Turf Magazine - January, 2013

FEATURES

Conversion Success Stories

Three landscape companies share how to save fuel, maintenance costs using propane
By Patrick White

So it's striking to hear the relatively hassle-free experiences of some lawn care companies who have made a major change in their operations: converting from gasoline- to propane-powered equipment. What might first seem like a daunting undertaking turns out to be a pretty smooth process. In part, that's because there's now lots of support available from manufacturers, propane suppliers and the propane industry.


Liapis Landscape & Design has converted 15 mowers to propane in the last year and now has a 1,000-gallon AmeriGas dispensing station installed at its facility, which is filled about every three weeks during the busy mowing season.
PHOTO COURTESY OF LIAPIS LANDSCAPE & DESIGN.

Baker Commercial Landscaping, Orlando, Fla., for example, worked with Heritage Propane (now owned by AmeriGas) to convert more than 50 mowers to propane over the last two years. The company's entire fleet of John Deere walk-behind and zero-turn mowers is propane-powered.

Heritage Propane is a partner in the MetroLawn program, which provides conversion kits and technical assistance to lawn care and landscape companies converting equipment to propane. Marc Blum, president of Baker Commercial Landscaping, says that having access to this expertise convinced him to convert his mowers. "Initially, we didn't know how to do it ourselves. So I don't think that's something we would have pursued on our own," he explains. "Heritage Propane already had the process and the parts."

After watching the specialists come in and convert about 25 mowers to propane, the company's own mechanics can now do the conversions.

"It doesn't take more than 10 to 15 hours of training for a person to understand how to install the whole kit," says Blum. And it takes just two or three hours to convert each of the company's mowers to propane. The process is similar for walk-behind and ride-on mowers; the only difference is the size of the propane bottles and type of mounting brackets used. After going through the conversion process and gaining experience with the propane mowers, the company gained confidence in the process and now is looking to convert other equipment from gasoline to propane.

"The big thing is to make sure you have a mechanic who knows how to fix something if it breaks; that's all," says Blum.

The initial set-up after mowers have been converted is often the trickiest aspect for mechanics new to propane. Especially air-cooled engines, which need to be idled back slightly to compensate for the higher power fuel being used, says Bob Jensen, sales manager with Baker Commercial Landscaping. Those types of adjustment require expertise to prevent mower damage.

"Anyone interested in converting should find a propane company that's committed and willing to have their people involved," emphasizes Jensen.

Once they've been converted you have to keep them properly tuned, he adds. For example, it's a good idea to cover the tuning screws on the propane regulators with aluminum tape to prevent them from being "adjusted" by crews out in the field.

Blum says converting to propane can lower maintenance requirements. "There's probably less service required from an internal engine parts standpoint. There's no build-up of carbon in the engine," says Blum. Last year the company, to test this, ran a mower for five months during the peak of Florida's growing season without changing the oil, just checking the level.

Easier to Switch Than You Think

The propane industry is making it easy for lawn care pros to convert to propane. MetroLawn, a major provider of EPA-certified propane conversion kits, for example, is now part of AmeriGas, the largest propane company in the world.

"That gives us great nationwide coverage," says Jim Coker, national director of MetroLawn. That company provides conversion kits, training and technical guidance, which, along with access to nationwide propane supplies, makes converting a turn-key process. "We take you from start to finish," he states.

Coker has talked with many lawn care pros that have tried to convert a mower by finding a cheap conversion kit on the Internet.

"They put it on; it doesn't work; and they get no support. So they have a very bad experience with it," he explains, noting that MetroLawn offers EPA CARB-certified kits, the official conversion kits for Kawasaki engines, and are supported by manufacturers such as Toro, Exmark, Excel/Hustler, Ariens/Gravely, etc.

"You need to deal with someone reputable," he stresses. "We want to not only convert the mower to propane, but also to ensure that the mower isn't going to be harmed in any way or operate in an unsafe manner when you mount the tanks to it."

Working with mower manufacturers gives MetroLawn an understanding of how and where each mower maker wants the propane tanks mounted so they won't adversely affect performance or safety, he says. Coker points out that MetroLawn doesn't simply want to sell the conversion kits; the company has an incentive to be sure everything works during the conversion.

"If things aren't running well, they're not going to buy propane from us," he says. "We come in with engine fuel specialists and with mechanics who can train you. And after the conversion you're continually supported by your local AmeriGas location. So you have all of that support there at your fingertips."

For those switching to propane, the Propane Education & Research Council (PERC) offers a "Propane Mower Incentive Program" (www.poweredbypropane.org) that applies to both new propane mowers and conversions.

"A landscaper can apply for incentives on up to 25 mowers. If they are brand-new OEM mowers, they can get up to $1,000 back on each of those mowers," says Mark Leitman, director of business development and marketing at PERC. There's also a $500 incentive available for mowers converted to propane (using EPA-certified kits) when they have less than 250 hours of use. To take part, a lawn care pro with qualifying equipment has to agree to keep some basic records and complete an online survey at the end of the mowing season on that equipment.

"We ask them to report back to us after one season to let us know how the mowers performed; how much fuel they consumed versus the hours of operation; inform us of their experience with service and maintenance and the refueling process," Leitman explains. "We want to understand how easy it was or if there were any challenges, perhaps."

The feedback that PERC has received so far indicates that fuel costs savings are one of the key benefits being reported by landscapers using propane, says Leitman. Part of that is due to propane costing significantly less than gas on a gallon-to-gallon basis, but there's more to it, he notes. While data shows that it should take a slightly higher volume of propane to produce the same BTUs as gasoline, in real-world settings propane seems to boast an almost 1:1 ratio, he claims.

"It could be reduced loss or theft or spillage or evaporation that occurs with gasoline. All of that adds up. So we're hearing from landscapers that they're literally using only 1 gallon of propane for every gallon of gas they had used," he says.

"When we drained the oil it looked just like the day it went in; it was golden," says Jensen. "When we pulled the spark plugs, they looked like they were brand new. They were that clean." It's not the engine itself, but rather the byproducts of gasoline that create build-up, he says.

Most propane suppliers are getting familiar working with landscape and lawn service companies.

"They come here twice a week and fill our cylinders here. We have racks outside the building, so the crews can just pull a full cylinder off the rack and put them right on the mower," says Jensen. The company is provided with the bottles as part of the program.

"And the price of a gallon of propane is significantly less than the price of a gallon of gas," adds Blum. "Plus, we don't have the time spent stopping at gas stations and unloading our enclosed trailers to fill the mowers up with gasoline. Our crews can just swap the tanks, so there's a time savings."

Edgar Schmitz, owner of EHJS Company Lawn Care, Girard, Pa., has converted three Hustler mid-mounts, three Wright Standers and three walk-behind mowers over the past two years. For small engines, Schmitz has used conversion kits from AltFuel. For the 25 hp Kawasaki engines on his bigger mowers, he's had good success with conversion kits from Hendrix Industrial Gastrux.

"They put together kits and send you the whole thing with a wiring and plumbing diagram. For me, the process seemed pretty easy. But if you do it in-house, you need to know what you're doing," cautions Schmitz. The problems he's encountered haven't been with the propane itself, but in situations where employees haven't properly connected wiring.

Schmitz also has seen mower maintenance costs drop. "We put almost 800 hours on the spark plugs before we had to change them, and the oil is very clean," he notes. "Plus, the fumes don't bother the guys out on the job." The only added maintenance is an occasional adjustment of the propane regulator in the event heat or vibration changes the setting that's been dialed in. "I put little aftermarket tachometers on the mowers and use that to adjust the regulators, and then away you go," says Schmitz.

Dual-fuel fix

Schmitz opted to set his larger mowers up as dual-fuel machines. They can run on either gasoline or propane. "In our area, the fall can get cold and because the propane uses vapor tanks, sometimes they won't create enough vapor to get started. That's about the only problem I've encountered," he adds. Once the unit is running, he switches over to propane.

EHJS uses AmeriGas as its propane supplier. Schmitz says that company helped him get set up with tanks and even installed a filling station at his garage. It took a long time for the state to process the paperwork to allow him to use that filling station. Now he's able to fill his own canisters, the process works smoothly and helps him save even more money by buying large quantities of propane when the prices are lowest.

Liapis Landscape & Design, Moraine, Ohio, made the move to propane early last year by converting 15 mowers, ranging from 36-inch walk-behinds to 52-inch Everride Scorpions and Toro zero-turns. The goal, says Operations Manager David Guy, was to get more stable fuel pricing to allow the company more security when entering into maintenance contracts.

Liapis Landscape & Design got EPA-certified conversion kits from MetroLawn. "They have a team of people who come. We have our own mechanic and they spent two days with him training him to install the conversion kits on a few mowers. After that he was able to do the rest of the conversions," says Guy. "It's important if you do this that you aren't buying a kit off the Internet and trying to install it at night in your garage. You want some backing and support so things are done the right way."

In addition to cost savings, Guy also expects to see savings on reduced maintenance and replacement costs. Many of the engines the company converted to propane already had 1,500 hours on them yet required very little maintenance during the past mowing season. "And a few of the mowers had brand-new engines when we converted them, so eventually I'll have some very good data on whether the engines last longer," says Guy.

Liapis Landscape worked with AmeriGas to supply propane. "They came out and did a site evaluation and talked everything through with us and it started to make more and more sense," Guy explains. "It was pretty seamless." A 1,000-gallon dispensing station was installed, which makes it easy to fill the canisters, and training was provided to ensure that employees know how to safety complete this process. "They took care of everything as far as the training, keeping the tank certified, making sure the local fire departments know there's a tank here, all of the things that need to be kept up on," he says.

Since converting to propane, Liapis Landscape & Design has worked with Clean Fuels Ohio, a nonprofit group that has helped the company get media exposure about its switch to propane, which has helped from a marketing standpoint. "It turns out that just switching over those 15 mowers has reduced our company's overall emissions by about 70 percent," Guy marvels.

More important than the marketing benefits has been reduced costs, he states. "We've grown about 40 percent in the past year and our fuel costs have stayed the same. That's a huge savings," says Guy. "We've made a commitment to propane. So any mowers we use from here forward will definitely run on propane."

Patrick White is a freelance writer and editor who has covered every aspect of the green industry in the past 15 years. He is based in Middlesex, Vt., and is always on the lookout for unusual stories. Reach him at pwhite@meadowridgemedia.com.