Fuel for thought

Features - Strategies

Cleaner alternatives to gasoline give companies greener fuel options. The question: Can you afford to make a switch?

April 14, 2010

© Andreus | Dreamstime.comWhen a Clean Air Lawn Care crew arrives on site, homeowners have no idea, unless they see the truck. The Fort Collins, Colo.-based company’s fleet is whisper-quiet, and its footprint is nearly invisible – sustainably speaking, that is.

Rather than fueling up gas-powered mowers in the morning before heading out to service routes, crewmembers detach batteries from their charging units, pop them into the electric-powered fleet, and their raring to go. Or, shall we say, they tip-toe off to work.

If a battery runs low during the day, there are spares on the truck – or batteries can be plugged into a portable generator on the truck that’s powered by solar panels. This rig increases the company’s productivity by 10 to 20 percent, making the operation more profitable, says Kelly Giard, founder and CEO of Clean Air Lawn Care, now a franchise that is growing with one new location per month.

This is validation that customers want what Clean Air Lawn Care has to offer, Giard says. And, they’re willing to pay a premium for it. The price tag rivals that of other high-end landscape companies – forget low-balling. “Every part of our business is just as profitable, if not more, as our gas competitors,” he says. “So it’s a common misconception…we’re in this for the money, too.”

Giard calls himself a capitalist and a conservationist. Essentially, his business plan masters the triple-bottom-line (people, planet, profit) theory that’s buzzing around corporate headquarters these days.

And the numbers prove it. Clean Air grew from $7,000 in 2006 to more than $500,000 in 2008. Last year, Entrepreneur magazine named Giard Emerging Entrepreneur of the year.

Word is getting out: Gas isn’t the only juice for power equipment these days. And contractors who are willing to try something new will be recognized, says Eric Hansen, president of Competitive Lawn Service in Downers Grove, Ill. The bonus of alternative power is the marketing edge companies gain in a tough economy, he points out.

Hansen will run the first all-propane fleet in the country this season, and the company has netted a wide spread of media attention from its custom propane-fueled Ford F-350, which was customized by Jack Roush of Roush Performance.

“In this economy, what do we have to talk about?” remarks Hansen, in his 29th year of business. “We have absolutely nothing besides, ‘We’re a lower price.’ We can use (propane power) as a marketing piece as we go along.”

Propane is much more than news headlines for Hansen, who is committed to this form of natural gas as a cleaner alternative. He even installed a propane fuel station on his site in 2009. Now, Hansen has his eyes on the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED “green” certification as a sustainable site. 

These early adopters – Giard and Hansen – are willing to test equipment that fails (just ask Giard), or lay out dollars to invest in greener equipment, like Hansen. Propane-powered vehicles can cost 10 to 15 percent more, according to Ray Garvey, product specialist for The Grasshopper Co. in Moundridge, Kan. 

Meanwhile, electric and propane join bio-diesel in the clean-air power category, and today’s “clean diesel” is a promising option for landscapers who want to run greener without losing productivity, Garvey says.

“Landscapers want to clean the air without cleaning out their bank accounts,” says Garvey, skeptical of propane’s cost and efficiency, and electric’s capability of handling commercial jobs. “They want to reduce fuel consumption and reduce emissions, but they need to do that in a way that allows them to maintain or increase productivity and hold the line on cost.”


Gassing up

You can listen to Eric Hansen talk about the logistics of converting an entire fleet of trucks to run on propane by clicking here. And you can read his blog at competitivelawn.blogspot.com.

Clean and Quiet
Giard, who owned a landscape company while in high school and college, launched Clean Air Lawn Care in 2006 as a part-time gig while owning a stock brokerage franchise. “It’s an industry I care about – I like the work,” he says.

But he thought there had to be something better to feed mowers than gasoline. Five years ago, when he was hatching his business plan, the EPA estimated that small engines were responsible for 10 to 12 percent of air pollution.

Giard captured the market in his area at the beginning of the green movement, resulting in “a ripple effect where there’s profit, happy customers and an environmental benefit,” he says.

Of course, Giard has run into some bumps while testing battery-powered equipment options that will stand up to commercial use. But as battery technology advances, his company benefits. For instance, when Clean Air launched in 2006, not all batteries were replaceable, meaning the machines had to be plugged in to charge. Now, the challenge is running electric equipment with horsepower that matches gas units.

“We have equipment equivalent to gas mowers, except for our blower,” Giard says. Fall cleanup jobs are the only area of the business where profitability and productivity drop because electric blowers are inferior to their gas-fed brothers. So Giard uses a custom-built propane blower to stay on target.

Meanwhile, Black & Decker calls on him to test its electric innovations and provide feedback. “The way they put it is that we use machines at ‘extreme levels,’” Giard says, laughing. “If we OK it, then they don’t need to worry about it breaking down for Mrs. Jones.”

Some of Clean Air’s mowers are powered by “clean diesel,” or bio-diesel. Garvey explains this as an ultra-low sulfur diesel – sulfur content is just 15 parts per million vs. the 500 parts per million of sulfur contained in “old” diesel, prior to 2006.

Refining methods and engine technology position bio-diesel as an ideal fuel for power equipment. “By converting to clean diesel, they can consume up to 50 percent less fuel and, as a result, reduce emissions and leave a smaller carbon footprint,” Garvey says. “And just as important, they can maintain a competitive price for their services due to the power and efficiency and increase in production that clean diesel allows.”

Landscapers should be able to tell customers: “I’ve gone to clean diesel, now I don’t have to raise the price of your contract,” Garvey says.

A  Mindful Retrofit
Hansen’s impetus for converting his first two mowers to propane power in 2008 was to find a way to reduce equipment maintenance. So he talked to his shop mechanics to find out if they could jerry-rig a propane machine for his crews to test: How long would it really last without puttering out, or needing an oil change?

Hansen’s initial investment was $2,000 to retrofit two mowers from gas-power to propane. He located a Kawasaki carburetor that was used for 10 years in a buffer that cleaned school gym floors. “It made sense that it should work for lawn equipment,” he says.

“I personally didn’t care if the machine looked pretty – it needed to work for a minimum-wage employee from April all the way until the snow flies in late November, and we didn’t know if we could get these propane engines started in the beginning of winter,” he says.

Then again, gasoline presents similar issues in cold weather, Hansen points out. But with prices at the pump nearing $4.50 in 2008, the $3-per-gallon propane cost was attractive.

Hansen crunches the numbers: He paid $18 per day to fuel each propane mower, saving about $6 per day by using alternative fuel. That’s about $60 a week for both mowers and about 18 weeks to pay off the $2,000 investment in retrofits. With numbers like these, Hansen added five pieces of propane equipment to its fleet in 2009, and he’ll continue this pace in 2010 with an all-propane fleet.

But there were other perks that turned Hansen on to propane.

Rather than changing oil every 25 hours, a propane mower will run about 100 hours before requiring an oil change. “We don’t have to deal with fuel spilling all over,” he adds.

Hansen took propane to the next level and purchased a propane-powered Ford truck in 2009, which cost about $10,500 more than a gasoline-powered vehicle. This specially retrofitted model is nearly as efficient as a gas vehicle.

Propane programs

One of the biggest barriers for contractors interested in converting some – or all – of their equipment to run on propane is its cost and availability. Eric Hansen, owner of Competitive Lawn Service, works with Heritage Propane to get his supply.

The company has 450 locations throughout the country, and through its MetroLawn Program provides fuel cylinders at no cost to customers and guarantees a per gallon cost cheaper than regular gasoline, says Jim Coker, manager of engine fuels. A zero-turn mower can use one cylinder a week, which adds up. “Half of that conversion cost is the fuel cylinders. Do the math: It’s very expensive at $250 a piece,” Coker says.

Heritage also supplies contractors in their preferred way. Have a big holding tank? They’ll deliver it a thousand gallons at a time. Want to switch out tanks like you do for your grill at home? They’ll do that, too.
And, they have a staff of technicians who will come out to your shop and train you and your mechanic on how to convert your engines to run on propane.

“It’s costly enough out there, to want to go green alternative fuels … you just can’t afford it,” Coker says. “Fuel control has to be one of the largest issue any landscaper has. They don’t want to spend thousands of dollars to go there. They can’t afford it if it’s going to cost them more to run their operation.”

But how viable are alternative power methods for most landscapers? For now, Garvey says the cost of converting equipment and loss in productivity makes the alternative difficult to justify. Power equipment that runs on propane is 30 percent less efficient than gasoline, and 50 percent less efficient than diesel, Garvey says. Also, engine warranties don’t apply to engine retrofits, he adds. “Who will stand by the product if there is an engine failure?’ he asks. “There’s a lot of gray area and unanswered concerns.

“Propane, for now, is not a value for the landscaper – plain and simple,” Garvey continues. “Electric and propane are O.K. for those who truly want it and can afford the extra expenses associated with it, but as far as day-to-day operating expenses, for a company that must be competitive in their bids and keep costs down and productivity up, bio-diesel and gasoline are both better at this point.”

The initial cost of a propane-powered mower is about 10 to 15 percent more, Garvey says. That’s because of additional hardware and the tanks. Unlike diesel mowers that simply involve outfitting a machine with a different engine, propane mowers require a slightly different platform. One obvious difference is the mounted propane tank, Garvey says.  

Hansen thinks contractors need to put more pressure on the industry to push equipment prices down to encourage contractors to buy in, even if it means manufacturers losing money on propane mowers at first. Hansen says virtually every manufacturer at the GIE+EXPO in Louisville, Ky., this year was showing a propane model of some sort. “But each of those manufacturers can count on their hands the pieces of propane equipment they sold or will be selling for this upcoming season,” he says.

For now, Garvey says there are more propane conversion kit suppliers today who provide the parts to transform engines from gas- to propane powered.

While there is a push for tax credits for propane, Garvey expects that this will also become the case for clean diesel. Currently, there are tax credits available for owners who convert gas engines to diesel in large construction equipment. “So there is some benefit for landscapers using really large equipment,” Garvey says.

The author is a regular contributor to Lawn & Landscape.