For many in the commercial landscape industry, a longtime alternative is becoming the norm. In the past decade, according to the Propane Education & Research Council, non-traditional fuels like propane have moved from a relatively unknown option to the go-to fuel solution for many contractors.
That 10-year trend has accelerated significantly in the past five years, says Jeremy Wishart, the propane group’s deputy director of business development. Meanwhile, the benefits to landscape contractors have remained the same through the years: Propane-powered mowers provide contractors with a sustainable, environmentally friendly business proposition, and offer the lowest total cost of operation compared to traditional fuels.
This spring, the propane group estimates, U.S. landscape contractors are using more than 20,000 propane mowers. “That figure, coupled with the sheer amount of propane mower models currently available for purchase, reflects just how widely accepted alternative mowers have become compared with a decade ago,” Wishart says.
In 2006, he says, when the Propane Education & Research Council (PERC) first became involved with small engines and mowers, “there were at most four manufacturers with even a single propane model in their product line.” At first, other manufacturers were slow to jump on the propane bandwagon, with most offering a single model to meet very specific customer demands. “But fast forward to the 2011 and 2012 cutting seasons, and the market had grown to 12 manufacturers offering roughly 20 propane-powered mower models.”
Spurred in part by that growth, PERC stepped up its efforts to develop more fuel-efficient technology. “We 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 fuel mowers to propane,” Wishart says.
He said 2013 was “a breakthrough year of sorts,” as propane received some noteworthy buy-in from large players in the market. PERC helped Kohler launch its Command Pro EFI Propane engine, the first OEM-built electronic fuel injection 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, including Hustler, Big Dog and Wright, took the same approach shortly thereafter.
“The spike in manufacturers offering propane-powered models totaled 15 OEMs selling more than 75 options to the market by (2013) year’s end,” Wishart says. “Commercial mowers powered by propane were here to stay.”
Today, electronic fuel injection, or EFI, propane has been adopted across an even wider range of manufacturers, like Gravely and Walker, offering additional propane-powered models, including walk-behind and stand-on 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,” Wishart says. “The growth in this industry is an 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 propane engine, launched at GIE last fall, is expected to continue to increase the number of OEMs offering propane-powered mowers, Wishart says.