The first propane mower was patented in 1996 by Onyx Environmental Solutions and Dixie Chopper introduced its first propane mower in 2006. Since then, these industry leaders and others like the Propane Education & Research Council (PERC) have been pushing its environmental and performance benefits. Those efforts are paying off. Today, 11 manufacturers offer a propane mower.
With equipment options readily available and the “green” movement firmly entrenched, the time may be right for rural lifestyle dealers to consider selling propane mowers or adding conversion centers to service departments.
McCoy’s Lawn Equipment Center of Austin, Texas, does both. Its president, Jay Godfrey, is a believer in the many benefits of propane mowers.
“There are a ton of reasons to use them. The only reason not to, is that you have to learn something new,” Godfrey says.
The following statistics from Jim Coker, director of Go Green Metro Lawn, a propane education, conversion and supply program of Heritage Propane, indicates the opportunity.
“At the height of sales, there were 225,000 new commercial mowers sold in a year. Last year, 160,000 new commercial mowers were sold. And, there are about a million commercial mowers running, so there is the opportunity for converting existing mowers, too. Everybody is looking at how to survive in this economy and get new business,” Coker says.
C is launching its first propane engine this fall. It’s an 852cc vertical shaft model.
The manufacturers today that offer propane mowers include Bob-Cat, Cub Cadet, Dixie Chopper, Exmark, Ferris, Gravely, Kubota, Scag, Snapper Pro, Toro and Zipper.
Propane Mower Beginnings
Jeremy Hahne, general manager for Onyx Environmental Solutions, says the company has worked with propane engines for about 20 years in its floor-care machines.
“We knew how clean and fuel-efficient and cost-effective propane is,” Hahne says.
Onyx introduced propane mowers in 2006 under the EnviroGard brand to drive the demand for propane lawn mowers. Onyx holds the patent on low-polluting propane mowers and offers the only propane conversion kits to be EPA certified.
“If you make it, they will come,” says Hahne. Municipalities were among the first customers.
Jim Coker is director of Go Green Metro Lawn.
Onyx now produces the propane engines and conversion kits that fit many different lawn mowers, but it doesn’t make the mowers. Hahne says it has license agreements with all manufacturers who have introduced propane lawn mowers, many of which have used Onyx’s technology.
Dixie Chopper’s first propane mowers were the LP 3000-60 and LP 3000-72 models and the company now even offers a mower that runs on compressed natural gas.
Dixie Chopper introduced its Xcaliber propane mower in 2006 and now offers a mower that runs on compressed natural gas.
“We knew it was going to be a long and tedious venture to break the perception for the average American to use alternative fuel,” says Brice Hill, Dixie Chopper product specialist. “Quite frankly, when you see two huge tanks, they look like bombs, but it’s a safe system that’s all contained.”
Randy Lockyear, senior sales manager for OEM engine sales for Kawasaki, says propane mowers have been pulled through by the industry, as opposed to pushed by the manufacturers.
“It’s been a slow process. OEMs have not pushed propane mowers because they don’t have to. They’re too busy selling units that run on gasoline. But, if you’ve got the industry asking for it, the OEMs have to listen,” says Lockyear. He says the industry feedback has been mostly informal, such as through dealer meetings and dealer councils.
Mark Leitman is director of business development and marketing for the Propane Education & Research Council.
In 2007, PERC joined the effort. It saw the opportunity for a summer application for the fuel, says Mark Leitman, PERC director of business development and marketing. They now have a multi-tiered product development and education program that includes incentives, promotions and training. PERC and Kawasaki partner on the training programs. About 70 sessions are held each year nationwide. The sessions focus on safety, trouble-shooting and other service topics. Kawasaki also offers training programs at which mechanics can tear down engines.
Propane Mower Sales Points
Experts say there are many benefits to share with potential mower customers, both landscapers and rural lifestylers. The major benefit being lower fuel costs than gasoline, currently about 30% less. There is reduced fuel loss to evaporation, theft, spillage or spoilage. Also, propane eliminates the performance problems associated with ethanol.
“A bigger landscaper with two big units will go through 15-20 gallons of fuel a day. Their fuel costs are higher for mowing equipment than for trucks,” Godfrey says. “They’re fueling their fleet for $1.90 a gallon. At that point, it becomes a no-brainer.”
Go Green Metro Lawn offers a fuel savings calculator to help dealers and their customers estimate savings. (Go to: www.gogreenmetrolawn.com)
• Propane mowers’ benefits appeal to different customer segments. For instance, fuel savings may appeal to landscape contractors. Rural lifestylers may like propane’s environmental benefits.
• Propane conversions offer revenue opportunities for your service department. Take advantage of industry and manufacturer programs to make sure your service techs are fully trained.
• Industry incentives can be a way to offset additional costs of propane mowers.
• Build partnerships with propane companies, so you can recommend a propane fuel source. Or, consider selling propane at your dealership.
Mower maintenance is also less. For instance, because propane burns cleaner, there is no carbon build-up on valves.
“We still change the oil and take care of the air filter, but our fuel delivery problems went away. You can take a propane mower and park it for a year. If it has propane, you can start it right back up. With gas engines, there’s not a chance you could do that,” says Godfrey.
Propane’s environmental benefits rank high with certain customers and in certain states, especially those with ozone action days, when gasoline mowers may be restricted. According to PERC, propane mowers reduce carbon monoxide emissions by more than 80% and greenhouse gas emissions by nearly 50%, compared with gasoline mowers.
Propane is also a domestic fuel source. Leitman says the U.S. is now a net exporter of the fuel.
There are performance differences a dealership’s team should be able to discuss. For instance, Leitman says that a gallon of propane has 20-25% fewer BTUs than a gallon of gasoline.
“But we are not seeing a 25% increase in fuel requirements, only a 10-15% increase,” he says.
Go Green Metro Lawn is a propane education, conversion and supply program of Heritage Propane. Experts say partnerships with propane companies can help drive propane mower sales.
Hill of Dixie Chopper says that for conversions you do lose some horsepower. So, for instance, a converted 30 horsepower machine would now be closer to 24 horsepower after the conversion.
Hahne says propane mowers are more responsive under heavy loads and it provides instantaneous power.
“There’s no ‘governor droop’ as with gasoline,” he says.
Despite propane’s benefits, dealers face sales obstacles. One major obstacle involves lack of customer familiarity with propane, even though many use it frequently for grilling.
“This is not insurmountable. They just need to be educated on the differences and the benefits,” says Leitman.
Propane Mower Incentives Offset Costs
Propane mowers may cost anywhere from $500 to $2,000 more than comparable gasoline mowers, with conversion kits ranging about the same amount. However, industry incentives for landscape contractors can offset those additional costs.
The Propane Education & Research Council’s (PERC) Propane Mower Incentive Program offers landscapers $1,000 per qualifying new mower purchase or $500 per qualifying mower conversion. The companies must agree to record and share operational data for one year/season by completing a post-season survey. (Go here for more details: www.poweredbypropane.org)
“The incentives are targeting the commercial models that are intended for heavy use, but that’s just where we’ve started. We’re hopeful that if it’s successful, we can expand into more products,” says Mark Leitman, PERC director of business development and marketing.
Check with your state’s propane association for additional incentives. For instance, the Texas Propane Council has a commercial mower incentive program which offers a $1,000 incentive for new purchases or conversions. (Go here for details, www.txpropane.com.) The Missouri Propane Education and Research Council’s Lawn Equipment Assistance Fund provides a $750 incentive for converting certain commercial mowers to propane fuel, or 15% of the purchase price of a new propane mower. (Go here for details, www.moperc.org)
There may be other state and local incentives related to alternative fuel use. This link has more details: www.autogasusa.org/federal-state-local-incentives
In addition, PERC’s Mower Dealer Demonstration Program is helping manufacturers place propane mowers on dealers’ lots. Contact PERC for more details, www.propanecouncil.org or (202) 452-8975.
Hahne says customers may express concerns about fuel availability. He says it’s critical that dealers establish partnerships with propane companies. Companies could set up a cylinder exchange on site or even bulk filling stations for large landscapers. (The cylinders are different than those used for grills in that they meet DOT standards.) Smaller landscapers and rural lifestylers can set up contracts to secure supply and make the cost more effective.
Developing a partnership with a propane company has another advantage.
“The propane company will drive a lot of business to your conversion center,” Hahne says.
Because of the fuel savings, landscapers are the early adopters of propane mowers. Hill says these companies generally trade in machines every three to four years, so dealers need to develop another market for this used equipment.
“It’s a niche market, so for a dealer to take that in, they’ve got to know someone else who wants propane,” Hill says.
Service Department Opportunities
Conversions offer a way to enter the market on the service side and build awareness among your customers. Generally, it’s best if a gasoline mower has at least 50-75% of its useful life remaining for a conversion to make economic sense. Depending on use, the payback could be as little as a few months to two years, says Leitman.
Dealers should take advantage of the training sessions offered by PERC, Onyx, Go Green Metro Lawn and others. Also, be sure to complete the necessary licensing with the state to do conversions.
“It’s not just a matter of switching the engine out. It’s how the tanks mount and all the fuel lines,” says Hill.
“Manufacturers are very concerned that you don’t hurt the center of gravity of the mower in any way,” Coker says.
McCoy’s Lawn Equipment Center started converting gas mowers in 2006 at the request of the Austin school district. The dealership uses conversion kits from Onyx. He says the school district is still running the 14 mowers they converted and since then, McCoy’s has converted the state’s mowers.
In its biggest year, the dealership sold 45 propane mowers and did another 30 conversions. Now, they sell about 20 propane mowers a year and convert about the same amount.
Godfrey says they learned to convert using a single tank, as opposed to a double tank.
McCoy’s Lawn Equipment Center of Austin, Texas, converts about 20 mowers a year to propane, like this unit from Exmark. They also sell about 20 propane mowers a year.
“It’s prohibitively expensive to do it the other way,” he says. Manufacturers can convert units to propane with double cylinders because they are working with a stripped-down frame, so it’s easier to reroute the controls. ”
He says a manufacturer backing up its equipment warranty after the conversion used to be an issue. Godfrey guaranteed his dealership’s work and promised customers they would address any issues with the manufacturer. Now, he says it’s not an issue.
McCoy’s also sells propane to help drive its conversion business. At the height, they sold 130,000 gallons a year. Some of its customers now have fuel on site, so they sell about 70,000-80,000 gallons a year. He says in Austin there are more than 50 places to buy propane.
“It’s a very small part of our business, but it’s going to increase. We expect to be doing a lot of truck conversions,” Godfrey says.
Hill, of Dixie Chopper, says for dealers to be successful, it comes down to two main points.
“If you’re showing the customer what they’re going to save and offer them a way to refuel, then that dealer is going to sell more products,” says Hill.