On a hot, humid August day at the Merit Club in Libertyville, Illinois, the fairways, putting greens and tees couldn’t look much better — not a blade of grass seemed to be out of place.
John Nelson, longtime golf course superintendent at the Merit Club, is pleased with the turf’s appearance in such challenging weather conditions. When the conversation about the well-groomed turf turns to mowing, as in quality of cut, Nelson explains that the first thing he considers when purchasing a new mower is the condition of the golf course after its use. That, of course, is rooted in the mower’s construction, including the way it’s powered. When asked if he’d ever consider using propane to power his mowers, Nelson nods his head yes, but there’s a catch.
“The machine has to offer the same quality of cut as a gas- or diesel-powered mower,” Nelson states.
Soon golf course superintendents will hear more about propane to power mowers and other maintenance equipment — and that the fuel can power engines 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 serious push in the golf course maintenance industry to get superintendents to use propane-powered equipment. According to PERC, the fuel’s versatility and reliability can make it a more popular energy choice.
PERC is teaming with Tucson, Arizona-based R&R Products, a manufacturer of replacement parts for golf equipment. Recently, R&R released a line of propane-powered mowers to be tested on eight courses throughout the U.S., including courses operated by Billy Casper Golf and Marriott Golf. PERC is funding the testing program.
The superintendents at those courses have agreed to use the equipment, which includes a fairway mower, rough mower, riding greens mower and bunker rake, for an entire year. Some of the courses started using the equipment in October.
Data on fuel usage, performance and other factors from the demos will be collected, and PERC will share the information with R&R Products and other mower manufacturers that are interested in pursuing propane-powered equipment, including The Toro Co., John Deere Golf and Jacobsen.
“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 golf course maintenance industry benefit from using it? Wishart provides the following list:
- 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 and gas.
- Propane provides the power needed to operate engines on turf mowing equipment.
- Propane-powered equipment requires less maintenance (fewer oil changes).
- Superintendents don’t have to worry about propane leaking on putting greens and killing turf.
- Propane is homegrown — nearly 97 percent of propane consumed in the U.S. is produced in North America.
Wishart says the demonstration program will yield results that allow PERC to present a positive case about the use of propane-powered equipment in golf course maintenance.
“We’re going to take that data and feedback … and prove why this makes sense for golf courses anywhere in the U.S.,” he adds.
Superintendents are known for their doubting Thomas approach to new technology. They want proof. That’s one reason why PERC and R&R Products organized the demonstration program, Wishart explains.
“We want to show it to them,” he adds. “We want to allow them to experience it.”
Superintendents are also known for their peer connections; they consult one another for advice on many things, including new technology. Wishart is aware of this and notes that the superintendents hosting the demos are well-connected and respected.
In fact, Wishart realizes that a positive message about propane-powered equipment will have more weight coming from superintendents who have used the equipment.
Jim Coker, the director of propane applications at R&R Products, has been a catalyst in getting propane considered as a fuel in the golf course maintenance industry. Coker speared the propane mower movement about 10 years ago, which prompted several mower companies in the landscape industry to manufacture propane-powered mowers. Currently, Toro, 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 superintendents think 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 superintendents concerned about where they can obtain propane, Wishart points out that there are 4,000 independent retailers in the U.S. that can deliver fuel to golf courses. Coker notes that propane is plentiful.
Coker adds, “We’re producing so much propane right now that we’re shipping half of it out of this country.”
Superintendents have also cited concerns about run time, but Coker says that isn’t a big issue. He notes that a 10-gallon canister of propane weighs 43 pounds, and a mower with two canisters and 20 gallons can run for 20 hours.
Coker does have one concern: Propane companies overcharging for fuel. He recently encountered this scenario with one retailer.
Wishart believes it’s only a matter of time before Deere, Jacobsen and Toro begin to manufacture mowers powered by propane for the golf industry.
“We’re telling them the market is there, and now we’re going to show them the market is there,” he says. “And [superintendents] will show them that the market acceptance is there. I don’t think they’ll be able to ignore it for long.”
Rick Slattery, the superintendent at Locust Hill Country Club in Pittsfield, New York, is all for giving propane a chance, but he also likes where the industry is going with electric technology.
“If given a choice between gas, propane or electric, I’d rather plug a vehicle in at the end of the day, as opposed to replacing a propane tank or pumping gas or diesel fuel into a tank,” he says.
Slattery believes there’s a place in the industry for several environmentally friendly alternative energy sources.
“The day may come when we see hybrid mowers that are propane powered with electrically controlled systems to replace hydraulics,” Slattery says. “The answer to our energy independence and our pursuit to become sustainable and environmentally friendly isn’t singularly with only one alternative energy source, but more realistically with a combination of all of them.”
What Do the ‘Big Three’ Think of Propane?
John Deere, Jacobsen and The Toro Co. aren’t ruling out propane-powered equipment in the golf course maintenance industry. In fact, all three manufacturers — known as the “Big Three,” offer propane-powered mowers to the landscape industry.
“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.”
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, 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 explains. “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 hasn’t seen a demand for propane-powered equipment from superintendents.
“There have been a handful of golf courses that have transitioned to propane-powered engines, but that’s a very limited minority,” notes Fox. “We’re seeing much more interest in our true hybrid and all-electric powered mowers because they are so easy to integrate into their existing fleets.”
However, 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 for golf course mowers, but they aren’t insurmountable, Lonn says. One challenge 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 diesel-powered engines 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, citing cooling, spacing and mounting issues.
Fox acknowledges that compared to other fuels, propane can be cheaper, depending on the current price of the 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.
“Last winter in Minnesota you couldn’t buy propane if you wanted it because it was all being burned as heating fuel,” he says.
Lonn’s not convinced fuel prices are a big driver for many superintendents to make the switch to propane.
“Obviously, the price of fuel is higher and people are more aware of the cost of fuel than they used to be,” Lonn says. “But I don’t know if it drives economic decisions [in the golf maintenance industry].”
- 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 engines on turf mowing equipment.
- Propane-powered equipment requires less maintenance (no more oil changes).
- Superintendents don’t have to worry about propane leaking on putting greens and killing turf.