Fuel fundamentals

Features - Fuel Management

Managing how employees gas up vehicles and equipment can leave you with a nice financial reserve.

October 4, 2019

Fuel is the life blood of any landscaping company, flowing through the inner workings and powering its trucks, mowers and other equipment.

Fuel is also a major cost consideration and managing its use wisely on a continuing basis can pay dividends in an economic climate where every dollar matters.

We checked in with several companies to get their take on how they approach the issue of fuel management and what can happen when it isn’t a priority for owners, operators and employees.

Cost and delivery.

For Serpico Landscaping in California, fuel is one of the company’s top expenses. “Time wasted (fueling equipment) will kill an operation,” says Peter Novak, company president. “And anything that affects productivity does ultimately mean lower margins and higher expenses.”

John Hoy, owner of Hoy’s Landscaping in Pennsylvania, says his employees are instructed to fuel the company’s fleet of trucks up before the gauge hits the one-quarter full mark. “It’s not good to run out of fuel, especially in diesels,” he says. “We had a truck run out a few years ago and it ended up costing a few grand to get it back on the road.”

Dan Dombrowski, owner of Intelliscape Landscaping in New Jersey, says his company has increased its prices at times to help control increases in fuel. When fuel spiked, the company tacked on a surcharge for a short time. This is why every ounce of fuel matters.

“If you don’t track (fuel consumption and what it costs), you could be overcharged for fuel, which we have from suppliers as well,” he says. “You can also run the risk of employees taking fuel.” Chris Cotoia, owner of Executive Landscaping on Cape Cod, Massachusetts, says his company has had to pass on higher fuel costs in the past, which was met with “mixed reviews” from customers. He says it is best to try and recover projected increases by forecasting increases.

Hoy’s Landscaping has a fleet of seven trucks and not all hit the road every day. “We have dyed diesel tanks in our yard to fill up equipment, such as skid-steers and bark blowers,” he says. “As far as on-road diesel and gasoline goes, we have two fuel stations within a mile of our shop and we fuel up at those locations as needed.”

Having one person in charge of fueling can prevent needless waiting around (and being paid for it) by other workers as the trucks and equipment have their tanks filled up.

“Our foremen start a half hour earlier than laborers so that they can fuel up the trucks and get everything ready to go in the morning,” Hoy says. “That way only one person gets paid to stand at the gas pump instead of three on each crew. Our mowing crew can usually stretch it and go two days without fueling up. We have a gas tank and pump in the rig to keep production moving, however the mowers are thirsty and go through the tank quickly.”

Fueling philosophy.

Hoy says “longer standing, more responsible and trustworthy” foremen have company credit cards that they use to fuel up trucks and equipment. “We go over the credit card statement for each guy to make sure there isn’t any unexpected or crazy expenses on the card,” Hoy says. “You’d be surprised how many times you can catch a Hershey bar or coffee on the fuel bill. For this reason, we only have a few company cards and they are kept with the most trustworthy employees.”

Hoy would “love” to have on-site gas and on-road diesel, “but our township and state requires a lot to do, so for the time being our system works.” He prefers that his crews fuel up in the afternoon, though most employees are in “such a rush to get home” in the afternoon that they push off the fueling until the morning. “Our company policy is no stops during the day, unless absolutely necessary, as it is wasted time during the day and a huge loss of production,” Hoy says.

Intelliscape Landscaping manages fuel by having on-site fuel tanks where usage is monitored, with one foreman able to use fuel tanks to fill up at on-road diesel and regular gasoline fuel pumps, as well as the on-site tanks. “We do this to reduce downtime and not have guys waiting at pumps, as well as to reduce the need to have to bring trucks and trailers into a crowded gas station,” Hoy says.

When Intelliscape Landscaping crews fill up on fuel depends upon when they return from assignments on any given day. It’s paid time. “We have multiple crews, so we try to have them rotate. Doing it this way – no one is waiting for the pump. We used to use a fleet card, but now we pay for fuel with a company credit card.” His company records fuel deliveries and compares them to past fuel deliveries, but, he admits, “it is hard to keep track of what trucks and machines are using.”

Serpico Landscaping has partnered with a mobile fuel delivery service that visits its locations at night and refuels all service vehicles and fuel containers. The service provides a wide range of reports and analysis to help the company maximize its return on fuel. Serpico Landscaping uses diesel and regular unleaded gasoline.

Novak says the service has helped Serpico reduce non-productive stops (gas station stops) by close to 500 stops a month.

“This unlocks one-and-a-half to two hours of available production hours per week, depending upon the crew size,” Novak says. That has been a huge plus for us, to allocate this time back to our crews for higher levels of detailing, new accounts, or additional training. Our client retention has improved as a result.”

Cotoia has addressed fuel management in two ways. “One, we have a mechanic assistant who comes in at 5 a.m., daily and has two hours to fuel trucks on a rotating basis. He also brings portable small equipment fuel jugs and two 50-gallon fuel transfer tanks to be filled daily as needed.”

No time for down time: When employees stop to refill during the day, they’re not serving a customer. Some companies require refueling to occur after the day is complete.

Type and time.

The fuel Executive Landscaping uses in its trucks and equipment is a 50-50 split between diesel and gasoline. Small construction equipment and other maintenance equipment are filled by jugs and transfer tanks. Fueling is done at gas stations to reduce labor waste. “We fuel up in the early morning as it reduces time at the gas station, and we find the afternoons busier at the stations,” Cotoia says. Employees are paid for the time fueling, using a national fueling credit card that is assigned to each truck.

Executive Landscaping tracks fuel purchase and usage by vehicle and equipment fuel by service type: i.e. maintenance equipment fuel versus construction equipment fuel. “We have had employee theft, but it’s easily identified when looking at mileage versus fuel purchased for the trucks, but a bit harder to determine with equipment fuel tracking,” Cotoia says.

With the price of diesel and gasoline likely not to drop but only rise in the future, doing your best to keep detailed records and assigning the fueling process for trucks and equipment at specified times and to veteran and trusted employees can save cents and dollars that add up fast. Those savings can have significant impacts on a company’s bottom line and ability to not have to pass fuel costs on to customers.

The author is a freelancer based in Connecticut.