Driven by Alternative Fuels, Turf Maintenance Fleets Becoming More Environmentally Friendly

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Driven by alternative fuels, electrical charges or a hybrid of both, equipment in the modern turf-maintenance fleet is chugging toward greater environmental friendliness.

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Electric greens mowers eliminate not only exhaust emissions, but noise pollution, too.
Later this month, the Washington Nationals open their 2008 Major League Baseball season in a ballpark believed to be the first of its kind in line for U.S. Green Building Council LEED® certification. But environmental friendliness at Nationals Park won't be limited to rooftop vegetation beds and subterranean stormwater filtration tanks. Some of the equipment used to pamper the stadium's playing surface will feature green engineering all its own. The five-plex outfield mower, for example, will accept diesel fuel amended by 20 percent biological material - most likely soybean oil - and a mid-duty utility vehicle will run solely on electricity.

Nationals head groundskeeper Larry Divito - who researched and secured some $250,000 worth of field-maintenance equipment in all, or just enough to care for one high-end field - was particularly impressed with today's emphasis on biodiesel compatibility. "That's a huge step forward," Divito says. "With it being more efficient than gas and ethanol, biodiesel is just a real progressive way of looking at this."

The state-of-the-art machinery, which replaces the government-owned equipment used to groom RFK Stadium during the Nationals' first three seasons in Washington, only begins to scratch the surface of the "greening" turf-management landscape. Within the past five years, manufacturers large and small have dedicated significant research and development resources to ensure that greater fuel efficiency and cleaner emissions are key components of the modern turf-care fleet - from propane-powered rotary mowers to electric-reel, biodiesel-driven hybrids.

Grounds-maintenance specialists, the vast majority of whom are drawn to their profession by an innate love of the outdoors, are taking notice. "If we want to position ourselves as stewards of the environment, we're going to have to retire our antique tractor," says Kevin Trotta, head groundskeeper for the North Rockland County Central School District in New York. "We used to pride ourselves on our fiscal responsibility, that we could keep a 35-year-old piece of equipment running. But when you start thinking about emissions and fuel efficiency, it hardly makes sense to do that anymore. A new piece of equipment is just so much more efficient and operates so much cleaner."

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This propane-powered, zero-turn-radius rotary mower can cut an entire football field in less than 10 minutes.
Machines that run on biofuels are gaining significant ground in America's heartland - where the crops needed to formulate ethanol (corn) and biodiesel (soybeans) are grown in abundance. In Minnesota, diesel consumers don't have a choice. As of Sept. 29, 2005, all diesel fuel sold in the state has contained at least 2 percent bio-content by law. "For us it's not pollution necessarily, though we do absolutely take air pollution into account," says Kelly Marczak, director of clean fuel and vehicle technologies for the American Lung Association of the Upper Midwest. "It's more the idea of reducing dependence on foreign oil and supporting our own state economy. Petroleum is a limited resource, and we recognize that we need to produce biofuels that are renewable and better for the environment."

That same year, on its own initiative, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources began pouring biofuels and lubricants exclusively into every piece of equipment - from two-cycle string trimmers to bucket loaders - used to maintain its 97 state parks. End users have found the new mixes to be pretty slick, according to Dan Lord, the Michigan DNR's development planner. "It has been great to see people who were naysayers - 'Aw, this isn't going to work' - say things like, 'Well, I went through a couple of filters at first when I cleaned out the 15 to 20 years of deposits that have accumulated in the engines, but I haven't had to do as much maintenance,' " Lord says. "There are pricing differentials, but it's actually adding longevity to our equipment."

Often priced as much as 30 percent higher than pure petroleum, biofuels can also be hard to come by in certain regions of the country. "That's the problem. Where does one get it?" asks the Nationals' Divito. "In Minnesota you can find it pretty easily. In Washington, D.C.? No. The mower I'm getting from Toro will be biodiesel-ready, but I'm not going to have biodiesel available at my new stadium right away. I'll be using regular diesel. That's just the reality of the accessibility issue."

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, quantities of biofuels have actually exceeded requirements outlined in the Renewable Fuels Standard program, which came to be when the Clean Air Act was amended in 2005. The EPA estimates new and expanded processing facilities will make available 11 billion gallons of renewable fuel by 2012, compared to the 7.5 billion gallons required by law.

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An onboard alternator powers electric reels on this biodiesel-compatible unit, eliminating biohazards associated with some hydraulic fluids.
For now, the farther from the corn-and-soybean belt one gets, the harder biofuels are to find. Moreover, the farther the finished product or its ingredients have to travel to reach end users, the less green they become. Here is where environmentalists temper their enthusiasm for certain alternative fuels. Says Trotta, who speaks frequently on "environmental turf craft," a phrase he coined, "One of the issues is where does the land come from to grow the extra crops? Are we going to cut down native grasslands and forests in order to produce more? Ethanol is a great example. It takes energy to grow that corn. It takes fertilizer, and fertilizers, as we use them in conventional agriculture, are produced using fossil fuels. It takes energy to harvest, transport and process the corn. Most of us feel that the biofuel thing is going to be an efficient and effective part of the puzzle, but just one part."

Two studies released in February support Trotta's assertions. Conducted by the Minnesota-based Nature Conservancy and Princeton University, the studies claim that U.S. demand for ethanol crops such as corn, soy and switchgrass has resulted in the conversion worldwide of rainforests and other natural habitats into farmland, releasing to the air mass amounts of carbon in the process. Princeton study models estimate that ethanol production nearly doubles greenhouse emissions over 30 years and increases greenhouse gases for 167 years. Meanwhile, biofuels derived from switchgrass, if grown on land originally intended for corn, increase carbon emissions by 50 percent. The Nature Conservancy study found nearly identical results.

Researchers say these figures represent worse emissions scenarios than those currently created by fossil fuels, calling into question the energy bill passed by Congress in December that seeks 15 billion gallons in biofuel production by 2015. Both sets of researchers conclude that there is promise in biofuels produced using abandoned farmland and agricultural waste. And Bob Dinneen, president of the Renewable Fuels Association, which represents the ethanol industry, emphasizes that there are finite amounts of fossil fuels - some more damaging than others - left on the planet. "As the 'easy' sources of oil decline, development of exotic resources, like tar sands in Canada, are being pursued," Dinneen told "Tar sands, by comparison, release some 300 percent more greenhouse gas emissions than traditional petroleum recovery."

Sustainability may be an overused term, Trotta says, but it applies to this discussion. "If we can perfect cellulosic ethanol to where we can take some of the agricultural waste - the stalks that we're throwing away, rather than the edible part of the corn - and use the enzymes that are in development to turn the cellulose in that waste material into ethanol, now we've got a sustainable system," he says.

Other, more immediate blockades to a biofuel future may exist. The Michigan DNR, which has partnered with the Michigan Soybean Association in securing primarily B20 (the tag given to a 20 percent bio/80 percent petroleum blend), has been hamstrung by existing contracts with fuel suppliers that won't expire for another three years. "We haven't been successful in getting them to augment or adjust the state contracts to include biodiesel," Lord says. "The powers that be have directed our management, 'If you want to buy it, buy it on your own. We're not putting it on the contract.' "

Biodiesel-ready equipment, too, might seem out of reach for some overhead-conscious entities, such as high schools and colleges, according to Thomas Shaner, executive director of the Professional Grounds Maintenance Society, which hosts a Green Industry Exposition in Louisville every October. "Yet, we're seeing more and more universities say, 'I'm going to have a green requirement,' " Shaner says. "They're putting green in some form into RFPs."

Those who purchased standard diesel machines before the biodiesel boom can purchase conversion kits, including gum-resistant fuel lines and non-clogging filters, for more fuel-efficient use moving forward. Says Divito, "Some big models will run $50,000 or $60,000, and a municipality will look at that as a five- to seven-year investment."

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F3h 308 The biofuel boom has touched every corner of sport - from baseball outfields to racetrack infields.
For their part, the Nationals have also invested heavily in the environmental promise of battery power, and an electric fleet of 15 carts currently whirs about the stadium concourses with painters, plumbers and other maintenance staff at the controls. Rechargeable battery power is considered ideal for limited start/stop applications, but less so for the continuous grind of field maintenance - save, perhaps, the relatively short, light duty involved in dragging a baseball or softball infield. So far, only one manufacturer, Jacobsen, has counted among its product line an all-electric riding reel mower - and has done so for 15 years. A walk-behind mower has been available from the company for five years.

According to Ryan Weeks, Jacobsen's vice president of engineering, advantages to going electric include the virtual elimination of both engine and noise pollution, as well as a considerable reduction in operational costs. "It all depends on what you're paying for electricity in your area, but a good rule of thumb is that it's probably going to cost you in the neighborhood of $200 a year to charge this triplex mower and run it around the golf course or athletic field 300 days a year," Weeks says. "Compare that to the fuel that you would otherwise consume and it's a huge difference. Let's say you go through five gallons of fuel a day at three bucks a gallon. That's $15 a day multiplied by 300, and you're at $4,500 a year versus $200 in charging costs." (It should be noted that battery replacement, required approximately every two years, costs roughly $800.)

But environmentalists are quick to point out that, while seemingly an end-user's dream, electric power has to come from somewhere - and it's usually a coal-fired plant. Is it still a greener alternative? "Given all of the regulations that must be in place for, say, electric power plants that use coal, I have to believe that if you were to compare that plant's emissions to the combined emissions of all these small internal combustion engines that would otherwise be running around creating that power, it has to be overwhelmingly in favor of the mass production of electricity," Weeks contends.

Another major equipment manufacturer has essentially concentrated the power generation process on board a single hybrid reel mower. Beginning three years ago, John Deere made available a unit equipped with a 48-volt alternator, allowing a B5-compliant biodiesel engine to power up the mower's own electric reels. "We're driving our reels electrically, so it doesn't take nearly as much engine power to run the cutting units," says Brad Aldridge, product manager for John Deere Golf, which encompasses all of the company's sports turf equipment. "When you're mowing on an average day, you can actually reduce your throttle by half. That cuts your noise levels down by about three decibels, and it also allows you to save up to 30 percent on fuel."

It also solves problems common to hydraulics, Aldridge adds. For one, hydraulically driven reels must run at full engine throttle to maintain proper frequency of clip (the time elapsed between the passage of successive reel blades over the bed knife), which consumes more fuel than electrically driven reels that maintain proper clip frequency even at reduced throttle settings. Risk of leaking represents a second problem with hydraulics. "By going to a hybrid machine, we're able to eliminate 102 potential hydraulic leak points along fittings, O rings and hoses," says Aldridge. "If you spill hydraulic fluid on an athletic field or golf course, and it's not biodegradable fluid, you have to dig that back up."

Reformulating existing fuels is one means to a green end. Discovering alternative applications for existing fuels is another. Four years ago, Matt Land, national sales manager for Greencastle, Ind.-based mower manufacturer Dixie Chopper, saw a gas-fired engine converted to run on propane. His company, in partnership with a manufacturer of standalone propane generators, took the natural next step and began marketing a propane-specific zero-turn-radius rotary mower in 2006 that it claims produces 50 percent less ozone-forming emissions than gasoline. "The engine should be constructed to maximize the efficiencies of the fuel source," Land says, noting that his propane engine features higher-compression pistons, advanced timing, hardened valves and liquid propane withdrawal. (Gas-to-propane conversion mowers - like backyard gas grills - utilize vapor withdrawal.) The only significant tweak was to a vertical crankshaft, and the resulting top ground speed of 15 miles per hour (about twice as fast as a typical riding rotary mower) allows groundskeepers to cut a regulation-size football field in less than 10 minutes - further mitigating emissions.

Unlike biodiesel, liquid propane offers consistent formulation and widespread availability regardless of geographic region. The mower's closed-fuel system eliminates evaporative emissions, and its twin 7.9-gallon tanks are identical to those used on the type of forklifts a municipality or school district might already have, allowing for easy access through established propane suppliers. And because the mowing season falls opposite the heating season, propane becomes an affordable fuel source when compared to gas. "Normally, propane is at its lowest during the summer, when gasoline is usually at its highest," Land says. "Last year, gasoline here hit $3.58 a gallon. Propane was $1.79. And most propane distributors allow you to buy on contract, so you lock into a better price."

A final advantage: Without the carbon buildup found in gasoline-fired engines, which require an oil change roughly every 100 hours of operation, a propane engine can log 200 hours between oil changes. "It's another little thing that lets us become a little less dependent on foreign oil," Land says. "But it's more about the use of alternative fuels. As I thought about it, we could wait until it's mandated, but we might as well just get ahead of the curve."

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The Michigan Department of Natural Resources proudly promotes its sustainability push.
Indeed, the green movement's traction within the turf industry is due in large part to the foresight of equipment manufacturers. Says Dana Lonn, director of advanced turf technology for The Toro Company, "We're not going to drive energy production, but we do have to develop uses for the variety of fuels." To that end, Toro has successfully completed B100 testing in Florida, and is waiting for a broader market for pure biodiesel to develop. This spring, the company will begin tests in partnership with the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation and the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority on utility vehicles using hydrogen fuel cell technology that captures energy from Niagara Falls.

"That's about as green as it gets," says Lonn, who adds that hydrogen cells can also be used to harness wind energy in unpopulated areas of Plains states and transport it to points of mass consumption. "Ten years ago, if you were going to design a new machine, would you even think about alternative fuels? No. You would think about gasoline or diesel fuel. There was no choice at all. Today, you obviously think about other alternatives. What's it going to be like 10 years from now?"

Trotta, for one, marvels at the advances manufacturers have already made. "As end users, we get to enjoy the fruits of their labor. We can actually see the reduction in emissions over the past 20 years, as they've made the machines more efficient," he says. "It's just a taste of things to come."

As the industry awaits the emergence of still greener technologies, end users and manufacturers alike have become de facto alternative fuel ambassadors. "We're really promoting it on our vehicles with stickers and bumper magnets," says the Michigan DNR's Lord. "We've participated in town parades, where the John Deere tractor from the local park is rolling down the street with a big banner: 'Running Green on Biodiesel.' Part of our group's effort is to demonstrate and get the word out there to the general public."

Last April, in the immediate wake of Earth Day, Dixie Chopper's Land climbed aboard a slightly geared-up propane mower and embarked on a 17-day, 3,013-mile journey from Greencastle through Texas and on to the epicenter of the green movement - smoggy California. The point of this so-called "Clean Cut Across America"? To prove that the impact of emissions on the environment is not limited merely to more conventional forms of transportation. "I don't make a bus. We don't manufacture cars. The only thing I can do anything about is mowers," Land says. "I thought if I can't get anybody's attention, I'm just going to drive the thing across the country and get them to pay attention. We all agree that we need to look at alternatives. Everybody talks about the need to do it. Everybody just needs to stop talking about doing something, find one thing and do it - and make a difference."

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