Autonomous Equipment & Battery Power
Landscapers share pros of battery use at technology conference
Electrification is on the rise, but some issues still need ironing out
October 13, 2023 By Mike Jiggens
The number of landscape maintenance companies favouring battery-powered equipment over traditional gasoline-powered machinery is on the rise. They especially appreciate the savings in fuel and the need to stock fewer replacement parts. Their customers enjoy the noticeably reduced noise levels and the lack of environmentally harmful emissions.
It has been a learning experience for landscapers who had spent several years on the job using gasoline-powered products yet have transitioned to battery more recently at their employers’ behest. Many have found that battery-powered tools don’t “feel” the same and may not have the desired power output.
But technological advances associated with battery or electric products have picked up steam over the past few years, making the products more palatable.
August’s Lawn & Landscape Technology Conference in Las Vegas allowed attendees to learn more about battery power and its recent advances, and to hear from professionals who have fully embraced electrification.
A panel of three landscape contractors, including the owner of a Winnipeg-based company, shared their experiences using battery-powered equipment, the adjustments they’ve made from operating gasoline-powered products and the challenges that remain with electrification.
Kazwel Levandoski, president of Lone Goose Inc. in Winnipeg, a commercial and residential lawn care and snow removal company, said he gravitated to electric immediately after founding his business in 2017.
“I don’t enjoy fixing things,” he admitted, citing his mechanically challenged abilities served as the impetus for adopting battery-powered equipment.
While Lone Goose is still using gasoline-powered zero turns to mow commercial properties, the company is planning to adopt autonomous mowers within the next couple of years, he said. Lone Goose’s residential division, however, is 100 per cent battery-powered, including mowers, blowers and other handheld equipment.
Chad Reinhart, CEO of Reinhart Landscaping & Snow in central Illinois, said almost all his company’s maintenance equipment is electric, including 24 autonomous mowers that cut about 100 acres of commercial property daily. He figures the number of mowers deployed in 2024 will reach about 100.
“We’re doing everything we can to eliminate anything two-cycle,” he said, noting his company employs 12 mow/trim/edge/blow crews working daily. Plans are to dispense with riding zero turns. “That’s our mission.”
Austin Hall, president-owner of Greenwise Organic Lawn Care in Chicago, purchased his company in 2018 and began looking seriously at electric equipment when one of his customers wished to be serviced solely by electrification. Most of Greenwise’s customer base is high-end residential in the north end of Chicago where a ban on gasoline-powered leaf blowers has been imposed.
A cultural shift
He said the biggest challenge in moving toward battery-powered equipment was moving past the cultural shift among employees who had long been accustomed to operating gasoline-powered tools they insisted provide superior performance.
There are still skeptics among his staff who are being trained and educated in battery power, but most employees have bought into electrification and have become leaders within the company.
Hall said the most noticeable difference between gasoline and battery-powered tools is the performance of leaf blowers. During fall cleanup, battery-powered blowers can’t remove every single leaf on a property in a time-efficient manner, he said. This necessitates the need to educate both customers and work crews.
Getting power to the blades is the biggest challenge Levandoski said his company faces with battery-powered equipment.
“When grass is dry, it cuts easy,” he said. “But the moment it gets wet, the battery-powered mowers – specifically the ones we’re working with – don’t have the power to bend the blade with the fronts and pick it up and cut it at the same time and put it in the bag or side shoot it.”
This requires cross cutting or double cutting during wet seasons to ensure a carpet-like finish.
“The challenge for us was how do we utilize that machinery as effectively as possible?” Levandoski said. “If the deck isn’t perfectly clean or the blades aren’t really sharp, it doesn’t have the cut quality that our clients are expecting.”
Because his staff have been using battery-powered equipment since the company’s outset and aren’t familiar with the comparison to gasoline-powered products, crews have been instructed to slow down under wetter conditions and to be more aware of their environment.
Concerns about charging batteries also remain a challenge, Levandoski added. The batteries needed for the equipment brand Lone Goose uses can last between 45 minutes and an hour and 20 minutes, depending on the circumstances. Keeping enough batteries on hand and charging them overnight is the key, he said.
Levandoski said Lone Goose is the only company in his area that is completely pushing battery power. Residential customers have agreed to allow crews to plug into their homes as needed, grateful for the environmental friendlier services.
No need to stockpile parts
Reinhart’s company is almost 100 per cent commercial with few residential customers. Having transitioned to battery power has made operations more efficient, he said. The need to stockpile replacement parts for gasoline-powered equipment has been eliminated.
“Now, it’s just put the battery in and go,” he said, adding there is no further need for priming and setting switches. This has allowed younger workers who aren’t mechanically inclined to work much simpler.
Although battery-powered leaf blowers don’t produce the same amount of power as their gasoline-powered counterparts, Reinhart said battery-powered bush trimmers are highly efficient while battery-powered trimmers fare as well as those powered by gasoline.
Hall said it takes 20 to 25 per cent more time for his crews to deliver the same services through electrification – especially when mowing – resulting in a higher cost to the customer.
There is an increasing demand for electric services, he said, and because there are a limited number of electric service providers, the higher price point tends to work. As battery-powered equipment continues to improve allowing greater on-site productivity, customers could eventually realize cost reductions.
“Twenty-four months ago, we weren’t really convinced the technology was there,” Reinhart said.
His company began slow with electrification but has since realized its benefits, he said. Corporate customers appreciate the lower noise output when crews are working during meetings and conference calls, Reinhart said.
Levandoski said as customers grow more comfortable with Lone Goose’s battery-powered operations, they depend on it more, especially with leaf blowing.
“Once people get away from hearing that backpack blower screaming, they don’t want to go back to it,” he said.
Customers appreciate that none of his company’s handheld equipment produces noise, and if Lone Goose is the only company to bid on a job that offers noise-free services, he can charge a little more.
“The future looks a little brighter with that,” Levandoski said. “We’re setting the trend.”
Hall said he believes COVID-19 sparked a shift in momentum for the battery-powered equipment industry, noting more people began working from home and continue to do so in a hybrid system. Customers working from their home can say, “I can actually work from here and my landscaper isn’t getting in the way of me doing my job.”
Hall suspects about half of those who call Greenwise for regular maintenance services do so because the company works solely with electric equipment.
Levandoski said he is still using the first four batteries he purchased in 2017, suggesting they don’t quit. The batteries have been dropped, caught in rain and have become “dinged up,” but are still powering equipment.
“The battery mowers don’t know how to quit,” he said. “We’re getting our money’s worth out of the hand tools.”
Greenwise has been plugging in its trailers overnight, but there have been instances when the breaker has been tripped, preventing batteries from recharging. Hall said this had led to the challenge of setting up the shop to effectively handle the charging needs of an entire fleet.
Vendors have been good at demonstrating equipment at Greenwise’s job sites, he added.
Reinhart said that when deciding upon a partnering vendor, “It’s not about the tool but about the charging.” Vendors should be asked how they are dealing with charging issues, he stressed.
Hall said he has asked vendors of battery-powered equipment about their plans for more established infrastructure for placement in trailers. There are systems in which a larger battery in a trailer can charge smaller batteries.
Greenwise has a Ford Lightning electric vehicle that has “a ton of power” to provide smaller handheld tools and he sees the future moving towards customizing these vehicles.
“Once we get into customization of battery power – hopefully, heavy-duty trucks – we would use the truck to charge the smaller batteries during the day.”
Hall said he doesn’t see that happening for another four or five years.
Levandoski said he “hasn’t blown many fuses,” but has moved toward charging banks.
“That lowers our risk of blowing fuses, and I think that’s how it’s going to go moving forward,” he said.
Batteries are charged on site using a fast-charging brand that charges larger batteries from “stone dead” to fully charged in 30 minutes. Levandoski added the batteries his company uses are interchangeable from one tool to another.
An audience member questioned the panelists about how they respond when they’re told that batteries are produced through coal and other fuels, and that landscapers are only “kidding themselves” if they believe battery power is a more sustainable and eco-friendlier approach.
Reinhart said he is most motivated by the bottom line.
“I want to financially make sense for the company,” he said, noting about $600 a month is being saved on the cost of mixed fuels. The company is also diverting about 30 hours a week that mechanics were spending on the maintenance of two-cycle equipment.
“They (battery-powered equipment) will take a beating, and they’re just simple machines,” Reinhart said.
He added not having to stock such items as carburetors and easy-to-break parts associated with gasoline-powered equipment is another money saver.
“It’s the backside where we’re seeing the financial gain,” Reinhart said.
Hall says he’s never been questioned about what goes into making batteries and chooses instead to focus on noise reduction and being respectful to the job site.
“We’re trying to be as least disruptive as we can when we’re on a client’s site because they have their families and children and they’re working,” he said.
Levandoski said he tells his customers his crews are like “lawn ninjas” that are seen but not heard.
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