Propane power

Propane power

Switching to propane can save contractors time and money.

April 9, 2018
Alternative Fuel Report

Erik Ringstrade converted one mower to propane using a kit from a local dealer in 2014 and he never looked back. The owner of Chicago-based Ringers Landscaping converted the rest of his fleet in 2015 for the reduced fuel cost.

“Converting saved me $10,000 the first year in fuel and efficiencies,” he says.

A recent research study says propane mowers reduce greenhouse gas emissions by more than 15 percent and carbon monoxide emissions by more than 40 percent compared to gas mowers. For many companies, that’s reason enough to switch. And in some parts of the country, if you’re submitting proposals for commercial jobs, alternative fuel usage is required in the bid specs.

Casey Vickrey, president of Benchmark Landscapes in Austin, Texas, says 90 percent of his fuel consumption comes from mowers since his crews only drive an average of 10 miles per day.

Using propane, not only does fuel cost half as much (sometimes a greater savings), but mowers also run cleaner and require less maintenance, Vickrey says. “We were changing oil every 100 hours, and we have gone to every 250 hours with propane. We sent the oil in for inspection and there’s still plenty of life left in it.

For Vickrey and others who use alternative fuels, the decision is all about responsibility – from a profit and sustainability perspective. As landscape professionals consider ways to run leaner and compete in a price-sensitive market, they recognize that alternative fuel could elevate profit margins.

Also, there’s a growing realization that “green” business is good business. Commercial clients might be asking about environmentally friendly methods to support their own corporate sustainability efforts, and homeowners are more attuned to the potential impact of engine emissions.

Since converting his fleet, Mark Barnes sees fewer issues with fouling. The president of a full-service landscape company in Madison, Wisconsin. “The oil is cleaner. We could run our intervals longer, but right now, we’re following the manufacturer’s recommendations for oil changes.” Another benefit: “We’ve always promoted ourselves as green, and the crews say they feel good doing right for the environment.”

Performance is comparable to gasoline. “We don’t see an appreciable loss of power,” Barnes says. To manage fuel, PERC suggests the usual common sense tips: Teach crews to avoid idling and use the appropriate power for the task.

Refueling is efficient.

There’s a gas station on every corner, which makes gas mowers easy to refuel no matter where you are. But that may negatively impact productivity, says Troy Grindle, fleet manager for Barnes.

“We find propane more efficient. Many companies don’t grasp how much time is wasted going to the fuel pumps 15 minutes a day, five days a week.”

Generally, small fleets set up a propane cylinder exchange and delivery program with a supplier. Larger fleets (those with more than 10 mowers) lease or own dispensing tanks to refill on site.

“If you’re renting space to park but don’t have additional outdoor storage for the cage and tanks, it could be an issue,” Ringstrand says.

Because propane mowers use tanks with a proprietary thread pattern that doesn’t fit anything else, theft isn’t an issue as it can be with gasoline. There’s also less waste because gasoline can evaporate in an open container or spill if a tank tips over on your trailer.

Do your homework.

As appealing as switching sounds, it’s not feasible for everyone. “Run the numbers,” Barnes says. “Know the hours per year you’re operating, how many gallons you’re using and how much waste you have so you can calculate your ROI. You can’t make decisions if you don’t understand your company’s particulars.”

For example, if you're a small operation, you'll see more immediate upfront fuel costs savings but a longer ROI because you're not pushing as much fuel through as you would with a multiple-mower fleet.

Other factors, such as the life expectancy of your fleet, play a part in the decision. If you have new equipment, are you really going to be able or does it even make sense to jump into more expenses right now? If you're in a new lease, what's the cost of getting out of it?