Ethanol destroys engines and gasoline is costly, propane industry
officials say, with some now set to ask the region's maintenance
officials to give the cleaner combustible a trial run in the area's
commercial mowers, trimmers and blowers.
They intend to pose the question at a Feb. 4 meeting with municipal
officials and lawn care businesses, as advocates of propane-powered
lawn equipment make the case for what they contend is a greener
The conversion to propane could cost municipalities roughly $1,500
per commercial mower engine, or just over half the cost of replacing
an entire engine, sales officials say. But the savings over gasoline in
spillage, theft and reduced maintenance costs could pay for the
propane upgrade within a year, they said.
"Chattanooga's trying to have a go-green push, and be a city on the
leading edge of the green industry with their buses and other facets,"
said Chad Haun of Southern Turf. "Why not do it in parks and
recreation, where they're out mowing eight to 10 hours per day?"
But Steve Leach, administrator of public works for Chattanooga, was
cautious about embracing the idea.
"Anytime you can burn cleaner fuel it's a good thing, but if you have
to retrofit the equipment and worry about refilling, that makes it a little
bit more problematic," Leach said.
Ethanol gunks lines
John Watson, owner of Common Ground Landscape Management in
Knoxville, participated in a three-year study through the University of
Tennessee and said he converted all his units over to propane.
Following his initial investment in engine conversion and a new filling
station, he said his costs have fallen 10 percent since he began using
"My mechanic found that we could go further between services, and
[propane] is quite a bit cheaper in the summer," Watson said.
Lawn care and municipal officials confirm that they're on the hunt for
an alternative to today's gasoline-ethanol mix, currently available at
gas stations in Chattanooga for about $2.95 per gallon, because it
gunks up spark plugs, fuel lines and carburetors.
Wholesale propane, on the other hand, can be purchased for closer
to $1.45 per gallon, or about $2.80 per gallon at retail, according to
the U.S. Department of Energy, although it isn't as widely available as
regular unleaded and must be kept in special storage tanks.
"This is all going to be new to us," Tommy Burnette, general
supervisor at Chattanooga's Parks and Recreation Department, said
Tuesday. "Anytime you can do something for the environment it could
be a good thing, as long as its not astronomically high to switch over."
Cheaper operations seen
Jerry Lindsey helps outdoor equipment dealers to convert gasoline
engines to propane on behalf of Metro Lawn, a conversion kit seller,
and said converted units see an 80 percent drop in emissions and 40
percent drop in operational costs.
"Lawn guys who send their men out with tanks of gasoline, 10
percent of that fuel ends up in somebody's vehicle, but that won't
work with propane," he said. "Plus, that ethanol shellacks the
carburetors. It's a maintenance headache."
"The ethanol [mixed with in gasoline] is a big problem we're having
right now," agreed Burnette.
Barrett Fischer, owner of Chattanooga-based Fischer Irrigation &
Lighting, said he's also having a problem with the current 10 percent
He's considering the switch to propane in part because the ethanol,
especially in small engines, is "clogging up injectors and carburetors,"
which necessitates replacement every two months, up from once a
year with regular gasoline, or even less often with propane.
Feds boost level to 15%
To further complicate matters, the Environmental Protection Agency
last week expanded on a previous decision to allow the sale of
gasoline blended with 15 percent ethanol, though the EPA admitted
that the new blend will not be suitable for small engines or vehicles
built before 2001.
"As soon as they start putting in the mandated 15 percent ethanol, I'll
be looking to buy a gizmo to put propane in our small equipment,"
said Paul Page, director of general services for the city. "I've seen
what 10 percent will do to engines."
Page said that while he's open to the idea of switching his fleet to
propane, the cost savings had better be substantial. It wouldn't be the
first time propane has been tried.
"It was very unsuccessful," he said. "At the time, the valves on the
vehicles were not sodium and you'd burn the valves and the clutch
Fischer anticipates long-term fuel cost and maintenance savings by
switching, but he is worried about putting too many eggs in an
While gasoline can be bought almost anywhere, propane supplies are
"If my guys are out mowing somewhere and they run out of propane,
where are they going to fuel up?" he asked.
There are currently about 50 lawn care businesses using roughly
2,000 propane mowers nationally, mainly concentrated in Texas and
Florida, according to Metro Lawn. Metro Lawn can take care of these issues by providing gas your way, how you need it, when you need it.