Paula Wilson, the new chair of the Propane Education & Research Council (PERC), outlines her priorities for growing the propane industry in this exclusive interview with Rural Lifestyle Dealer. She says that partnering with original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) on new applications tops PERC's priorities, along with increasing education and marketing efforts to landscape professionals and lifting the current federal restriction on PERC's consumer marketing.

"We're trying to grow the industry in a more organic way with more new products," says Wilson, who has 30 years of experience in the industry and is the director of marketing at AmeriGas Propane in Valley Forge, Pa. "The propane market is a traditional and mature industry. Thanks to the work of PERC, we are developing new technologies and moving forward with OEMs."

PERC is now reviewing its 2014 budget, which includes $24.2 million for program activities, an increase of $4.5 million from program funding expected in 2013. The 2014 program budget would allocate 57% to research and development, 26% to training and 17% to safety efforts.

Propane Applications Expanding

Propane mower manufacturers are one of the groups PERC has been partnering with in recent years. Today, 11 manufacturers offer propane mower models, including: Bob-Cat, Dixie Chopper, Exmark, Ferris, Gravely, Husqvarna, Kubota, R&R Products, Scag, Snapper Pro, Toro, Ventrac and Zipper. (See "Power Up Mower Sales with Propane" from the fall 2012 issue.) Excel Industries, manufacturers of Hustler turf equipment and BigDog mowers, recently announced an agreement with Metro Lawn Propane Conversions to train its dealers to convert its mowers to propane fuel.

Paula Wilson is the new chair of the Propane Education & Research Council.

PERC also has a partnership with Kawasaki to train their dealers to convert gas mowers to propane.

These growing relationships, along with propane's competitive price compared with gasoline and diesel, are  expanding the fuel's market share in the landscape contracting segment, says Mark Leitman, PERC's director of business development and marketing. The organization forecasts that by 2016, 3% of all commercial mowers sold in the U.S. will be powered by propane. That's up from 1% today.

The issue for wider adoption rests with manufacturers. "We find that some of these landscape companies are brand loyal. Until manufacturers come to the market with their brand, they may not choose propane mowers," says Leitman.

PERC and 3,500 propane marketers nationwide are looking to grow sales of the fuel in several other markets, says Wilson. Propane autogas, the term used for propane as a vehicle fuel, is gaining interest here in the U.S. with companies, institutions and municipalities that run  diesel fleets, says Wilson. Propane autogas offers fleets a more cost-efficient fuel that has lower greenhouse gas emissions, she says.

In addition, the agriculture sector is adopting such propane-fueled technology as irrigation engines, generators and grain dryers.  

Six propane-fueled Exmark Lazer Z S-Series lawn mowers are being used on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.

Still, the largest market for propane remains the homes and businesses that use it for heat and to power appliances. PERC works to educate construction firms, builders and architects on propane's advantages. In recent years it has sought to grow the use of propane technology in the commercial building sector.

"It really comes back to our marketers to begin that education and knowledge. It's about marketers putting their noses to the grindstone and developing their strategies, meeting with dealers, educating them on the new products and building personal relationships," Wilson says.

Incentives, Training Available

PERC is raising awareness and encouraging propane use and equipment conversion through its incentive programs. Its Dealer Demonstration program offers commercial mower dealers a $2,000 financial incentive for demonstrating propane-fueled mowers and working with landscape contractors to test them in the field. The dealer must display the mower and loan it to customers for at least 90 hours, participate in the marketing and selling of propane mowers, report fuel usage and performance data back to PERC, and partner with local propane marketers to supply the fuel to customers in the area. Exmark, Gravely and Toro are recruiting dealers to participate in the program, though it could be expanded in 2014.

PERC's Propane Mower Incentive Program will also continue. The program offers landscape contractors $1,000 per qualifying new propane mower purchase or $500 per qualifying mower conversion to propane.

Dealers can access educational and training resources through PERC, including an off-road engine training manual and a brochure on propane mowers that offers troubleshooting tips.

Wilson is also focused on enhancing PERC's ability to market directly to consumers. The organization had been marketing through a popular "Energy Guys" campaign. However, a federal regulation restricted that kind of outreach.

"The restriction started back in 2009 when there was a growth in residential propane prices compared to other energy sources," says Wilson, referring to a consumer protection clause that dates to the 1996 legislation that created PERC. In the last few years propane's price has dropped and the council is asking the Department of Commerce to conduct a new energy pricing analysis, which could lead to the restriction being lifted.

For now, PERC is targeting professionals in markets like landscape contracting.

"For those dealers who are interested in taking on a new line of mowers, we have resources to help through the transition," Wilson says. "It's a safe product and helps Americans save money."