Partners in Propane

For the past couple of years, equipment dealer Dave Wood of Smitty's Lawn & Garden in Olathe, KS, has spent countless hours researching propane-powered mowers. That's because he believes propane can change the landscape maintenance industry in a very positive way. Furthermore, Wood thinks equipment dealers like him can play a pivotal role in helping foster this industry-wide change.

Wood believes in propane so much that, just last fall, he became a stakeholder in a company called Tech Services Incorporated. Wood is partners with Deven Hurst and Roger Simons. Simons is an industry veteran who has led development, quality assurance and manufacturing teams for Stihl, Husqvarna and EnviroGard. Hurst is another industry veteran, having led as vice president of merchandising and dealer development for Stihl Southeast, director of dealer development and technical support for Husqvarna North America, and most recently EnviroGard. It was during their stint with EnviroGard that Hurst and Simons developed their own fascination with propane, and more specifically its distinct advantages for outdoor power equipment use.

Tech Services has now partnered with EnviroGard to become its exclusive sales and marketing arm with worldwide rights for EnviroGard EPA-certified propane conversion kits. Tech Services has landed a pretty big gig right off the bat: supplying conversion kits and all necessary training to John Deere dealers across North America.

"We kicked off some regional training for John Deere on December 15," Wood points out. "Additionally, dealers can either send technicians to our (Tech Services) Tampa, FL, facility for training, or invite our trainers to their dealerships."

Training, tuning are keys to efficient operation

Training is a critical component. "If a dealer wants to get involved, we have to train his technician(s) on how to install the conversion kits," Wood explains. "We also have to train them on how to use our proprietary tuner. For a dealer to be an installer of EnviroGard kits which are EPA-certified, the dealer has to go through the training." Training costs can vary, Wood says, but generally fall in the $200 to $800 ballpark per technician.

Converting a gas mower to propane is a fairly straightforward process for the mechanically inclined. But executing the conversion so that the mower continues to run as efficiently as possible on propane is another matter.

Wood explains, "Some propane conversion companies are selling kits without tuners. Without a tuner, the user has to tune the mower by ear." It's easy to end up using more fuel than necessary when relying on this method. "What you want to do is tune the engine so that you get the most run time out of the least amount of fuel," Wood continues. "With our proprietary electronic tuning process, which allows us to lean it back enough to meet OSHA indoor specs, we can get to just about 1:1 gas to propane fuel usage despite propane having 10 to 12% less BTUs per gallon."

Why EnviroGard?

According to the Tech Services website, there are several reasons why Wood and Hurst view EnviroGard as the best solution for both dealers and contractors, including:

  • EnviroGard offers EPA-certified propane engines and conversion kits. This is important if end-users want to qualify for incentive payments from PERC (Propane Education & Research Council).
  • These kits and engines are as fuel-efficient as most electronic systems with the simplicity and durability of mechanical systems, due to a proprietary electronic tuning process.
  • Engines and kits are used by more manufacturers than any other propane fuel system on the market.
  • Dealers purchase kits directly through Tech Services' distribution system and are able to install them on any machine. Thus, neither dealers nor contractors are limited by the few propane models that manufacturers are offering.

"EnviroGard currently builds kits for Kawasaki, Briggs & Stratton, Kohler, Subaru and Daihatsu engines," Hurst points out. "These kits are all engine-specific and EPA-approved. Additional kits are built and certified as new engines come into the market, and as demand merits the investment. Kawasaki, being the most common engine used in the commercial mowing space, is the manufacturer that EnviroGard has the most complete offering for right now."

There's one more thing Hurst really likes about the EnviroGard kits: They use vapor withdrawal cylinders. A liquid withdrawal cylinder requires the fuel to be vaporized outside of the fuel tank, which requires added componentry and complexity. Liquid systems, Hurst adds, can also run into problems when used in low temperatures under high power. That's because conversion kits for air-cooled engines use engine oil or hydraulic fluid to heat the vaporizer and/or regulator. If the engine oil or hydro fluid have not been warmed up, the regulator on a liquid withdrawal system can freeze up. A vapor withdrawal system, on the other hand, doesn't have to contend with these issues.

There's one important thing to keep in mind with vapor withdrawal systems, though. "We're constantly reminding dealers that you cannot fill a cylinder past the 80% mark," Wood says. It's also important to position the cylinder correctly. The objective is keeping liquid (propane) out of the fuel system, which could also freeze up a regulator.

The road ahead

It is important to note that neither Tech Services nor EnviroGard are interested in selling the propane fuel itself. "We are, however, working with several regional and national propane dealers to ensure that they can supply the right kind of fuel, and also follow through on any warranty issues that tie back to bad fuel," Wood points out.

Wood says the "right kind of fuel" is HD5 propane, which is the highest-grade propane available to consumers in the United States, generally speaking. "If the propane dealer can ensure a supply of HD5, we'll warranty our conversion kits for an additional six months on top of the year already offered," Wood says.

Propane has already been gaining in popularity among landscape contractors for the past few years. "But if anybody can make it become mainstream, it's John Deere," Wood says. Because of Deere's new arrangement with EnviroGard and, in turn, Tech Services, Deere can offer more than 20 models of commercial mowers that are propane-powered.

But it can't stop with John Deere, Wood cautions. "The (propane) paradigm equipment dealers can be involved in is too important to the Green Industry to fail. Wright Manufacturing already has an alliance with John Deere, so we're working on a program with them. We also have Ariens/Gravely looking at a program similar to John Deere's. We've had interest from several other major OEMs as well."

Those are some big names in the lawn equipment business—not to mention thousands and thousands of equipment dealers which represent those brand names. Perhaps Wood, Simons and Hurst's vision could become reality sooner than later. "We're projecting 13,000 conversion kits in 2014, which is three times as many as the industry had been projecting," Wood says. "So we're ready for it to happen in a big way."

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