce the carbon footprints on their properties.

Ruppert Landscape, Laytonsville, MD, reportedly has been testing several different models of propane-fueled units on federal property in the Washington D.C. market, and many contractors and municipalities in Texas now operate propane mower fleets exclusively.

Texas is the hottest market in the U.S. for propane mowers for several reasons. It’s where most LP gas is produced. Equally significant, the Propane Council of Texas offers $1,000 incentives for the purchase of new factory-direct LPG, zero-turn commercial mowers or a conversion of a zero-turn commercial mower with less than 200 hours of operation.

Exmark’s Busboom points out propane mowers, unlike gasoline mowers, can be operated during ozone-action days in cities such as Houston when the hours of use of gas-powered equipment are restricted.

The performance factor
One of the biggest concerns with using alternative fuels is performance, the amount of energy provided by each unit of fuel. Since LPG holds 86% of the energy of gasoline, it requires more storage volume to produce an equivalent amount of work, according to the Consumer Energy Center.

That’s where another emerging alternative fuel, biodiesel, shows an advantage. And biodiesel, unlike propane which is a by-product of refining, is a truly domestic product as it is made from domestically produced vegetable oils.

Diesel provides the most punch for energy dollar (even when blended with biodiesel), and diesel-powered mowers are often the choice for municipalities or landscapers with big or tough properties to cut because they produce more torque and are better able to maintain blade speed in high or wet grass versus gasoline or LPG.

Because diesel fuel contains 12% more energy than gasoline and 52% more than propane, according to the Energy Information Center, it can produce more work per gallon of fuel. Extrapolated over 875 hours of use (35 hrs/wk X 25 wks), fuel savings can amount to as much as 500 gallons per mower, says Ray Garvey, marketing coordinator for The Grasshopper Co.

Additionally, improved engine technology, the introduction of ultra-low sulfur “clean” diesel and the growing availability of biodiesel provide new diesel-powered mowers with many of the same environmental advantages of alternative-fuel units, says Garvey.

He adds that Grasshopper tested propane for mowers extensively in the 1970s before deciding diesel offered its mowing customers more advantages than other energy sources.

Toro, which has done extensive testing on biodiesel fuels and other fuels for years, offers diesel mowers that accept up to 20% biodiesel (B20) in a blend with petroleum diesel. Biodiesel, says the company, is a non-toxic, clean-burning fuel that is biodegradable.

Toro says that B20 is approved for use for all of its 2008 or newer diesel-powered mowers, and offers biodiesel kits to refit 2003 or newer diesel-powered commercial equipment.

In spite of appealing  reasons for using biodiesel/petrodiesel blends, acceptance by landscape contractors to date has not been robust.

“Biodiesel hasn’t really taken off as well as we had initially hoped, and we believe one of the biggest reasons has to do with the pricing disparity that now exists between gas and diesel fuels,” says Randy Harris, senior marketing manager for Toro Landscape Contractor Equipment, Bloomington, MN.

“For years diesel fuel prices were much lower than gas. But, about the time we introduced our B20 equipment, diesel fuel prices shot up well beyond gas prices, and remain higher even today.  More than anything else, that seemed to put a damper on the appeal of diesel and, ultimately, biodiesel.

“In addition, many contractors express concern about limited availability of biodiesel fueling stations, while others worry about their crews inadvertently mixing-up diesel and gas when refueling.”

The National Biodiesel Board maintains a list of retail locations selling biodiesel on its website ( The site lists 1,334 locations across the nation. By contrast there are an estimated 115,200 retail operations selling gasoline in the U.S.

John Deere’s new diesel mowers also accept B20.

“We and every other manufacturer are looking to step our way up to higher and higher contents for biofuels,” says Deere’s Pavcik. “We’re dedicated to coming out with alternative-fuel machines, but we want to make sure they deliver the power and job productivity that customers want.”

Gas still a contender
Does this growing attention to alternative fuels mean the end to gasoline units? Don’t count on it, says Pavcik.

Engine manufacturers remain confident they can produce small, spark-ignited gasoline engines that meet all emission requirements and still offer great value for the price, he says.

“Technology coming to the small, air-cooled gasoline engines is becoming similar to the technology in the gasoline engines in today’s automobiles,” he says. “Fuel injection is coming on pretty strong. It offers the mower operator between 10% to 30% fuel savings, depending on where they’re running it in the duty cycle.”

Manufacturers are making progress in curbing emissions, as well, he points out. Today’s mowers generate significantly less exhaust emissions than they did in 1995, when California first regulated small-engine emissions.

Equipping new mowers with closed-loop fuel injection equipped with oxygen sensors and catalytic converters will reduce emissions even more.

While alternative-fueled units offer specific advantages, gas-powered units will remain commercial mowers’ workhorse into the near future.
Beyond that . . . we’ll see.

This article is tagged with , and posted in August 2010, Cover story

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