By Steve Wayne
Propane-fueled commercial lawn mowers offer high performance, sustainability, and positive economics for lawn and landscape contractors, as well as with easy refueling — either through a propane cylinder exchange program or on-site dispensing. Clean Scapes, a lawn and landscape contractor that serves primarily commercial properties across central Texas, understands those attributes well, due to its operation of more than 30 propane-fueled mowers from Exmark and Scag Power Equipment.
The company adopted the mowers thanks to its close relationship with outdoor power equipment dealer McCoy’s Lawn Equipment Superstore, which has two locations in Austin. McCoy’s has provided new propane-fueled mowers to Clean Scapes, and also converted conventionally fueled models for propane use. McCoy’s also offers a propane cylinder exchange program for its customers through a partnership with propane provider Ferrellgas.
Clean Scapes president Ivan Giraldo and McCoy’s Lawn Equipment SuperStore president Jay Godfrey recently shared their perspectives on how propane-fueled mowers have positively affected their respective businesses and working relationship.
Ivan Giraldo, president, Clean Scapes, Austin, Texas
Q: What should lawn and landscape contractors consider when transitioning to a propane-fueled mower fleet?
A: You have to think of the financial impact. When we first started talking with McCoy’s Lawn Equipment SuperStore about the advantages of propane-fueled mowers, we asked a lot of questions about cost efficiencies. We were able to pay for conversion of some mowers with available rebates from the Texas Propane Gas Association. Another consideration was that converting to propane-fueled mowers was a good thing for the environment.
Q: How does a lawn and landscape contractor select a propane provider?
A: We were very fortunate that we had a representative from Encore Propane come to our headquarters to discuss what we were doing, and it was simple to set up a credit account and a propane cylinder exchange program. He is very familiar with our needs, and all it takes is an e-mail or phone call. For instance, if we set up a new work site where we have on-site crews, we’ll tell him, “We need a 12-rack or 24-rack of propane cylinders at this location,” and within a few days, we’re ready to go.
Q: What recommendations do you have regarding working with an equipment dealer to acquire and service propane-fueled equipment?
A: When we decided to convert our mowers from gasoline to propane, McCoy’s Lawn Equipment SuperStore told us it was able to do that, and introduced us to available rebates from the Texas Propane Gas Association. When we needed new mowers, we bought new models already running on propane. McCoy’s has worked with us on warranties, conversions and maintenance. Regarding warranties and maintenance, McCoy’s works directly with our head mechanic because the company knows and trusts him.
Q: How did you approach safety and training for your crews that would be operating and refueling the new propane-fueled mowers?
A: When we purchased our propane-fueled mowers, we explained to the crews and crew leaders how they needed to safely handle the cylinders and transport them. Each cylinder is in its own rack when not in use. We make sure they are familiar with each mower, including how to get them running and refueled.
Q: Has your business realized cost savings since adopting its propane-fueled mowers?
A: Yes. We’re paying half of what we would be paying for gasoline, but using propane also reduces our mower maintenance costs because we can go longer without changing our oil. We’re very fortunate in that we have veteran crews, and the first thing they do is check that oil. Warranty specifications from Exmark and Scag Power Equipment are very detailed, and we follow them.
Q: What advice would you give to a contractor considering adopting propane-fueled commercial mowers?
A: There are so many factors to consider. Are your crews going to be able to embrace this new form of fuel, and can they sustain its use if your company is going to expand? We’ve been very fortunate; we’ve expanded every year with mowers, vehicles and personnel. For us, propane-fueled mowers were an excellent choice. As we’ve grown, it has allowed us to gain larger market share, because we’re using this green technology.
Jay Godfrey, president, McCoy’s Lawn Equipment SuperStore, Austin, Texas
Q: Why and how did you start offering your customers propane-fueled mowers and a propane cylinder exchange program?
A: We started selling propane to customers in 2003, but began converting and selling propane-fueled commercial mowers in 2006 when the city of Austin and the state of Texas began requiring contractors to use alternatively fueled equipment.
Our business grew as contractors in the area started noticing the advantages of propane-fueled mowers. Not only were they winning contracts because of them, they also were seeing cost savings, like a 20- to 30-percent reduction in fuel costs; reduced maintenance, since there is little to no carburetor work needed; and rebates and other incentives.
We started working with Clean Scapes on propane-fueled mowers in 2008, because one of their contracts required that contractors use alternative fuels.
Q: What is involved in converting conventionally fueled mowers to propane, including dealer cost?
A: Dealers that perform propane-fueled mower conversions in Texas must be licensed, which is granted by the Railroad Commission of Texas. The manufacturers of the mower and engine models we sell want qualified technicians handling the conversions, and we have sent technicians to their headquarters for training. In all, it has cost us about $500 for the licensing and a few thousand dollars to purchase the conversion equipment, including a five-gas analyzer to verify emission reductions.
It takes about three hours for us to convert one mower, and we use EPA-certified kits from Onyx Environmental Solutions, which is the patent holder. We’ve converted approximately 50 mowers to propane fuel and sold 30 new propane-fueled mowers.
Q: How has offering propane-fueled mowers affected your commercial business?
A: We have been able to provide propane cylinder exchanges for smaller contractors through our partnership with Ferrellgas. While larger contractors like Clean Scapes have established their own refueling approaches, the smaller contractors that only use a few cylinders a week will come to refill empty cylinders.
Q: Have your customers seen cost savings from converting to propane-fueled mowers?
A: Our customers save money on fuel and through reduced maintenance. With most big mowers, technicians generally work on the carburetor at least twice per year at about $400 each time. When a mower is sitting in the shop getting its oil changed or having a carburetor replaced instead of out on a job site, it is costing the contractor money.
Q: Do you have any delivery trucks running on propane autogas, and what savings have you seen?
A: We have a 2008 Chevrolet 1500 truck with a 5.3-liter engine that is a dual-fuel truck, and I love it because I can put 60 gallons of propane autogas in it and drive it for two weeks. The same staff member — my son, Jimmy — who is certified for mower conversions also is certified to convert on-road vehicles.
We have a 1,000-gallon propane tank at both of our locations to refuel propane cylinders for customers, as well as our truck. To refuel, we just attach a dispenser and go. We are hoping that more contractors follow suit and convert their vehicles as well.
Q: What advice do you have for dealers considering new or converted propane-fueled mowers?
A: Build trust with customers. When we went through our sales pitch with Clean Scapes, we said, “It will take a year or so to realize, but you’ll start seeing your fuel bills change, you’ll see the service side start to change, and you’ll find out that there is really no reason for everything not to run on propane.” Clean Scapes is at that point now, and it works the way we said it would.
Steve Wayne is chief commercial officer for the Propane Education & Research Council (PERC). PERC was authorized by the U.S. Congress with the passage of Public Law 104-284, the Propane Education and Research Act (PERA), signed into law on October 11, 1996. The mission of the Propane Education & Research Council is to promote the safe, efficient use of odorized propane gas as a preferred energy source through research and development, training, and safety initiatives.