Powering up for change

With numerous factors shaping the outdoor power equipment industry, are you ready to keep up with changing times?
outdoor power equipment
(Photo: Greenworks Commercial)

Walk into any grocery store or restaurant and you’re bound to see foods like cauliflower pizza, avocado ice cream, meatless burgers and kale smoothies. Ten years ago, these unique foods were unheard of. Yet, here we are today, living in a culture obsessed with health trends.

When new ideas and products are introduced in an industry, they can seem outlandish at first. But true trends aren’t just fads that quickly disappear. They are long-lasting cultural shifts that reflect the changing needs, attitudes and expectations of customers and employees. They’re a sign of where an industry is headed in the long run — in this case, the outdoor power equipment industry.

The end of the busy season and your annual trek to GIE+Expo may have you fired up ready to purchase new equipment or mowers for next year. Before heading to your dealer and upgrading your fleet, take a big-picture look at what’s going on in the industry and how it’s affecting the evolution of outdoor power equipment. Rather than simply looking for a means to an end, think about investing in a new or different kind of equipment as a strategic choice that can help take your business to places it’s never gone before.

External forces

Tony Marchese is the commercial business group leader, Americas, at Greenworks Commercial and has worked in the power equipment industry for 30 years. While there have been many changes over the past few decades, he says he has never seen as many external factors affecting the industry as there are today.

Since its founding in 2005, the Mooresville, North Carolina, company has produced battery-powered equipment from day one. As Marchese puts it, “Greenworks eats, lives and sleeps rechargeable products, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.” The company manufactures just about any piece of equipment a professional landscaper needs, including zero-turn and stand-on mowers. What is the biggest force driving the battery craze? According to Marchese, more than 500 cities across America have some form of regulation regarding gasoline-powered equipment or even outright bans of it.

“Communities, municipalities and universities are saying, ‘I’m sorry, we just can’t have the noise and pollution from gas mowers anymore, and we need an alternative to take care of this problem,’” says Chris Conrad, vice president of sales at Mean Green Mowers, an all-electric commercial mower manufacturer. Headquartered in Hamilton, Ohio, the company was founded in 2008 as a response to the need for a quiet alternative to gas mowers. Outside entities are pushing landscapers to look for a solution, and according to both companies, the answer is battery power.

While battery-powered products have grown past the early adopter stage, there are still many in the industry who aren’t sold on this movement. This traces back to its origins in mass retail. These tools were underperforming, had low power and low run times because they were designed to be used by homeowners for small yards. Marchese says the “magic moment” was when lithium-ion batteries came into the foreground, immediately allowing for longer run times and more power.

As the voltage of the lithium-ion battery began to grow, the usage of battery-powered power equipment did too. The changing point for Greenworks Commercial was the development of the 82-volt battery, which has been used in the company’s products for the past three years. “This really gave us the power and the battery life to be able to meet gas,” says Marchese.

Battery advantages

Battery-powered equipment offers many benefits, including producing zero emissions, having low vibration and low noise, and requiring little maintenance. Conrad describes Mean Green Mowers’ customers as anyone from new startups looking to distinguish themselves as a green company to firms concerned about the potential health risks of using traditional fuels. Having this green status can allow you to perform work for clients with restrictions on noise and emissions, such as some schools and hospitals.

outdoor power equipment
(Photo: Husqvarna)

Depending on the noise restrictions where you work, battery-powered equipment can allow for greater flexibility in your schedule. “If you want, you could start at daybreak and work till dusk because you don’t have the noise,” says Marchese. “You can work in a residential community, or you can mow during the day during classes. There’s a lot of flexibility that rechargeable products give for greater productivity.”

He adds that the laws in Europe on what power equipment operators can and can’t be exposed to are much stricter than they are in the U.S. “We think those laws will find their way to America, which will regulate the amount of vibration, noise and ingestion of fumes that can happen.” He says an employee who uses a battery-powered trimmer will feel much better at the end of the day without having breathed in gas fumes and endured the vibration of a gas trimmer for hours on end.

There’s also reduced maintenance that goes into the upkeep of this equipment. Marchese explains, “You don’t have any fuel lines to get snagged. You don’t have carburetors to be affected by E85 ethanol. You don’t have the normal need to change an air filter, spark plugs or the oil. All of that is taken away with a rechargeable product. It gives you so many more uptime opportunities.”

The future of battery

“There are tremendous technological advances coming in battery cells,” says Marchese. “We’re just a small player in the lithium world. With lithium cars, lithium boat motors, lithium construction equipment, etc., the mass explosion of lithium power benefits us in a lot of ways.”

The development of batteries is being driven by the growth of the electric car industry. Companies like Greenworks Commercial use battery cells sourced from companies like Sony and Panasonic, the makers of the same lithium-ion batteries used by Tesla and other electric car manufacturers. “The battery industry is driving toward batteries with longer run times and less weight, which will then fall back into our products,” says Marchese.

To him, the potential for battery is virtually endless. He says in the years to come, you’ll see more products being driven off a single-sized, same-volt battery. Not only will one battery be able to run your string trimmer, hedge trimmer and backpack blower, it will be incorporated in your trailer setup. This will allow you to charge your cell phone, run a power tool, operate stationary work lights and more.

Conrad believes the battery-powered equipment industry, especially the mower market, is just taking off. “It’s proven it can be done and it’s just going to keep growing. In 10 years, it’ll be the norm.”

Robotic automation

With its own battery-powered equipment product line, Husqvarna is no stranger to the battery trend, but its sights are set on something a bit different. The 330-year-old Swedish manufacturer based in Stockholm has proven its ability to adapt with changing trends. And while the industry continues to evolve and transition to battery power, Giovanni Crespi, director of product management, Husqvarna Group North America, believes the more permanent solution for lawn care is autonomous robotic mowers.

He acknowledges it’s in a very early stage but says it’s a trend that’s picking up speed. What started out as a concept a few years ago has now transformed into discussions with landscape companies about how they can feasibly implement robotic lawn mowers in their businesses.

Being one of the pioneers in the robotic mower industry, Crespi says, “We foresee that there will be a longer-term transition to a robotic, autonomous solution because the benefits that robotics bring to the table are larger than the battery.” The main benefit he says robotics offers is financial savings via reduced labor costs. While a robotic mower handles the grass cutting, your employees can be working on the edging, trimming, etc., reducing the overall time it takes to finish a property.

A ‘clean’ fuel alternative

Battery power and robotics aren’t the only gas alternatives making inroads in the industry. Jeremy Wishart, director of off-road business development at the Propane Education Research Council, says using propane-powered mowers is a trend that’s growing.

When the Washington, D.C.-based organization began its initiative for landscape contractors to use propane-powered mowers in 2013, close to 500 mowers were being converted every year. Since then, the adoption rate has grown to as many as 4,500 mowers that are either purchased as an original equipment manufacturer propane model or converted in the aftermarket each year.

(Photo: PERC)

“What we’ve seen over the last seven years is those who have made the switch to propane have not gone back. In fact, they’ve actually upped their usage of propane mowers,” says Wishart. “I have not seen a landscape contractor that has switched over to propane and given it a real try move back to whatever he was using before. It’s been a very positive trend, and I think that’s going to continue.”

There are currently around a dozen original equipment manufacturers right now that offer propane mowers. Between the different models, configurations and deck sizes, there are around 150 different propane mowers currently available on the market. If you want to convert an existing mower to propane, the cost depends on your model. On average, Wishart estimates the cost is $800-$1,200 per mower by the time you buy the conversion kit and either convert it yourself or have a mechanic do it.

There are also some nice incentives for switching to propane. PERC offers contractors $1,000 per qualifying mower purchase or $500 per qualifying conversion. An applicant is eligible for up to 25 incentives per year or $25,000, whichever comes first.

Propane benefits

Propane mowers can save money over the lifetime of the mower, thanks to the fuel’s unique advantages. They cost about 30% less per hour to operate than gasoline and also have reduced maintenance costs.

Compared with gas mowers, propane produces up to 17% fewer greenhouse gases and 19% fewer nitrogen oxide emissions than gasoline. With propane mowers there is no need to sacrifice work time for trips to the gas station. Convenient refueling options include on-site cylinder exchange and dispensing.

Wishart explains that the progression of companies adopting propane is typically gradual. Companies generally start with one, two or maybe five to 10 propane mowers. The following year they’re adding 20, 30 or even 40 more. Within three to five years, they’ve got 100% of their fleet operating on propane.

“You’re going to see a lot more consumer research and interest in alternative fuels. What propane offers as a fuel from a cost and environmental standpoint really cannot be matched by gasoline or diesel,” says Wishart. “When you start to factor in things like the ability to reduce fuel costs and emissions and the drive to be more efficient within your job and as a company, I think that’s what’s going to lead the charge in these next several years.”

The propane difference

Barnes Inc. is a full-service landscape company in Madison, Wisconsin, with over 150 employees. The company began looking into alternative fuels about 10 years ago. They converted two mowers to propane in 2014. Since then, the company has converted the majority of its commercial- sized mowers to propane. Its long-term goal is 100%.

“It was a very easy thing for us to switch as many of our mowers as we possibly could to propane,” says Mark Barnes, CEO of Barnes Inc. “We were concerned we were going to lose power. But the fact that these propane mowers are all fuel injected, we don’t appear to be losing any power. And the other thing that’s nice is we could tell immediately that the fuel burns much more cleanly, and we are having less engine-related problems because of it.”

Using propane saves the company around $15,000-$20,000 every year. “Propane is half the cost of regular gasoline. So multiply that by 60 or 70 mowers every day. We save a lot of money annually by using propane on our mowing fleet,” says Barnes.

Andy Fritsch, director of operations at Barnes Inc., says that while he and the rest of the Barnes team work in an industry where carbon emissions are high because of equipment use, that doesn’t mean they can’t take steps to minimize their carbon footprint.

“We don’t have any problems with leaks, spillage, any of that. With the use of propane, you’re showing a commitment to do something more than you have to do,” says Fritsch. “What we consider important at Barnes Inc. is putting ourselves a little bit above the competition. And I think the propane use that we incorporate into our business also reinforces our message: Be a little different to make a difference.”

Do more with less

While alternative fuels are one of the hottest trends in the equipment world, manufacturers are creating other solutions to help landscapers increase efficiency, especially as they seek ways to accomplish more work with fewer people. “Labor shortages nationwide have forced professional landscape contractors to do more with less, making productivity and efficiency a major challenge for them,” says Nick Minas, product manager, John Deere Commercial Mowing.

With this in mind, the Moline, Illinois-based manufacturer created both its M and R Series commercial walk behind mowers with redesigned controls and improved weight distribution. This enhances operator comfort and requires less effort to raise the front end of the mower.

Another solution, developed by John Deere, is Mulch On Demand technology. MOD enables the operator to switch between mulching and side-discharging without leaving the seat. The feature reduces the time spent cleaning up clippings from driveways and sidewalks by allowing the operator to easily close off the discharge chute.

outdoor power equipment
(Photo: The Toro Company)

This emphasis on efficiency is a big drive for other manufacturers too. “As labor has become tighter, it’s become a big focus for contractors to be able to have more productive machines that require fewer laborers,” says Mitch Hoffman, marketing manager for the residential landscape contractor division at The Toro Company, Bloomington, Minnesota.

Hoffman is seeing contractors opting toward mowers with larger cutting deck sizes to be able to mow more in less time. He gives the example of Toro’s 7500-D model that comes in a 96-inch cutting deck size, which he describes as “a really productive machine” that one operator could use to mow a property rather than two guys on smaller machines.

The same thing’s happening with commercial walk-behind mowers. Hoffman says Toro’s largest model, the 30-inch TurfMaster HDX, is really starting to take off. As they see contractors who have been utilizing Toro’s 21-inch Heavy Duty move up to this 30-inch option, Hoffman knows these trends will only grow over time. “Contractor productivity is going to continue to be a focus going forward and will likely become more important as labor markets continue to tighten,” he says.

In addition to bigger deck sizes, another trend is the growing popularity of the stand-on mower. Minas says that “the stand-on size is appealing, as it makes it easier to get into tight spaces and uses less space on a trailer.” These machines can also be versatile. Hoffman explains that Toro’s GrandStand Multi Force is not only a stand-on mower, but you can use different attachments for multiseason flexibility by adding plow, power broom and bagging attachments.

Emphasis on efficiency

For Husqvarna, efficiency goes beyond the equipment itself. Crespi says that fleet management is a growing trend that prompted the company to develop its own solution for landscapers to monitor the utilization of their equipment. Next year, the company will go live with its fleet management system, a concept it’s been testing for some time now. Crespi explains that “it will essentially gather data from all the different sensors that we have on our machines and then translate that data into easy information operators can use to improve their business and better manage their fleet.”

“The world is full of information, and you have data everywhere. But what people don’t have is time to translate this data. Our job has been, ‘How do we translate this data to easily reflect what the company can do to improve their business?’” This new solution intends to help companies improve productivity and utilization of their products and also help monitor equipment maintenance.

outdoor power equipment
(Photo: John Deere)

“Uptime and fuel-efficiency continue to be top concerns of professional landscape contractors, driving manufacturers to develop more solutions for equipment,” says Minas. He says one example is the growing incorporation of electronic fuel injection engines in lawn mowers.

EFI runs more efficiently than carbed motors, and therefore offers reduced emissions and noise output, as well as greater fuel efficiency. Minas says while they’re “commonly used in smaller block engines, we are now seeing more and more options in the mid-block range and greater. Providing up to 25% more fuel savings, the benefits of EFI drive this trend.”

As trends in the industry emerge and grow, it’s comforting to know that equipment manufacturers are keeping up with high-tech, helpful solutions. With a multitude of different factors affecting the industry, including gas, noise and emissions regulations, increased competition, labor challenges and the need to operate more efficiently, choosing the right equipment can play a big part in the success of your business.

And remember, change is a process. Take time to consider what makes sense for your business, your customers and the area where you live. Maybe this year you start out converting your handheld tools to battery-powered alternatives. Maybe next year you upgrade to mowers with bigger decks or ones that use alternative fuels. By keeping up with trends as they grow, you’ll avoid getting left behind in the years to come.

This article originally appeared in Irrigation & Green Industry magazine.
Sarah Bunyea is digital content editor of Irrigation & Green Industry.

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