Cutting conversion

Two contractors explain why they made the switch to propane, and what to consider if you are thinking about making the move.

Photo courtesy of the Propane Education & Research Council

When Erik Ringstrand, owner of Ringers Landscaping in the Chicago suburbs, began investigating propane, he quickly became a believer. He converted one mower to propane using a kit from a local dealer in 2014 and last year, he converted the rest of his fleet. “Now I’m thinking about propane for other equipment such as trucks, string trimmers and blowers,” he says.

For Ringstrand and other companies, the biggest draw is reduced fuel cost. “Converting saved me $10,000 the first year in fuel and efficiencies,” Ringstrand says. In fact, surveys of propane mower users by the Propane Education & Research Council estimate propane mowers usually yield about 30 percent fuel cost savings.

Green power.

A recent third party 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.

Since converting his fleet during the past four years, “We see less issues with fouling,” says Mark Barnes, president of Barnes, 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.

According to PERC, a typical cylinder lease price is $15-$35 per month. Owning runs $250-$400 per cylinder. For onsite dispensing leases, the fuel price often includes the cost of refueling. For owned onsite dispensing, costs run from $5,000-$15,000, plus site prep (which can run another $800-$1,500).

Most mowers require two to four propane cylinders, which are 33.5 or 43.5 pounds. One disadvantage is that you must store cylinders outside. According to PERC, the average storage cage for a landscape contractor is eight to 10 cylinders at 35 feet wide, 40 feet deep and 72 feet high.

“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.

Buying new vs. converting.

There are 15 original equipment manufacturers, including all of the major players such as John Deere, Exmark and Toro, with more than 150 different propane mower configurations available. A number of EPA-approved conversion kits also are available. One caveat is that conversion is not recommended for engines with more than 250 hours on them. “Carbon deposits may be built up too much on older engines so you won’t get the results you want,” says Jeremy Wishart, deputy director of PERC.

Typically, new mowers cost about $1,200-$1,600 more than gas models with similar specs. Conversion kits run around $700-$1,200 each. To offset costs, business owners are eligible for up to 25 incentives per season (check the PERC website for this year’s program). Some state propane associations offer additional incentives.

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.”

PERC has a Propane Mower Calculator you can download from the Google Play or iTunes store that allows you to compare fuel costs using real numbers from your business. It's a tool to figure out whether or not to convert and how much you might save.

Even with rebates and incentives, you're going to have upfront out-of-pocket expenses. According to Wishart, ROI typically is reaped within eight to 16 months per mower. It varies according to your business model.

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?

To learn more, contact PERC, obtain a dealer demo model to use in the field and find an industry mentor to talk it through. “I’m happy to talk to fellow professionals to share the real story,” Ringstrand says. “We’re in this together. We have to learn from each other instead of being afraid of competition.”

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