In the Spring of 2004, Jim Coker and a business partner introduced the first commercial lawnmower powered by clean-burning propane.
And nobody responded.
What a difference six years makes.
During a forum sponsored by the East Tennessee Clean Fuels Coalition, Coker said the popularity of propane-powered commercial lawnmowers is growing. Companies like Cub Cadet, Ariens, Dixie Chopper, SCAG, Zipper and ExMark are among those offering propane-powered products. “To go from zero to that many is very exciting,” he said.
Coker was on hand Friday at the Blount Chamber for a brief lunch presentation that brought together several commercial lawn mower makers with landscape professionals from throughout the area.
Six years ago, when Coker - who ran a Knoxville janitorial company for 20 years and was familiar with propane powered floor buffers - started Onyx Environmental Solutions and rolled out the EnviorGard lawnmower, he couldn’t get anyone to listen.
“What we did as a company was to buy 200 commercial mowers, convert them to propane and get them into people’s hands,” he said. The city of Phoenix, Ariz., had 40 days of non-compliance (with EPA air standards) and were looking for ways to get cleaner air. Chicago bought mowers as did New York and Austin, Texas, said Coker.
In five years they sold three-quarters of their demo models.
“Now I’ve got manufacturers interested because customers are interested,” said Coker. “The big thing we found was nobody wanted to buy the specialized canisters. You had conversion costs. And, the cost of fuel from local propane suppliers was still more than gas,” he said.
Coker said that’s why he joined the Heritage Gas Co., to put together a program for prospective propane-powered equipment owners. “We supply the cylinder at no charge and provide training (to convert), and we supply the fuel at 15 to 20 percent less than gasoline,” he said.
Coker addressed the cost of converting to propane-powered equipment, either by purchasing a new propane-powered mower or converting the gasoline mower to propane. “There is usually a $2,300 mark-up to go with propane with a payback of about 2 1/2 years. On average, the conversion amount is $1,500, and it involved about a year for payback on the investment,” he said.
Coker said Heritage gets their customers conversion kits by allowing the customers to buy directly from the kit manufacturer.
Coker said propane is the third most commonly-used fuel in the world. Converting to propane is a wise move on a national security perspective. “Most of our oil comes from overseas from people who don’t care for us,” he said. “We use 23 percent of the world’s oil, and we’re only 3 percent of the world’s population.”
Coker said propane is also cleaner burning. “There are eight molecules of carbon matter in gasoline and only three molecules of carbon matter in propane,” he said.
Coker said using propane-fueled commercial lawn equipment makes sense. “Ten percent of U.S. pollution is from garden equipment,” he said. “About 17 million gallons of fuel is spilled each year in refueling of garden equipment.”
A variety of commercial lawnmower makers, local landscapers and professional lawn care company owners were on hand for the forum. John Watson with Common Grounds said landscapers were “green” before it was popular to be “green” because they need to take care of the environment. Coker and Heritage Gas helped Common Grounds convert about half of their mowers to propane, and Watson said they want to eventually convert them all.
“We’re in the ‘green’ industry, and we want to live up to it,” he said. “If we don’t take care of the environment, we don’t take care of ourselves.”
Billy Newton, executive director of the Center for Strong Communities at Maryville College, came to check out the mowers. “I want to encourage a variety of environmentally responsible practices. The college overall is making every effort to be environmentally responsible,” he said.
Keith Wainwright, commercial sales manager with CubCadet Commercial, said some areas prohibit lawn mowing on high-ozone days, and this can hurt a landscape professional’s bottom line. A landscaper in North Carolina he knows used propane-powered equipment to be able to work on those days. “In North Carolina last year there were 27 ozone action days. He would’ve been out of work all of July,” Wainwright said. “It can affect your ability to earn a living.”
Wainwright said propane-powered lawnmowers have a 60 percent reduction in smog-forming emissions and an 80 percent reduction in toxic emissions.
“We understand from a clean environment standpoint, we have to make changes,” he said.
Jonathan G. Overly, executive director of the East Tennessee Clean Fuels Coalition, said making products that are both environmentally sound and commercially viable is important. “We have to make sure it is a solution that works for them,” he said of landscape professionals.
Overly said that by putting the landscape professionals with individuals who have used the equipment successfully, “they can hear about it first hand without the sales pitch,” he said. “The bottom line is, it has to help the environment but it also has to help their bottom line.”