Propane Power

This alternative fuel isn’t the be-all, end-all, but some say it can save money and set you apart from your competitor.

Imagine a lawn mower that cuts grass as well as a gas-powered mower, but costs less to run, requires less maintenance and is better for the environment. This appealing scenario may sound like it exists only in the distant future, yet for some lawn and landscape companies, that future has arrived – and its name is propane. 

As gas prices have risen in recent years, so has interest in alternative fuels, bringing a new and more efficient generation of propane-powered machines to a wider market. Many lawn and landscape companies are switching to propane-powered equipment and trucks, citing convenience, fuel savings and less wear-and-tear.

“I was wary at first, and wanted to be sure I got the same performance,” says Shannon Wilson, owner of Greenscape Services in Sarasota, Fla. “So I told my guys to run the two machines side by side. I couldn’t tell the difference – the cut was great.”

Wilson likes the fact that 90 percent of propane is produced in the United States and that it burns cleaner. “We have to change our habits sooner rather than later – this is about our grandkids’ future,” he says.

The growing propane market is being driven by costs as much as environmental concerns. Right now, propane is about one dollar cheaper than gasoline per gallon. The up-front costs are higher – propane-powered mowers cost about 10 percent more than their gas-consuming counterparts, while a propane-powered Ford F-250 runs about $10,000 more than a standard version – yet the payback is worth it, proponents argue.

“Our fuel costs on our mowers and the Roush F-150 truck are down 35-45 percent since we started   using propane last June,” says Jon Dozier of Merry

Acres Landscape and Lawn Maintenance in Albany, Ga.

“We’ll save $35,000 to $40,000 over our first three years.” Propane-powered equipment is not only less costly to run, it’s also better for the environment.

About 5 percent of U.S. air pollution stems from lawn care vehicles, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Compared with gas mowers, propane-powered mowers produce about 25 percent less greenhouse gases and 60 percent less carbon monoxide. This can add up, because commercial mowers consume about five times the fuel of a typical car.

To be sure, propane is not a silver bullet – biodiesel and electric-powered mowers emit even less – but it’s the most widely used alternative fuel for good reasons. It’s cost-effective, widely available and offers the same power as a gas mower. 

Merry Acres Landscape & Lawn Maintenance expects to save about $40,000 by using propane-powered equipment.Making the switch.
Jon Dozier liked the propane-powered lawn mower he tested at the GIE+EXPO in 2007, but he was hesitant. After all, it was a big switch.

Dozier wasn’t ready to purchase a new fleet yet, anyway. He filed the information away for future use. Then, three years later, he got a phone call. 

“I had almost forgotten about it until a propane salesperson called me,” he says.

“It was right at the time when I was looking at purchasing a new fleet of mowers. He showed me some of the numbers, and I did some of my own research.”

Last year, Dozier bought eight propane-powered lawn mowers and a propane autogas truck. “The mowers chewed right through 10-inch grass,” he says. “Now I want to expand more.”

Dozier is looking into propane-fueled leaf blowers and trimmers, but he’s concerned that the equipment will be too heavy for his employees to carry around – the propane tanks weigh nearly forty pounds when full. “I’d love to figure out a way to do it,” he says.

Wilson began to consider propane because he was frustrated with fluctuating gas prices. “It was very hard for me to go to a customer and ask for a fuel surcharge because the price of gas had gone up,” says Wilson. “I needed price stability.”

Yet Wilson was skeptical of propane-powered equipment at first, too. “I wanted to be confident the engine had the same power as a gas mower before I made the switch,” he says. Now that Wilson has made the investment, he too is considering expansion. 

Unlike these other business owners, Jesse Triick founded Pristine Green in Byron Center, Mich. with the intention of using only propane-powered equipment.  “We’ve never burned one drop of gasoline,” says Triick proudly. However, he and his wife Hilary previously owned a lawn care company that used gas-powered mowers.

For owners like the Triicks, making the switch to propane is not just about saving money. 

It’s also about marketing green business practices to their customers. “Our market is completely saturated with lawn care companies, so we needed a way to differentiate ourselves,” he says. “Otherwise, we would have just been another name in the phone book.”

Calculating costs.
Unlike many business owners, Dozier is not worried about fuel prices going up. That’s because he negotiated a one-year fixed rate for propane in June of last year.

“It’s much easier to anticipate my fuel costs with propane, and I don’t worry as much about prices spiking at the pump,” says Dozier.

Fueling had to be convenient for Dozier to make the switch. That’s why his propane supplier built a fueling station on his property. Each day, Dozier’s maintenance manager refills the empty canisters while the employees are out in the field.

When they return at the end of the day, the employees spend a few minutes switching the tanks on the equipment. In the end, Dozier says, it’s easier than refueling with gasoline.

Dozier also saves on maintenance, including less frequent oil changes. He’s confident that he’ll recoup his investment over time due to these cost savings.

Wilson estimates that he’s saved one-third to one-half on annual maintenance and fuel costs when compared with gas-powered machines.

He also likes the fact that propane-powered mowers are easy to refuel, and there’s virtually no waste.

“You really get your money’s worth,” he says. “And filling it up is just like using a tank on a grass grill – you turn the knob and it comes on. It’s instant.” Fuel savings for trucks that run on propane autogas can be even greater, Triick says.

Autogas costs about two bucks per gallon, while diesel is running $3.50 per gallon or more. “There’s a higher investment up front, but we’ve seen big savings in our fuel prices over time,” says Triick. “And as gasoline goes up in price, our savings will only increase.”

Green marketing.
Educating customers about propane-powered equipment is one of the biggest challenges, yet it can also be an opportunity.

Although most customers will choose their lawn and landscape company based on price and quality, Wilson says his new green machines have generated buzz.

“We service a large homeowners’ association in the area, and after we educated them about this technology, they did an article about us in the HOA newsletter,” Wilson says.
Triick agrees that propane is still very much “in the education phase.” He adds, “Many people still think propane can only heat a house, an RV or a grill. They also have concerns about safety, although propane tanks are half-inch steel and very safe. In 30 seconds, I can get a customer fully on board. We’ve had a good response so far.”

Not all dealerships offer propane-powered equipment, Triick says – and some talk it down.

“A lot of dealers tried to steer me away from propane-powered equipment – one salesperson was convinced I’d only save money on oil changes,” Triick says.

“Finally, I came across a sales guy from AmeriGas, and he was all over it. The propane industry has a huge marketing hurdle – many local suppliers don’t know about it.”

Getting started
The key to successfully using propane, says Jesse Triick, is getting an established fuel price right off the bat.

Based on this, you can project your annual fuel costs. Once you’ve done that, the next step is obtaining a commitment from a supplier.

“Convenience has a lot to do with it,” Triick says. “It’s not like you can get propane on every corner, like you can with gas.

At the same time, most people don’t know all the places you can get it – or that you can do on-site bottle dispensing.” Lawn and landscape companies considering the purchase of propane-powered equipment should “do their research first,” Dozier says.

“A lot of businesses don’t know what their fuel costs are. If you know your numbers, the argument is pretty simple.” 

Negotiating a competitive, locked-in rate is also critical. “Sure, propane retails at the store for $3.99 per gallon, but you can get it much cheaper,” says Dozier.

Prices are lower in the summer, so that’s a better time to negotiate, he adds.

Wilson acknowledges the importance of businesses doing their homework, yet he also argues that, given the importance of improving our environment, it’s time to act. 

He has a simple message for any businesses thinking about switching to propane: “Just do it.”

The author is a freelance writer based in Cleveland.



March 2011
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