Quality of cut.

Those three words are fundamental to sports field managers in regard to mowing. Presentation isn’t everything, but it’s huge.

The first thing many sports field managers consider when purchasing a new mower is the condition it will leave the field in. That, of course, is rooted in a mower’s construction, including the way it’s powered. Which brings us to propane.

Sports field managers will soon hear more about propane to power mowers and other maintenance equipment – and that the fuel can power engines on mowers and equipment just as well as gas and diesel fuel to ensure quality of cut. The Propane Education & Research Council (PERC), which promotes the safe, efficient use of odorized propane gas as a preferred energy resource, is beginning a push in the sports turf industry to get turf managers to use propane-powered equipment. While propane is used mainly to power appliances, grills and patio heaters, the fuel’s versatility and reliability can make it a more popular energy choice, according to PERC.

PERC is teaming with Tucson, Arizona-based R&R Products, which recently released a line of propane-powered mowers, to conduct a test demonstration of the mowers at eight golf courses throughout the U.S.

Data on fuel usage, performance and other factors will be collected from the demos, and PERC will share the data with R&R Products and other mower manufacturers, including The Toro Co., John Deere Golf and Jacobsen, that are interested in pursuing propane-powered equipment.

“It’s a demonstration program, but it’s also a market development program,” says Jeremy Wishart, PERC’s deputy director of business development.

Propane is a nontoxic hydrocarbon, sometimes referred to as liquefied petroleum, that’s produced from natural gas processing and crude oil refining in roughly equal amounts. How can the sports field management industry benefit from using it? Wishart lists the benefits:

  • Propane produces up to 80 percent less emissions than gas or diesel fuel
  • Propane is economically viable because it costs up to 25 percent less than diesel or gas.
  • Propane provides the power needed to operate engines on turf mowing equipment.
  • Propane-powered equipment requires less maintenance.
  • Sports field managers don’t have to worry about propane leaking on fields.
  • Propane is homegrown – nearly 97 percent of propane consumed in the U.S. is produced in North America.

Luke Yoder, director of field operations for the San Diego Padres, realizes that propane is a cleaner burning and more efficient fuel, among other things. However, Yoder says he’d only use a mower powered by propane if his manufacturer of choice decided to introduce one.

“If John Deere comes out with something, I would trust them and be willing to try it,” Yoder adds.

Jim Coker, the director of propane applications at R&R Products, has a lot to do with propane getting consideration as a fuel in the sports field industry. Coker speared the propane mower movement about 10 years ago, which resulted in several mower companies in the landscape industry manufacturing propane-powered mowers. Incidentally, the Big Three – The Toro Co., John Deere and Jacobsen’s Dixie Chopper – offer propane-powered mowers in the landscape industry.

Coker says he’s often asked if propane is powerful enough to run big equipment without sacrificing performance. He contends that it’s not an issue.

According to Coker and Wishart, many field managers believe that adopting more environmentally friendly technologies is costly, but they say that’s not the case with propane. Coker says the current cost of R&R Products’ propane-powered mowers is less than mowers powered by diesel fuel and equipped with engines that meet Tier 4 emission standards.

For those sports field managers concerned about where they will obtain propane, Wishart notes that there are 4,000 independent retailers in the U.S. that will be able to deliver the fuel.

Coker says propane is plentiful:

“We’re producing so much propane right now that we’re shipping half of it out of this country.”

There have also been questions about run time with propane, but Coker says that isn’t a big issue. He notes that a canister of propane weighs 43 pounds and contains 10 gallons of fuel. A mower with two canisters and 20 gallons will run for 20 hours.

Coker does have one concern: Propane companies overcharging for fuel. He recently encountered a retailer who was overcharging customers.

Wishart believes it’s only a matter of time before the Big Three begin to manufacture mowers powered by propane.

“We’re telling them the market is there, and now we’re going to show them the market is there,” he says.

John Deere, Jacobsen and Toro aren’t ruling out propane-powered equipment in the sports field market.

“Propane-powered equipment, along with other alternative fuels, is an area of continued interest and research for the company’s product development teams,” says Mike Koppen, product line marketing manager of golf products for Cary, North Carolina-based John Deere Golf.

Chris Fox, product manager with Charlotte, North Carolina-based Jacobsen, believes that propane is “definitely a viable alternative energy source for outdoor power equipment.”

PROPANE’S POSITIVES

  • It isn’t harmful to soil or water.
  • It’s the cleanest burning of all fossil fuels.
  • Equipment powered by propane doesn’t have to meet Tier 4 emission standards.
  • It produces up to 80 percent less emissions than gas or diesel fuel.
  • It’s economically viable because it costs up to 25 percent less than diesel or gas.
  • It provides the power needed to operate engineson turf mowing equipment.
  • Propane-powered equipment requires less maintenance (fewer oil changes).
  • Sports field managers don’t have to worry about propane leaking onto fields and killing turf.

Environmentally, propane burns cleaner, results in less engine wear (due to carbon deposits) without diluting engine oil, and cuts down on air pollution, Fox notes.

Dana Lonn, managing director of the Center for Advanced Turf Technology at The Toro Company in Bloomington, Minnesota, is aware of the benefits propane provides.

“If we have enough customers who want [propane-powered mowers], we’ll create some products with it,” he says. “It’s not so much a technology question as it is a market question. We have to have enough customers who want it to justify us doing it.”

Fox says Jacobsen is monitoring the situation.

“We’re always talking with our customers. As we see more interest in propane, we’ll continue to develop solutions to meet their needs,” he adds.

There are technical challenges facing propane-powered equipment, but they aren’t insurmountable, Lonn says. One is finding the appropriate space for fuel tanks on the mowers.

“Propane tanks have cylinder spheres so they don’t fit [on mowing equipment] as well,” he notes.

Another challenge is converting engines that are diesel-powered to run propane, Lonn adds. Propane requires a spark-ignited engine, and placing such an engine in a mower that has been powered by diesel is a lot of work, he says.

“It’s not an afternoon job,” Lonn adds, noting cooling, spacing and mounting issues.

Fox acknowledges that when compared to other fuels, propane can be a cheaper source of fuel, depending on the current price of other fuel options. “But if gasoline, for example, were to go down significantly in price, propane may not be as attractive,” he adds.

Lonn believes propane prices will depend on demand.

He says, “Last winter in Minnesota you couldn’t buy propane if you wanted it because it was all being burned as heating fuel.”