Three Sustainable Options for Lawn Mowers

September 21, 2012

Have you extended your commitment to sustainability to your lawn care practices?

Commercial mowing accounts for 35% of the 1.2 billion gallons of gasoline used by mowers annually, according to the Clean Cities Guide to Alternative Fuel Commercial Lawn Equipment. While a 25-mpg car can consume up to 500 gallons driving 10,000 miles annually, a commercial lawn mower can easily burn 900-2,000 gallons in a growing season.

In lieu of a gas-powered mower, consider using propane, compressed natural gas, or biofuels to save on emissions or switching to an electric mower to lower fuel costs.

The Drawbacks of Gasoline
While gasoline mowers are the most common, they have a number of shortcomings. “The key disadvantages of gasoline are the handling of the fuel itself, the risk of spillage, evaporative losses and fuel spoilage over time, and disposal requirements,” says Mark Leitman, director of business development and marketing for the Propane Education & Research Council.

You may also live in a region where mowing hours are restricted by local emissions regulations. This can throw a wrench into maintenance schedules or push mowing back to hours that negatively impact your business.

“A number of cities have ozone alert days when there are air quality concerns,” explains Dennis Smith, national director for Clean Cities, an alternative fuel and transportation initiative under the Department of Energy. “Some jurisdictions won’t allow you to run large commercial equipment, such as mowers, during certain hours.”

Which One Is Right for You?
Do you know how much fuel your property requires annually and how many hours are devoted to mowing? To properly compare alternative mowers, you need to establish a baseline of your current operations.

Deciding which sustainable mower option will meet your facility’s needs ultimately boils down to ease of use. “It’s not a question of performance, as all mowers do the same job. It’s a matter of how convenient the fueling or recharging options are,” Smith explains.

Biodiesel is a renewable fuel that is derived from vegetable oils and animal fats. The domestic manufacturing process leaves behind only one byproduct, glycerin, a common additive in soaps. Much like ethanol for cars, biodiesel can be used without modifying an engine if it is combined with petroleum diesel. Ask your manufacturer if B20 (a common blend of 20% biodiesel and 80% regular diesel) is compatible with your mower model.

Electric mowers have followed the same advancements as electric vehicles. “We’re not talking about the old electric lawn mowers with long extension cords running everywhere,” assures Smith. “These have reliable batteries, run quietly, and are easy to charge.”

Fast Facts on Fuel Consumption

  • Mowers consume 1.2 billion gallons of gasoline annually, about 1% of U.S. motor gasoline consumption

  • Commercial mowing accounts for 35% of this total and is the highest intensity use

  • Large property owners can consume between 900-2,000 gallons of fuel annually

  • In addition to gasoline, commercial mowing consumes more than 100 million gallons of diesel annually

Electric mowers are attractive solutions for education and healthcare as the reduced engine volume won’t disturb students and patients. These mowers also make sense for a property that already has an electric fleet or EV chargers.

However, mowing time is limited – one charge can provide 75-90 minutes of mowing (about one acre). If you have sizeable grounds, this may be a setback.

Propane and Compressed Natural Gas (CNG) are abundantly available and domestically produced. While you can purchase a propane-powered mower outright, conversion kits can easily

transform your existing gas mowers. Both propane and CNG lengthen the interval between oil changes, reduce the likelihood of corrosion or clogs, and eliminate the possibility of evaporative emissions.

“Propane is a cleaner hydrocarbon because it produces at least 20% fewer greenhouse gases than gasoline,” says Leitman. Propane also costs at least $1 less a gallon than gasoline, which can be reduced further if you’re an existing volume customer.

Cost Factors
With the average commercial gas mower priced anywhere from $10,000 to $20,000, expect to pay a $1,500-$3,000 premium on an alternative fuel option, Smith advises.

An electric mower typically costs $1,000 more upfront, not including the charging dock. A propane conversion kit averages $1,000-$3,000, but because propane is 30% cheaper than gas, payback can be less than a year, Leitman says.

Alternative fuels also offer steadier prices. “These alternatives are typically less expensive than gasoline or diesel and don’t suffer from the same price fluctuations that we see at the gas pump,” says Mark Smith, manager of the Clean Cities: National Clean Fleets Partnership. “You’ll be able to better calculate your fuel costs for the season or year.”

Leverage your use of sustainable mowers to market your sustainability initiatives, attract new clients, or retain existing tenants. Particularly if you use eco-friendly landscaping practices such as rain meters, drought-tolerant plants, rainwater harvesting, or natural fertilizers, sustainable mowers are a natural addition.

“The upfront investment is the main roadblock people look at. But if you’ve done your math properly, you’re going to get that payback because an alternative fuel mower is a good benefit in the long term,” stresses Dennis Smith. “They can strengthen your sustainability commitment, put you in a more competitive business position if you can mow more hours of the day, and create happier clients because there’s less disruption.”


Jennie Mortion jennie.morton@buildings com is associate editor of BUILDINGS

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Jennie Morton