By Jeremy Wishart
The preferred alternative fuel for commercial mowers — propane — is continuing its rise in popularity among landscape contractors.
In the last decade, and even more so in just the last five years, non-traditional fuels led by propane have moved from a fringe fuel option to the preferred power source for many contractors. The level of acceptance by those in the market has increased exponentially in the last 10 years, but the benefits remain the same: propane-powered mowers provide contractors with a sustainable, environmentally friendly business proposition that also happens to offer the lowest total cost of operation compared with traditional fuels like gasoline and diesel.
During the cutting season in 2015, more than 20,000 propane mowers — consisting of aftermarket field conversions, dealer conversion and OEM propane mowers — are expected to be cutting grass by landscape contractors across the country. It’s a figure that would almost seem impossible less than a decade ago, when only a handful of propane mower models were available.
Propane propelled by niche customers at first
When the Propane Education & Research Council (PERC) first became involved with small engines and mowers in 2006, there were, at most, four manufacturers that even offered a single propane model in their product line. These mower offerings were targeted towards a niche customer willing to pay a premium price for a “greener” mower than what a mower powered by traditional fuel options could offer.
Initially, other manufacturers were slow to jump on the propane bandwagon in the first few years following 2006. Those that eventually offered a propane mower model did so to meet very specific customer demands.
A breakthrough year in 2013
During the 2011 and 2012 cutting seasons, the market grew to 12 manufacturers offering roughly 20 propane-powered mower models. While that increase in equipment options was fairly dramatic over a five-year span, all of the propane mower models on the market were existing gasoline- or diesel-fueled mowers that required installation of a propane conversion kit at the factory level. But PERC used this increased interest in propane as an opportunity to develop more fuel-efficient technology. It began dedicating more resources to the landscape market with programs such as the Propane Mower Incentive Program, which helped offset some of the upfront costs contractors faced when making the switch from gasoline- or diesel-fueled mowers to propane. In fact, the Propane Mower Incentive Program became so popular among contractors that it has grown into a pillar program for PERC.
A breakthrough year occurred in 2013 when propane received some noteworthy buy-in from large players in the market. PERC helped Kohler launch its 747cc Command Pro EFI propane engine, the first OEM-built EFI propane engine to enter the market. That same year, two leading equipment manufacturers, Exmark and Toro, adopted the Kohler engine and developed dedicated propane-powered mowers, while John Deere made available 20-plus mower options approved for dealer conversions. Several other manufacturers — such as Hustler, Big Dog, and Wright — took the same approach shortly thereafter. The spike in manufacturers offering propane-powered models totaled 18, selling more than 75 options to the market by year’s end. Commercial mowers powered by propane were here to stay.
Further expansion expected
Today, EFI propane has been adopted across an even wider range of manufacturers, such as Gravely and Walker, offering additional propane-powered models including walk-behind and stand-on front-mount mowers. In all, this increased acceptance and reliance on propane as a power source for the commercial landscape market equates to roughly 18 manufacturers offering 135 or more propane-powered mower models and EPA-certified conversion kits. The growth in this industry is indication that propane is a proven fuel that can reduce emissions and operating costs for customers.
Alternative fuels are already setting up to have another year of mower model growth and market expansion in 2015. The Kohler 824cc Command Pro EFI Propane engine, launched at GIE last fall, is expected to continue to increase the number of OEMs offering propane-powered mowers.
To date, PERC’s Propane Mower Incentive Program has helped put 3,033 new propane-powered mowers in the field in 48 states.
PERC is committed to increasing awareness of propane’s benefits to additional markets, including the golf industry, where propane can meet customers’ alternative-fuel needs in a similar fashion.
Jeremy Wishart is the deputy director of business development at the Propane Education & Research Council. He can be reached at email@example.com.