Ethanol damage pushes propane gas as alternative

Ethanol damage pushes propane gas as alternative

January 29th, 2011 by Ellis Smith in Businesstopstory

Staff Photo by Jake Daniels/Chattanooga Times Free Press Adam Hall, lead service technician, gets ready to change out one of the propane tanks on a specially outfitted mower at Southern Turf. The propane is used in lieu of gasoline to power the motor, and Hall says that the mileage is generally the same.

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 fuel.

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 cleaner-burning propane.

"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 ethanol/gasoline mixture.

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 out."

Fischer anticipates long-term fuel cost and maintenance savings by switching, but he is worried about putting too many eggs in an untested basket.

While gasoline can be bought almost anywhere, propane supplies are less plentiful.

"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.