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Power by propane is ozone friendlier

Emissions from gasoline-powered equipment negatively contribute to air quality index


June 9, 2017
By Jeremy Wishart

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A landscaper installs a propane tank onto his mower, eliminating the need to refuel his machine with gasoline.

During the dog days of summer, the working environment for professional landscape contractors and their crews can be physically demanding and unhealthy. Unfortunately, small engines like those used to power commercial landscape equipment are one of the largest contributors to ground-level ozone, which directly impacts human health.

In fact, a 2011 study conducted by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency found that the emissions produced by gasoline-fueled off-road equipment, such as mowers, leaf blowers, trimmers, and brush cutters, amounted to approximately 26.7 million tons of pollutants, including chemicals that contribute to ground-level ozone.

Unlike the “good” ozone layer in the stratosphere that protects against the sun’s harmful rays, ground-level ozone forms when emissions from everyday items, including mowers, combine with other pollutants and “cook” in the heat and sunlight common during a hot summer day. This ground-level ozone is a harmful air pollutant that can cause breathing difficulties, eye irritation, and can worsen pre-existing conditions such as asthma or chronic respiratory infections.

In addition to hot, sunny days impacting employee health and productivity, there are also locations that adhere to strict emissions restrictions that take effect when the local “air quality health index” reaches a certain threshold. Sometimes these local emissions restrictions can dictate when contractors can and can’t operate their gas-powered mowers. This presents a problem for contractors with customers waiting for scheduled services, and can make it chaotic to catch up with maintenance throughout the rest of the week if air quality alerts last beyond a single day.

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The good news is there are several steps that contractors can take to limit the emissions that play a large role in increasing the levels of ground-level ozone. Regardless of whether a contractor is working in a municipality or area with restrictions in place, contractors should talk with their crews about these daily practices that can limit emissions when the heat is on.

1. Change your mowing schedule. Mowing for the largest customers early in the morning or in the evening can cut down on the amount of emissions converted to ozone. This technique leaves time during the heat of the day to work on projects that don’t require mowers, such
as landscaping.

2. Maintain your mower to help it run cleaner. A clean-operating engine produces fewer emissions, so make sure crews are in the habit of checking air filters, oil filters, and other components according to the equipment’s maintenance schedule. Clean the underside of the mower of any clippings so it’s not overworking the engine, and keep mower blades sharp so cuts are more efficient.

3. Use hand tools or battery power when applicable. Although battery power isn’t an effective solution for larger equipment, newer batteries are more than plenty to take care of trimming and edging lawns and flower beds, even for use with hedge trimmers, leaf blowers, pruning with pole saws, and residential chainsaw work. This equipment can be used without contributing to local ground-level ozone like two- and four-cycle gas engine hand tools would, and may also be favoured in residential work because battery equipment operates more quietly. Some contractors have even found success by installing solar panels or propane powered portable generators on trailers to allow batteries for small tools to charge between uses.

4. Double-check the cap. By making sure the fuel tank cap is screwed on tightly before starting the engine on a mower, operators can prevent an often overlooked opportunity for emissions to escape. Gasoline and diesel contain chemicals that can contribute to ground-level ozone even before the combustion process.

5. Use a funnel to refuel and eliminate spills. Preventing spills in the field can help with costs by not wasting fuel. Spilled gasoline and diesel can evaporate into chemicals that contribute to ground-level ozone, as well as cause unsightly damage to grass and concrete in the form of burns and stains. Excess fuel may also be washed into storm drains by rain or sprinkler systems and end up in natural bodies of water that can infiltrate drinking water. Using a funnel can also prevent burns in the event that fuel spills onto a hot muffler or engine, adding another protection to operators in the field.

6. Convert your fleet to propane. The best way to avoid emissions restrictions and combat ground-level ozone is to convert commercial mowers to propane. Compared with gasoline mowers, propane reduces greenhouse gas emissions by more than 15 per cent, and carbon monoxide emissions by more than 40 per cent. These mowers meet and exceed requirements in most communities for use during emissions restrictions.

Propane mowers allow contractors to simply remove several of these listed tips from crew protocol, too. For example, it would no longer be necessary for contractors to check the fuel tank cap or use a funnel to refuel because propane mowers use a closed-loop fuel system, which virtually eliminates the opportunity for spills.

With propane mowers, contractors also don’t need to worry about mowing times and schedules because the equipment can be used throughout the day, keeping customers happy with on-schedule service instead of delays. The ability to operate even in times of high air quality indexes, and using equipment that produces fewer emissions, can also be a way for contractors to become eligible for energy-efficient bids and market their business to green-minded customers.

Changing simple daily practices can go a long way to limiting emissions during the summer months when temperatures increase and ground-level ozone can become dangerous. These practices can help protect operators while still meeting the expectations of customers. Or, contractors can transition to using commercial propane mowers and remove some of the hassles and worries from daily equipment use.


Jeremy Wishart is the deputy director of business development for the Propane Education & Research Council. He can be reached at jeremy.wishart@propane.com.