Will propane be the fuel of the future?

January 3, 2017 -  By
Sticker shock Propane’s benefits are often overshadowed by high up-front costs.

Sticker Shock
Propane’s benefits are often overshadowed by high up-front costs.

Despite the environmental and cost benefits of propane-powered equipment, cheap gas is preventing contractors from making the switch.

Mike Trump always knew propane-powered mowers were better for the environment. So with some advice from his equipment dealer and a monetary incentive from the Propane Education & Research Council (PERC), he decided to give them a shot. Since purchasing his first propane mowers in 2012, Trump has lowered his fuel costs, saved man-hours and sleeps better at night, knowing his carbon footprint is reduced and his crews are handling safe fuel.

“We decided to switch to propane because, at not much more of an expense, it is safe and environmentally friendly,” says the president of Trump Lawn & Land Co. in York, Pa., which provides 40 percent design/build and 60 percent maintenance services to a 70 percent residential clientele. “With the incentives from PERC, it made sense to go all in.”

While Trump, who declined to share his annual revenue, was an early adopter, more than one-third of contractors are considering propane for their fleet in the next three years, according to PERC research. These contractors are interested in low emissions and reduced fuel costs—propane typically costs 30 percent less than gasoline. Many also believe the environmental benefits differentiate them from the competition.

Despite propane’s pros, many contractors have cold feet about the switch. With low gas prices, fuel savings simply aren’t as important to the average contractor as they were in the past. Like many energy-saving efforts—like replacing incandescent light bulbs or installing solar panels—the up front costs often overshadow the long-term savings.

“In our industry the primary driver for considering a move to propane is high fuel costs,” says John Cloutier, senior marketing manager for Exmark Manufacturing Co. in Beatrice, Neb. “While operating a more environmentally-friendly fleet has appeal, it cannot come at the expense of significantly higher equipment costs, product performance and operational inconvenience. It all boils down to, ‘What is a contractor’s payback for heading down this alternative path?’”

Propane procedures

A primary benefit of propane is that it burns cleaner than gas, reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Plus, propane engines can last about 25 percent longer than gas models because they are free from carbon build-up, experts say. Jeremy Wishart, deputy director of business development for PERC in Madison, Wis., says this makes propane popular with municipalities, government agencies, colleges and homeowner associations that require contractors to use propane mowers as part of their sustainability efforts.

“We are seeing more widespread use in metropolitan cities and their surrounding areas, particularly places where environmental factors are in play and forcing the hand of contractors,” says Wishart.

There are also operational benefits. Because propane is stored in tanks, refueling simply requires replacing one tank with another, lowering downtime and the chance of spillage. However, propane is only available through specialized propane providers, known as retailers or marketers, making it more difficult to source than gasoline. Propane fuel tanks also are specific and can vary between equipment brands. Before investing in propane equipment, contractors need a trusted retailer that can provide regular access to propane.

“Our provider is great,” says Trump. They know exactly when the cylinders need to be filled.”

Engineering equipment

Stagnant An era of low-cost gas has stalled propane’s growth.

Stagnant
An era of low-cost gas has stalled propane’s growth.

In the past, contractors who switched to propane equipment had to outfit gas-powered machines with conversion kits. Subpar performance and inadequate fuel savings were the result, Cloutier says.

So, mower manufacturers pressured engine suppliers for a line of propane-focused engines. One key design aspect is electronic fuel injection (EFI) technology. Like EFI technology in automobiles, an engine’s on-board intelligence compensates for operational conditions and environments and increases efficiency.

“EFI engines provide landscape contractors with an added level of efficiency to the propane fuel system,” says Nick Minas, product manager for John Deere Commercial Mowing in Cary, N.C.

According to PERC research, about a quarter of outdoor power equipment dealers offer propane mowers or conversion kits, and 60 percent of these dealers began doing so based on customer demand. While nearly 40 percent of dealers say they are likely to begin selling propane equipment in the next three years, more than half say they’re not at all likely to begin selling propane equipment within that time frame. Minas says low gas prices and a decline in customer demand may result in fewer dealers choosing to venture down the propane path.

“The cost advantage of propane isn’t as strong when fuel prices are low,” says Minas. “Couple that with the cost of a conversion, the equipment and the infrastructure needs for refilling tanks, and you are seeing fewer contractors making the switch.”

Contractor considerations

For those contractors who do switch, several factors should be considered when purchasing propane-powered equipment. The first is run time. Mowers use propane at roughly the same rate they use fuel, Minas says, noting a 33-pound propane tank is roughly the equivalent of 8 gallons of fuel. Most commercial mowers hold a minimum of 10 gallons of fuel, so the actual run time of a propane mower may be less than what a gas engine would provide unless more propane tanks are added to the system.

Thinking Ahead While propane’s savings might not be huge now, experts say it’s a smart long-term investment.

Thinking Ahead
While propane’s savings might not be huge now, experts say it’s a smart long-term investment.

Contractors also need to consider their tank refueling strategy. The “Find a Propane Retailer” tool on propane.com connects contractors with local propane retailers. Contractors also can seek guidance from propane equipment dealers, since more than 60 percent have relationships with a propane marketer, according to PERC.

Trump’s equipment dealer connected him with a local propane retailer, who installed propane cages and cylinders at his facility. His propane provider refills and replaces his tanks when necessary. It’s done at night or when crews are off-site, so daily operations aren’t interrupted. Each morning, Trump’s crews change the cylinders, which saves close to 30 minutes a day compared to refueling with gas, he estimates.

“Before propane, the crews had gas cards and would stop at a gas station to fill up every day,” he says. “This stopped because the propane cylinders are in a cage at our shop located close to the mowing trucks. Every morning the crew changes the cylinders in five minutes or less.”

Propane experts like Wishart are still optimistic the fuel will gain popularity in the landscape industry. PERC has introduced a monetary incentive program offering contractors $1,000 per qualifying new mower purchase or $500 per qualifying mower conversion purchase while funds last. Through continuing communication efforts, Wishart believes more contractors will recognize the benefits of propane—benefits they will continue to reap for years to come.

“The key thing is that, while gas prices are low right now, propane prices are also low,” Wishart says. “Contractors have to think about long-term investments and not just the day-to-day cost of operations. That is where propane is a win-win for your average contractor.”

Photos: Exmark Manufacturing Co., John Deere Commercial Mowing, Trump Lawn & Land Co.

About the Author:

Emily Schappacher is a freelance writer based in Cleveland.

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