Article by Brian Stewart, founder of Electrify Now, a volunteer driven organization working to promote electrification and renewable energy solutions.
You have probably noticed the electric car ads on television and the news about automakers making big commitments to go all-electric in the next 10 years. You may not have noticed that the same thing is happening in the world of outdoor landscape maintenance equipment, and it’s happening faster.
Gas powered landscaping tools do not show up on the list of top sources of greenhouse gas emissions, but in terms of air pollution, they are surprisingly big players. Because they do not have the same pollution controls as our cars, the small gasoline powered engines that are used for lawnmowers, leaf-blowers, trimmers, chainsaws, and other landscaping equipment are overtaking cars as the leading source of air pollution in many parts of the country. The California Air Resources Board reports that “by 2031, small engine emissions will be more than twice those from passenger cars” in southern California.
Another reason to be excited about the electrification of landscaping equipment is that the machines are much quieter. The noise from gas powered leaf blowers, perhaps the most offensive of the gas machines, can far exceed levels that cause permanent hearing loss in just minutes of use. This extreme noise is dangerous for operators and hugely disruptive to our communities, it lowers our productivity in schools and work environments and even impacts our health.
For all these reasons, I was eager to talk to the one person in the country who knows more about the electrification of the landscaping industry than anyone — Dan Mabe, the founder of American Green Zone Alliance (AGZA).
Dan grew up in a household where high-volume mow & blow landscaping work was a way of life. He started working with gas powered tools at age ten, and worked in the landscaping business as a teenager and through his college years. Then, convinced there must be a better way, he created his own all-electric landscaping service almost 20 years ago. At that time, battery tools were using lead acid or cadmium batteries — primitive technology compared to what is available today. He cobbled together a natural gas-powered van with solar panels to charge his batteries, and chose the best available electric tools. His welder friends helped him modify his mowers to hold 3 additional car batteries so they would last through the day – what he calls his “Franken equipment.” He applied for a technology development grant from the San Joaquin Air Pollution Control District and used it to work with aerospace engineers to prototype a backpack leaf blower powered with e-bike batteries. The prototypes look remarkably similar to the battery tools that are common today. His all-electric landscape business, The Green Station, was a success.
In 2014, he founded the AGZA. He wanted to help accelerate and scale the adoption of electric solutions for landscape maintenance in order to improve working conditions for outdoor equipment operators, reduce impact to the environment, and improve quality of life for our communities. The experience he gained training workers for his own operation was the foundation for a training course he developed to quickly and successfully transition professional grounds crews to the new electric tools coming from the major outdoor tool manufacturers.
I caught up with Dan over the phone between his trips across the country working with clients to train their workers and certify Green Zones.
Dan, it’s great to talk to you again. Let’s start with the Green Zone concept – what is this and what does someone have to do to create one?
When we first started doing this work with electric tools it felt like our clients were hiring us to quarantine their area as a quiet place, as a place where there’s no pollution. That grew into the AGZA Green Zone Certification concept. The minimal requirement for a Certified Green Zone is phasing out two stroke equipment for all routine maintenance. You cannot use gas unless there’s heavy chainsaw work or there’s heavy brush clearing or something where there is absolutely no electric alternative. You have to be prudent to allow for occasional heavy workloads, but routine maintenance makes up most of the impact issues with grounds maintenance.
That is such a great idea – quiet, pollution free maintenance in public outdoor spaces. Tell us about the Environmental Landscape Footprint that you do for your Green Zone projects.
I give a lot of credit to Jamie Banks and Quiet Communities for this component of Green Zone Certification. We started working together on projects early on and we felt it was important for people to understand the remediation benefits of the project. People would know what it felt like and sounded like afterwards, but we wanted to get something on paper. So, we developed methods to take inventories, quantify impacts and report on the benefits — reduced gas and oil use, reduced toxic and carcinogenic emissions and carbon emissions, reduced noise levels and reduced toxic solid waste. We create an impact analysis and a benefit analysis. This provides our clients credible “independent” information to demonstrate their commitment to sustainability, environment, and community health.
Who are some of the clients you have been working with on these Green Zone projects?
AGZA has worked with Cities, Towns, Villages, State Park Districts, School Districts, Libraries, Private Commercial and Residential properties in seven states across the country. We are now in discussions with vineyards, hospitals, and even cemeteries.
Tell us about the training you do for the work crews and why that is so important.
Switching to battery electric tools is not as simple as replacing the tools and doing the work the same old ways. There are some important adjustments the crews need to make to ensure it goes smoothly. It all starts with an orientation to introduce the concept of incorporating electric technology into their operations. We give clear and specific examples of some of our largest Green Zone Certified projects. Some of these are up to 140 serviceable acres of turf, hardscape, shrubs, hedges, and trees. Then we do a hands-on field workshop where the crews get to try the commercial electric equipment in their normal maintenance settings to understand workload production and performance capability. Afterwards, those crews and managers are required to complete the AGZA Service Pro On-line Certification Course and choose an equipment platform of choice. We then give guidance on setting up safe and adequate charging infrastructure and verify the designated Green Zone areas are maintained with the Green Zone Standard. All of this is important because it helps streamline the process, save money, and acts as an important behavior modification mechanism for the crews and management.
You do a lot of product testing and validation with the battery tools – why is this an important part of the AGZA services you provide to clients?
AGZA was approached by big tool companies once we started to get published in the trade magazines. In the early years we took people at their word about the tools. We were promised safe tools that performed like gas. We were burned pretty badly as some of our original large Green Zone projects spent thousands of dollars on tools from these companies that we had not independently vetted. AGZA had to go out of pocket and replace those defective tools, and it almost wiped us out permanently. That’s why we started the AGZA Field Tested Certified process. We test tool platforms and large mowers independent of the manufacturers, in the field under very stressful and challenging conditions. Ever since we created this process, we have had no major issues with our equipment, and we have had 100 percent success rate with our large-scale electric implementations. It gives us the confidence to make tool recommendations because we know this stuff works.
Do you feel like it’s possible for crews to do all this routine landscape maintenance with battery electric tools these days?
I would say 90 percent of all routine maintenance can be done with battery electric. Some of our clients are expecting electric battery tools to do exactly what their gas tools do, and they are used to operating gas and gas is a very inefficient technology. You can keep pushing through these workloads with more gas and more oil. With battery tools, it forces them to be more thoughtful, to be more efficient. So, there has to be an acceptance of some operational nuance, some adjustments to how you do the work. For example, the electric blowers are never going to be as powerful as some of the gas ones on the market. But we show our clients that you don’t need all of that power. West Side Union School District for example — one hundred thirty-eight serviceable acres as a Certified Green Zone. They’re not using two-stroke blowers any more at all. You know why? Because now they understand that if they make small adjustments to their workloads, they don’t need that extra power.
How do you describe the benefits of battery electric tools over gas?
It’s just cleaner in general. With a gas business, you have to go and buy two-stroke oil and make trips to the gas station to fill the cans. You have to mix that 50 to one ratio into the five-gallon gas cans. And then you need engine degreasers, carburetor cleaners and all these different petroleum and chemical products that are associated with maintaining small gas engines. It’s just a much cleaner proposition with battery power. You’re not exposed to the gas itself getting on your skin and you’re not breathing in the evaporative fumes when you’re refueling and mixing gas. Also, you’re not exposed to the exhaust. There are all these really dangerous exposures with gas equipment that you constantly deal with. So, when I started working with battery tools, what really struck me was wow, I can go inside this van and I can breathe. The only thing you get dirty from at the end of the day is working with the soil instead of all that toxic grease, grime and grit from working with the gas tools.
It’s interesting that the first place you went in your answer about benefits was how it’s better for the operator. Do you get that feedback from workers you have trained; do they say that they prefer working with this equipment?
They do. They literally say, I can go home and hug my kids, I don’t have to go in the garage and disrobe and go jump in the shower immediately. So, the workers, they were always afraid to say anything, but now they’re saying yeah, this is better for me. And they love the smoothness of the electric tools – less vibration, they feel less fatigued. And they love the fact they don’t have to work with any gas or oil or solvents. They can go home and not feel like a gas can walking into the house.
Do they feel better about the lower noise from the electric tools versus the gas tools?
They love that aspect of it – it’s so much quieter. Noise mitigation was my first priority when I started. I don’t think people understand the implications and the health hazards of this type of exposure to extreme noise. And not just for the workers, but also for the neighborhoods and the community and for the people inside their homes who are exposed to this, because you can’t get away from it.
Tell us about the cost of operating electric equipment versus gas.
That’s another advantage – the cost. When you really understand how much you’re spending on the gas, the two-stroke oil and the maintenance and replacement parts, and how much cheaper it is to charge the batteries with electricity, you see how much cost you can save. When I was doing it myself, I almost felt like I was getting away with something – charging my battery tools for four cents on the dollar and I’m doing the same work as the guy across the street using gas. So, if you have the mindset to take care of your electric fleet of tools you will get that benefit of lower operating costs, and the ROI and bigger margins running your business.
What is your experience about the payback period for the investment a landscape contractor would have to make to transition to electric tools?
From my experience, when you get the lithium batteries and the tools to year two and a half, or year three, you’re in the clear for the most part on handheld tools, for sure. And the warranties are for two to three years, by the way. And this is why we feel it’s so important to provide some level of education, to make sure you get the long life from these tools that they are capable of. Our primary goal is to allow the industry that is converting from gas to electric to realize their return on investment and have this be at least a break — even proposition. Once they get those tools to year three and beyond, that’s when they start to operate at a real profit — that’s what we call the gravy period.
We’ve been talking a lot about the professional landscape industry, but let’s talk about homeowners for a minute. Do you have any tips for people who are thinking about making the switch for their own yards, people doing their own work?
We encourage homeowners to do a couple of things — if you do your own yard, get a suite of battery tools from one manufacturer, and just replace all of the gas tools in one fell swoop. We feel that there’s an economy to buying a suite of tools rather than just one at a time. For example, with some of the manufacturers, they sell a kit, like a lawn mower, and it comes with the charger and a battery and the lawn mower. And then you can buy the other tools without the battery and charger – just use that same battery from the lawn mower.
Or you can create your own AGZA Green Zone space with your gardeners by purchasing a dedicated suite of tools for your property and allow your gardeners access to it. We started this residential Green Zone initiative, and it has really caught on in a lot of communities.
What do you recommend people do with their old gas stuff that they retire?
I would have it scrapped. You don’t want it sold and reanimated so it can go out there and create more noise and more pollution. You can take it to the local scrap yard, and do some things to it, if you will, to make sure that it can’t be revived.
I have seen sales projection data that says nearly 50% of hand-held outdoor power tools sold in 2021 will be battery electric. This is way ahead of electric cars as a reference which are still less than 2% of sales. Are you seeing this transition at the contractor level in line with these numbers, and where do you think things are going to be in say 5 years are so with this industry?
Well, first, there’s a labor shortage. And I think, because of that labor shortage the industry is going to turn to innovation, and make even more progress into electric. I think that robotics is going to be a huge part of this industry — primarily with mowing tasks. You’re already seeing them. As you know, we work closely with a lot of the equipment manufacturers. Graze, for example, is making an autonomous robotic mower that has a full size, 16-inch deck for commercial applications. So, I feel that we are going to see a lot of innovation in this area.
And then battery technology — manufacturers are going to push the envelope here to get more power without making the batteries heavier. Right now, it’s estimated that less than 10 percent of this industry, commercially speaking, is operating with battery tools. We’ve really made some amazing strides and it’s growing fast. That said, I really feel in five years, I think we might be at 50 percent, if not more.
Do you sense that the workers themselves are getting more aware of the health concerns with their jobs? I always wonder whether they know it and don’t say anything about it because they are just trying to make a living or whether they don’t know that it’s dangerous to their health.
Great question. That’s generational. We interact with hundreds of workers a month. So, I would say that people in their 40s, 50s, 60s, and those guys in their 70s still doing this, they’re going to be less likely to speak up. But anybody let’s just say 40 and under, they’re definitely saying – “I don’t want to use this. This thing is bad for my health.” The younger generation definitely is more cognizant and mindful of the health issues. And it’s not just the gas tools, it’s the pesticides, the herbicides. So, there are employment implications of using these gas tools, and the work environment that it creates. And so, when you couple this with the labor shortage we were talking about, it means the industry has to change.
Find out more about the state of All Electric Yard Care at a free webinar on June 23rd at 12:00 Noon PDT. The presentation will feature Dan Mabe from AGZA, and representatives from EGO and Husqvarna – two brands that are making a serious commitment to high quality electric landscaping equipment.
Brian Stewart is the Founder of Electrify Now, a volunteer driven organization working to promote electrification and renewable energy solutions.