Plugged in

Electric power has come a long way, with commercial-grade equipment giving landscape businesses the efficiency and performance they demand.

Photos: © Simon Snogles Photography

What’s so quiet the neighbors might not know you’re servicing a lawn – and so clean that you’ll never have to worry about an engine flooding or a mucky carburetor? Electric equipment use is on the rise as more commercial-grade hand-held and mower options enter the market. Some landscape companies are even committing fully to electric-powered fleets. Two firms shared how and why they made the switch, and what they learned during the process.

Making the cut.

Bob Blundon hesitated for a while. He wasn’t sure the electric equipment on the market would hold up in a commercial setting – and while battery-operated hand-helds had been standard in the consumer market, there were few options for a landscape company. But when a major manufacturer released its electric hand-held line, his confidence grew. “We decided it was time to take a shot at it,” he says.

Blundon, president of Madison Earth Care in Madison, Connecticut, already had gradually converted his mower fleet to propane. The customer base is “aware” of the change, he says. “They are responding well to the change because they are tuned in to environmental concerns.”

Some companies convert existing gasoline-powered mowers to propane, but Blundon decided to buy mowers already outfitted with propane engines. “We were finding in our gas engines, after about 3,000 hours the engines were shot,” Blundon says. “We haven’t put 3,000 hours on a propane mower yet, but we are pretty close. In theory, we should be able to open up that engine at 3,000 hours and it should be clean.”

Blundon was already sold on going greener, so the next step was to transition to electric hand-helds: blowers, string trimmers, hedge trimmers, chainsaws, demolition cut-off saws. At first, the crews were skeptical. “They were like, ‘There’s no power,’ because we equate sound with power,” Blundon says. “But I said, ‘Is the equipment doing the job well?’ And it was.”

The quiet was surprising to crew members, who were used to revving two-cycle engines and pulling cords endlessly to achieve a start. “There was so much aggravation, and the fatigue factor with gas,” Blundon says. “The savings is in labor. Guys aren’t going to the gas station, they’re not filling up gas cans and spilling gas as they fill the weed eaters.”

Also, the electric hand-held equipment starts every time.

“In the time we’ve been operating electric equipment – four or five years – we’ve only had one trigger go bad on a weed eater, and the manufacturer wanted it back to figure out what happened. We got a new piece of equipment.”

“We are saving on labor and not stopping to refuel, and we can charge the same price for our services.”

– Bob Blundon, president of Madison Earth Care

The only battery that has worn out was a first-generation piece of equipment, he says.

Blundon initially used inverters in his covered trailers to charge battery equipment. But when a solar energy company was at his home installing panels on the roof, he asked about his trailers. “I thought, ‘Why can’t we do this for the business, too?’” he says.

The $7,000 investment in solar panels on two trucks will take about a year to see a return on investment. Other crews use the inverters while the mowing crews with the solar-panel trailers use electric equipment all the time. The trailers produce more than enough power to feed the charging equipment, Blundon says. The key is not parking the trailer in the shade.

For landscape companies considering electric equipment, Blundon suggests trying one piece of equipment. Blundon says his company also gets a better profit margin on work now. “Propane is cheaper to run; electricity is cheaper. We are saving on labor and not stopping to refuel, and we can charge the same price for our services,” he says.

Tom Snogles of Sun Power Lawn Care says his crews enjoy the ease of use and convenience of electric equipment.
An early adopter.

“No one was doing it,” Tom Snogles says of his decision to go electric in 2014 when he started Sun Power Lawn Care in Gainesville, Florida. And, at the time, the hand-held electric equipment on the market was not like the commercial-grade machines you can purchase today. So there were some initial upsets with repairs.

But Snogles stayed the course, and eventually adopted an electric mower fleet – he runs a 48- and 33-inch, along with a 21-inch walk-behind. His fleet is complete with commercial hand-held string-trimmers and blowers. “It’s plug and play,” Snogles says of the technology. “As long as you have enough batteries, you just put them in, press the button and go.”

This ease and convenience is appealing to crews. “There is no learning curve. There are no cord breaks or figuring out when to cold start, hot start or accidentally flooding the engine,” he says, adding that the button-push electric technology is a time-saver in the field.

To keep batteries charged, one of Sun Power Lawn Care’s two vehicles is equipped with three solar panels. “We can plug in the batteries during the day and it takes about 45 minutes to charge them, so we have enough wattage on the panels to charge all the batteries on board,” he says.

For Sun Power, electric equipment is appealing to about half of its customer base that calls the company for this reason. The other half appreciate Sun Power’s response time and professionalism – and the electric equipment is an ancillary benefit, Snogles says.

Snogles advises companies considering electric to make sure they have enough batteries on board and that their facilities are equipped for charging batteries.

“Some companies rent out storage units for their trucks and trailers,” he says. “We need a warehouse with electrical – the chargers require about 1,400 watts, which is nearly maxing out a 20-amp fuse in a control box.”

Snogles says they might need to do some electrical work, which is “part of doing business.” But the savings in not using gasoline offsets these expenses.

Starting with just two residential accounts and one man with electric equipment in 2014, Sun Power now has nearly 100 customers. It is completely committed to electric. Snogles says, “We are gung-ho about it, and so far doubling our business each year.”

July 2018
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