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What's the alternative?

Features - Equipment, Industry News

Sick of paying out your profit at the pump? Consider these cost-saving gasoline options that some landscape firms have adopted.

Kristen Hampshire | October 31, 2011

The money Chris Shipp saves by running a diesel fleet is enough to purchase a new mower every year. In 2010, Shipp Shape Lawn Service in Sylvester, Ga., kept an extra $13,000 in the company purse by choosing this gasoline alternative. For every gallon of diesel fuel, Shipp gets twice the productivity from a riding mower. (The company saves about 1.25 gallons of fuel per hour per machine with diesel.)

Even now that diesel costs about 20 cents more than gasoline per gallon, Shipp says the up-front cost is quickly recovered. "I had to really sit down and consider the benefits of what it would cost me to buy a diesel mower – my first unit in 1996 was about $2,000 more than the gasoline mower," he says. Since that time, Shipp has purchased 13 diesel mowers and only retired three of them.

"The machines last a lot longer with diesel fuel – the value at resale is better," Shipp adds, noting a regimented maintenance schedule of regular oil and air filter changes. Shipp finds that diagnosing mower issues is easier with diesel machines. "Nine times out of 10 it's a fuel filter," he says, explaining that he does his own mower maintenance. "Knowing that, you have less downtime because you don't have to go through the process of troubleshooting like you might with gasoline."

Shipp took an alternative route 15 years ago before options like propane existed for landscape equipment and trucks, and before electric equipment was anything more than light-duty stuff for people living on postage stamp lots. Today, landscape companies that want to explore power beyond the gasoline pump have choices to make.

Plus, with tightening emissions regulations in some states and an overriding theme of greening up the green industry (now, some customers are talking sustainability), alternatives like clean-burning propane and emissions-free electric are appealing.
 

Powered by propane.
Jesse Triick, president, Pristine Green, Byron Center, Mich., says his company has always been a 100-percent propane-fueled operation. "From day one, the goal was to be completely propane fueled," he says. "We were starting a new business, and we knew that if we were going to be successful, we had to commit to the technology."

Besides, Triick felt he couldn't pull up to a job site with gas-burning engines if his company mission was centered on being environmentally friendly. "I believe in the future, it will be required to consider Earth-friendly options if you want to work with certain customers," he says.

Jon Dozier's switch to propane mowers has sparked a visible increase in cash flow (he doesn't have exact numbers), and propane costs 30-40 percent less than gasoline. "The horsepower and performance out of the mower is as good, if not better, than what you would see power-wise with a gasoline engine," says Dozier, president, Merry Acres Landscape & Lawn Maintenance, Albany, Ga.

The only difference customers might notice: They're not that loud. And, there's a propane tank on the back of the mower.

"Right now, we are in an education phase because not a lot of people know about propane at all," Triick says. "They see the propane tanks on our mowers, and once I explain the reason why we use this alternative fuel, they are all about it. (Propane) flies under the radar."

Dozier's propane fleet sparked a little bit of buzz when the community first learned about it, and the alternative did appeal to a hospital client, but he's not sure the reason contracts are signed is because of the propane. But he says that will probably change. "We are starting to do more projects that are LEED or Audubon certified, and I think more people look to go (the environmentally friendly) route," he says.

Every mower in Dozier's fleet is propane-powered, and he is converting others, such as a 36-inch walk-behind. He also converted a backpack blower. "We are playing with those conversions to see what works and what doesn't work," Dozier says.

The initial investment for each machine will take about 18 months to 2 years to pay back, but Dozier keeps mowers for at least three years – probably longer with propane, but since he's just phasing in this fuel he's not sure exactly how much longer these mowers will last. But he suspects that he'll get much longer life from the propane fleet because the fuel burns so much cleaner. The evidence is in the oil filters, which don't need to be changed as often.

As for refueling, Dozier and Triick have an on-site refueling structure – propane tanks that are refilled by local suppliers. Dozier has a 1,000-gallon tank with a no-spill dispenser so he can refuel his propane-powered maintenance truck without leaving the company headquarters. His supplier refills the tank once a week.

Dozier's keeping his eyes on a potential tax credit for propane mowers. Currently, he realizes a $0.50 per gallon tax credit for operating his propane powered truck (the credit also applies to forklifts). "That could get more people interested in (propane)," he says.
 

The electric edge.
Sometimes, customers have no idea that Clean Air Lawn Care is out mowing and blowing on their properties. They can't hear a thing. That's because of the whisper-quiet electric equipment (yes, even an electric zero-turn mower) that Chris Carter, owner of the Clean Air Franchise in Austin, Texas, uses.

At first, neighbors do a double-take. Then they wonder, is that really electric? Carter confirms it. "It's a big, bona fide mower," she says of the zero-turn machine. "People are shocked."

They're surprised in a good way, especially in progressive Austin where customers are seeking out green alternatives, Carter says. Proof of the demand: "Second year, second truck," Carter says of their operation, which includes six walk-behind electric mowers, the zero-turn rider and an assortment of battery-operated hand-held equipment.

Carter was turned on to the business opportunity when she got a note in the monthly electric bill about rebates for electric mowers. "I started to think, 'Hey – this is pretty cool, maybe I could start a lawn care business that uses all electric equipment," says Carter, who spent years in software programming before starting the franchise.

Clean Air Lawn Care has franchise locations all over the country. The corporation's all-electric mission meshed with Carter's sustainable ideas. And Carter has found that she's not the only one in the area seeking eco-minded service providers. Neighbors of customers often approach Carter and ask about the truck (which has a solar-powered unit to recharge the equipment batteries). The next request is often for an estimate. "The demand is there, and the industry needs to change with the times," Carter says. "Electric is the future."

Carter is passionate about the way equipment is powered. And she enjoys sharing the information with other landscape contractors, who are often surprised that she is on and off a property as efficiently as they are. "I've had guys come up to me and say, 'Everything you are using really works. It does a nice job. The yard doesn't look any different than the one we just cut,'" Carter says.

Carter doesn't buy a drop of gasoline, and she drives a modest Toyota Tacoma pick-up truck that she reports is fuel efficient. About six extra mower batteries and a dozen batteries for hand-held equipment are stored on the truck. Carter can typically mow three or four properties on a single mower battery. And with lithium ion entering the scene, the power life will be even longer.

After a long day in the field, Carter returns home smelling like grass and hard work, not like a gas pump, she says. "And we know that what we have done helps people by providing a service, and we have caused no harm. We are not degrading the air quality in our area."


 

The author is a frequent contributor to Lawn & Landscape.