Exploring alternatives

Alternative Power Special Report - Alternative Power Special Report

Landscape contractors share their motivations for moving away from gasoline, and how propane or battery-powered equipment has changed their operations.

January 31, 2017

Using battery-powered hand-held equipment can help contractors appeal more to environmentally friendly clients.
Photo courtesy of Stihl

Before the season starts, the entire 120-mower fleet at Benchmark Landscapes based in Austin, Texas, will be converted to propane power. The process has been gradual during the last five years – but the cost savings of running on this alternative fuel vs. gasoline has been dramatic. We’re talking $100,000 less cash spent on fuel per year, and that’s when gas prices are down.

“Our average crew drives only about 10 miles per day, so 90 percent of our fuel consumption is through mowers,” says Casey Vickrey, president. “Our crews will use 1 or 2 gallons of gas in a vehicle and 10 gallons with two mowers running on gas.”

But on propane, not only does fuel cost half as much (sometimes a greater savings), 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.

“Propane burns leaner and cleaner. And, at the end of the day, you have less maintenance.”

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.

The team at Greenwise Organic Lawn Care originally converted mowers to propane on their own, but now buy them already converted.
Photos courtesy of Grreenwise

Here, Lawn & Landscape explores the why and how of moving to an alternative fuel source.

Converting to propane.

In the major metropolitan areas of Texas, running propane is common among large landscape firms, Vickrey says. He estimates that three out of the four largest companies he competes with have already converted to propane, or at least are in the process.

“The key is to make sure you have a good propane provider, and every major city in this area has a provider that can offer service,” Vickrey says, adding that there were really no logistical hoops to jump through when he decided to begin converting mowers.

Marc Wise of Greenwise Organic Lawn Care in Evanston, Illinois, says alternative fuel is not standard is in his region, but his company started running propane mowers seven years ago.

“We just wanted to use the most sustainable equipment, that’s part of our mission statement,” Wise says. “We looked into electric mowers, and at the time, we found that would only take us so far.”

Back then, Wise had just a few mowers, so technicians used propane conversion kits to move engines from gas to propane power.

A propane company visited weekly to refuel propane tanks. (Now, Wise has a tank on site for fueling.)

“The major benefits for us are environmental,” Wise says. “There is very little exhaust, and it’s better for our guys in the field. They are the ones who are walking behind mowers all day, so making these considerate choices is the right thing to do by your employees.”

Wise investigated both battery and propane options before he converted his first mower. “The difference is, the electric machines are more than double the cost of standard (gas-powered) machines,” he says. “And, they’re about double the cost of one of our machines converted to propane.”

Now, depending on financing options, the fuel savings can help pay for battery-powered mowers, Wise says. But still, there’s an upfront expense that was not an issue with propane.

Wise now buys mowers pre-converted rather than doing it himself. His equipment dealer uses a kit to convert the 21-, 32- and 36-inch mowers to propane, and the dealer also facilitates securing rebates and incentives. “To get the incentives, you need documentation and it’s easier for us to work through a dealer for that,” Wise says.

Vickrey’s team converts their mowers on site. “We buy our propane kits direct, and it takes about an hour and a half to install them,” he says, adding that his team is certified to do so through the propane supplier.

He prefers to convert mowers versus buying machines that are already outfitted for propane power because of the resale advantage gasoline offers. “We can take off the kits with minimal expense and it’s easier to sell to the ranchers or farmers who tend to buy them,” he says.

The cost of a mower that is manufactured with a propane-power engine ranges from $1,800 to about $2,500 depending on the make. However, Vickrey points out that incentives of about $2,500 per mower can basically cancel out this expense.

The kits Vickrey purchases cost about $1,000. So, when he crunches the numbers, after about nine months of running a propane mower, the machine is completely paid for. With rebates, he says you can save money on day one.

“With the cost of labor and insurance prices constantly going up, it’s difficult to increase contract values at the rate that the cost of doing business is increasing,” Vickrey says. “So, anywhere you can cut expenses is vital.”

battery power.

For Gus Mariscal, battery-powered mowers and hand-held equipment that are charged by solar panels on his service truck are an economical and ecological advantage.

“The main reason for our move to battery power was more environmental and personal health issues that gas mowers cause because of engine emissions,” says Mariscal, president of Solar Earth Lawn Care in Indianapolis.

His first two years in business, Mariscal operated typical gas-engine mowers, trimmers and blowers. Then he began exploring battery-powered equipment to determine whether moving this direction would make sense financially.

The initial investment was 37 percent more than gas mowers. For example, a typical 21-inch gas mower Mariscal uses costs about $250. A comparable battery-powered mower runs about $400.

Mariscal operates two 21-inch mowers, along with a 33-inch and 46-inch walk-behind. Commercial-grade batteries for smaller mowers cost about $150 to $180, offering a run-time of about 50 minutes. Batteries for larger mowers can cost up to $3,000, he says, and must be replaced every five years.

Still, these expenses were far less over time than running gas-powered mowers, he says. He figures spending about $3.70 per hour to operate gas-powered mowers and less than $0.20 per hour for electric mowers.

“Over a five-year span, we would pay $18,000 a year for gas, and the maximum we’d spend for electric would be $1,000 every five years,” he says, based on his equipment’s battery requirements.

Gus Mariscal spent $10,000 to add solar panels to his truck to charge batteries for his equipment. The panels provide 16 hours of charge time.

Mariscal based this on 40-hour mowing weeks and a 25-week season.

“We did not see the initial return the first couple of years, but after two years we’ll start hitting a tipping point where you make back your money from not spending on gas,” he says.

Financially, Mariscal says his company is “good” compared to a business that runs only gas-powered engines.

“But in the next couple of years, we’ll start seeing bigger profit margins because our initial investment will be paid off.”

Meanwhile, Mariscal says the cost of outfitting his truck with solar panels to charge the batteries was about $10,000.

The panels provide 16 hours of charge time. What if it’s cloudy outside? “We can charge batteries if we have three days of no sunshine, and beyond that we can connect to the grid and charge batteries,” he says.

Mariscal has not run into that cloudy day problem yet. And running out of power on the job is no concern because after a job, batteries are switched out in machines. There are always batteries charging while mowers are in use.

Is this the way of the future? Mariscal thinks so.

And Wise adds, “The financials do work out. The conversions do work out. And, alternative fuel (like propane) can extend the life of your engine.”

Vickrey says for landscape professionals considering a switch, “It’s always a savings with propane. The faster you can get it done, the better.”