McHENRY – For roughly the past 20 years, business operated as usual for Phil Hagen and his landscaping company McHenry Garden Center.
Like many in the industry, the McHenry-based contractor relied on gas-powered mowers to cut and manicure clients' lawns as prices consistently rose at the pump and societal awareness of the environment evolved.
But the tried-and-true methods at McHenry Garden Center all started to change last fall when Hagen began a conversion to alternative propane mowers after finding work in the North Shore city of Lake Forest and learning about its pollution and noise regulations for the first time.
"We wanted to do it the right way," Hagen said. "Propane is going to be the way of the future. In other countries, they've been running propane in cars and trucks for years. We are behind the times."
After researching and meeting with sales representatives, manufacturers and propane distributors, Hagen earlier this month received a new fleet of 10 propane-powered mowers in time for the spring when business picks up for landscaping companies.
And after all the studying, he doesn't understand why it took him so long to convert to propane.
With the help from governmental grants, private businesses, park districts, school districts and other public agencies over the last few years slowly have started switching equipment, trucks and cars to propane-powered engines – a trend largely influenced by rising gasoline costs.
In 2012, Cary Park District, which also has propane mowers, converted some of its trucks to a dual-fuel system that relies heavily on the alternative fuel source. More than a dozen vehicles at the McHenry County Conservation District also use propane for power.
Tasked with taking care of the land, more landscaping companies recently have converted mowers to the cleaner fuel.
Mike Halloran, who owns Mowerworks Gravely of Chicago in Barrington, has seen more landscapers gravitate to the cleaner and cheaper alternative fuel within the past two years after he started selling propane mowers in the late 2000s.
The propane-powered mowers, he said, reduce emissions, generally lower a business' fuel costs up to 40 percent, last longer than traditional gas engines and require far less maintenance.
Halloran dealt Hagen his fleet of propane Gravely mowers.
"From a shop point of view, the main thing is the engine is going to last twice as long," Halloran said. "On the maintenance end of it, you can cut your oil changes in half."
A cleaner fuel source, propane allows a growing number of landscaping companies to tout its environmentally friendly business practices. Aside from positive marketing, propane cuts costs, and minimizes fuel and maintenance expenses on mowers that companies often run all day.
In 2014, Erik Ringstrand experimented with one propane lawn mower for his crew to try at Ringers Landscaping in Fox River Grove. He converted his business' entire fleet by 2015.
Although business savings do come with a transition to propane, Ringers Landscaping always wanted to convert to the cleaner source as part of its environmental business philosophy, Ringstrand said. The company even employs a sustainability director who is tasked with identifying more efficient practices and setting goals for the business to achieve them.
The conversion to propane mowers so far has saved Ringers Landscaping $10,000 annually in fuel costs, cut down on maintenance and extra fill-up trips since the propane is stored directly on site.
Propane also allows the business to differentiate from competitors, he said. Customers have embraced the change since they find value in companies that want to better the environment.
"Mowing the lawn is mowing the lawn," Ringstrand said. "If it's the same price for customers, why not use a contractor who is more environmentally friendly?"