Considering the Alternatives
Oklahoma landscape contractor begins conversion to compressed natural gas
Precision Quality Lawn Care
2001; incorporated in 2009Headquarters:
Greater Tulsa areaServices:
Mowing, landscaping, landscape design, tree work and irrigation Employees:
3 Website: www.mowtulsa.com
Over the past few years, Kyle Ingram has been looking for a way to protect his company's bottom line.
Ingram is president of Precision Quality Lawn Care in Tulsa, Okla., which serves the greater Tulsa area. Lawn mowing is the company's core service, with landscaping, landscape design, tree work and irrigation making up secondary services.
In his efforts to control costs and build his business, Ingram recently purchased a truck than runs on compressed natural gas (CNG), hoping it would make a significant impact.
"There are significant savings with running CNG," Ingram says, adding that he noticed an immediate difference the first day he used the truck.
"The second factor was the environment and my belief about the way the oil industry is set up, where money from that goes," he says. "All of the compressed natural gas that I use to fill up our truck is from the Oklahoma panhandle. It's transported here to Tulsa in pipelines, so it's 100 percent domestic. It supports all of the jobs here and it burns a lot cleaner than gasoline. All of the gas we use doesn't even leave our state."
Converting versus buying
In an effort to control fuel costs, Kyle Ingram purchased a truck that runs on CNG, compressed natural gas.
Ingram had considered both options of buying a CNG or using a conversion kit.
"The conversion costs have come down a lot in price, but they are still cost-prohibitive as far as vehicle ownership in terms of how long you have to own it and how much you have to drive it," he says.
After crunching the numbers, he concluded it was more viable to purchase one already converted.
"The problem with that is you're extremely limited on your selection," he says. "More than 90 percent of the trucks are just going to be a single cab, two-wheel drive, F-150s from 1997 until 2002, when Ford quit making them," he says. "That's not what I was looking for. I was looking to find an F-350, dually flatbed and cab that had already been converted from the factory."
After a two-year search, he found what he was looking for.
Ingram found the CNG tank to be close to the tank size of his other truck, and notes that he fills it up the same amount of times - but the savings started right away.
An employee of Precision Quality Lawn Care edges a property in Broken Arrow, Okla. In the background is the company's F350 flatbed 'dually' that's powered by CNG. The trailer is custom-built.
PHOTOS COURTESY OF PRECISION QUALITY LAWN CARE.
"I haven't seen the CNG change price at all," he says. "It stays really stable. We're still at $1.11 a gallon; it's been that way for several months now."
The downside to using CNG is availability of stations that provide it, Ingram says. "Oklahoma, Utah and Texas have the most stations in the United States, so we're fortunate here," he says.
Yet it still is a challenge, so on the daily mowing routes he has to factor in the location of the CNG stations on the route.
"For a normal truck, you just wait until you're low and pull into the nearest station," Ingram says. "With the CNG truck, even if its' still three-quarters full, the policy is we fill up."
Ingram has one other truck in his fleet, which runs on gasoline, and he's still debating on whether or not to convert it, based on the $7,000 to $12,000 cost per truck to do so.
All of the company's equipment runs on gasoline.
"I looked into the propane conversions, but with our propane prices around here, it just makes a lot more sense for CNG," says Ingram. "I haven't found a way to convert any of the mowers to CNG. I wanted to concentrate on knocking out the biggest fuel user first, and that was the truck."
Ingram keeps the company's equipment running efficiently through frequent tune-ups.
Because of the lack of availability of some alternative fuels, Ingram says not everyone in the United States is able to convert, even if they wanted to. "That's why you see a lot of companies doing the liquefied propane because it's more readily available in their areas," he says.
A passion for mowing lawns
Ingram has been in the business for more than a decade. He started mowing lawns as a boy in his neighborhood in 2001. "I was trying to earn a little money to get a truck and soup it up," Ingram says. "In middle school and high school, I had some older friends who already had their license and trucks, so they would drive me around and I'd mow some yards.
"It (the mowing business) grew over the years, all throughout high school and college," says Ingram, who has a bachelor's degree in business management and a minor in marketing from Oklahoma State University. "When I got out of college, I was still doing it."
Precision Quality Lawn Care serves the residential and commercial sectors, with a shift toward high-end properties. "When you get into the high-end ones, those people aren't necessarily looking for price bidding as much as they're looking for referrals by word-of-mouth from their friends," says Ingram. "They're wanting quality. In the past year or so, we got a number of the high-end accounts at higher contract amounts than their previous companies, even in this economy, and that was due to wanting very specific things they're willing to pay for."
Networking builds business
Chief among those client requests is a company that can handle everything in-house, Ingram says.
"Anything we don't do, we will have a referral for it," he says. "For example, we don't do any chemical applications of any type, but we're teamed up with Lawn America to provide the chemical application services we need within the contract."
The client only has to make one phone call for services and write one check, Ingram adds. Alternately, Lawn America refers its clients to Precision Quality Lawn Care for mowing.
Promoting water conservation
Ingram endeavors to educate his clients about the conservation of resources. "Looking around me, it's definitely not something that's taken very seriously here," he says. "During the drought we had last summer here and that horrible drought in Texas, it opened a lot of people's eyes. But it's been raining a lot this year and I think water conservation is already out of people's minds again. You can go down any street at any time here in Tulsa and water sprinklers and systems are gushing water all over. You'd think there was an infinite resource of it."
Precision Quality Lawn Care's core service is mowing, but it also offers landscaping, landscape design, tree work and irrigation services to its clients in the greater Tulsa area.
When he installs landscapes, he focuses on native plants and xeriscaping. And, in his own yard, he uses river rock instead of mulch and has planted yucca and cacti. He also likes using fountain grasses. "I plant really hardy plants that definitely do not need any extra watering," he says.
With respect to water conservation, Ingram believes awareness is the biggest factor in influencing in prompting change.
"It takes an event to prompt the change," he says. "People generally don't go out on their own and make change without an event, and that event is drought."
In its maintenance of irrigation systems, Precision Quality Lawn Care incorporates conservation through system upgrades. "We like to water less," he says. "The irrigation industry has made some tremendous advances with its technology in the last decade and we always try to upgrade every customer to freeze sensors, temperature sensors and smart controllers to take advantage of that."
Many of the property owners are using systems from 10 to 20 years ago, Ingram adds. "The philosophy back then was just dump as much water as you possibly can on it, seven days a week," he says. "We're able to switch them to technology-based sensors and controllers as well as change-out the nozzles to reduce the amount of water consumption."
While the company does upgrade systems, it does not install new irrigation systems. "We like to use native plants and xeriscaping instead," Ingram says. "The only water those generally need is watering to establish them, and then we can get enough water from rains to not need any additional water."
Honesty, experience sought in employees
Kyle Ingram and Jorge, one of his crew members, construct a cedar pergola and deck at a house of one of their clients.
Precision Quality Lawn Care has three employees, all of whom work in the field.
Honesty is the predominant trait that Ingram seeks in an employee. "They have to be able to embody what I stand for and believe in for business practices," he says. "The second is experience and quality. I'm known for being a perfectionist, and that's what they need to be known for as well."
Labor is the biggest challenge for Ingram. "I hear a lot from people saying the Hispanics are taking all of our jobs so we can't get any jobs," says Ingram, who has learned Spanish to communicate with his employees. "But from what I've seen and in my personal experience, the Caucasians don't want those jobs anyway. I can't get them to show up, even for extra money.
"I've had that personally happen in the last month where I'd been advertising job positions and had several people apply. Several of them didn't even want to show up, and the one who did show up worked for about a half day, and when he was done, he said he'd rather go do something for less money, but no labor involved."
Ingram has turned to his foreman, who is Hispanic, for referrals and found that has worked out the best.
Down the road
Five years from now, Ingram sees his company continuing to maintain its lawn maintenance side while transitioning more to landscape construction, getting bigger projects and focusing more on construction.
"I definitely see the ratio of commercial to residential growing larger to where we will be doing less residential and more commercial," he says. "I know the residential market is more stable than the commercial, because the commercial market tends to bid things every year. It's more volatile. They bid primarily on price, but there are a number of high-end commercial accounts that care more about service."
In terms of the industry in general, the availability of a skilled workforce will continue to be a major challenge, he says. "I see fuel and energy as a definite challenge in the future, and that was the reason for purchasing that CNG truck," he says. "That allowed me to position my company to absorb fuel prices. With the other companies that are running their vehicles on gasoline or diesel, the price prices are constantly changing. I can budget ahead of time for the CNG and take advantage of the savings there."
Carol Brzozowski, Coral Springs, Fla., is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and a frequent contributor to Turf magazine. Contact her at email@example.com.