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Fuel Management

January 2010, Business Fleet - Feature

Propane Provides a Competitive Edge

by Tariq Kamal - Also by this author

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Eric Hansen takes delivery of the first propane-powered Ford F-350 from Jack Roush at the Roush Performance assembly plant

When Eric Hansen set out on his mission to create the first propane-powered lawn care crew in 2008, he couldn't have imagined the attention his 10-vehicle fleet would eventually attract. Last December, the founder and president of Downers Grove, Ill.-based Competitive Lawn Service Inc., took delivery of the first propane-fueled Ford F-350 from the Roush Performance assembly plant in Livonia, Mich. Auto racing and engineering mogul Jack Roush greeted Hansen at the plant and personally filled the truck's underbed tank as the cameras rolled.

It was more publicity than the unassuming Hansen was used to, but he didn't hesitate to lend his name to the movement toward alternative fuel use in commercial fleets. The Roush truck is Competitive's first propane vehicle, but Hansen's interest in alternative fuels began back in 2008, when gasoline hit $4.50 per gallon and the company had to find ways to cut costs.

Investing strategies

Hansen started by retrofitting lawn care equipment such as mowers, trimmers and blowers to run on propane. There were a few bumps in the road as the Competitive team learned how to maintain the equipment on the fly. But for every obstacle, the "new" fuel seemed to present an advantage: Propane can't be spilled, and the cleaner burn produced quieter engines, less maintenance and fewer oil changes. Most importantly, the savings, even on a small scale - "Fifty bucks here and there," as Hansen recalls - began to add up.

Impressed, he pressed on. After testing all the new-to-market propane-powered equipment he could get his hands on, Hanson started looking into replacing his gas and diesel F-150s, F-250s, F-350s and Super Duty dump truck.

"Ford began producing vapor propane trucks in the late '90s, but there were two concerns for us," Hansen says. "One, they were 30 percent less fuel efficient, which we couldn't quite make up in the per-gallon cost. Two, they were F-150s - not big enough for our needs."

Competitive's needs also include full use of the cargo area, as it would be impossible for his slide-in dump/haulaway units to share space with an in-bed fuel tank. Luckily for Hansen, Roush's F-350 was already in development, and the design included an underbed tank.

"They really worked hard to get it right," Hansen says. "It's a 100 percent liquid system, so the propane goes in full liquid direct to the cylinders. There's no dropoff in performance or hauling power, and its range is about 300‑320 miles. And where the vapor Ford F-150s were 30 percent less efficient, this truck is only 10 percent less efficient. With the reduced cost for fuel, that's viable."

To accommodate the switch, Hansen installed a private, aboveground fill station on company property. The installation cost $10,000, but Competitive now spends only $1.50 to $1.70 on each gallon of propane. Hansen says that was the only option because the retail cost of propane in Downers Grove is more than three dollars per gallon. The company also recoups 50 cents on every gallon that goes into the truck, thanks to a federal tax credit which, unfortunately for Hansen, does not apply to the fuel that powers the equipment.

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