Nurseries and landscapers look at electric alternatives to traditional equipment
Many garden retailers and nursery owners are starting to turn away from gas-powered equipment as technological advancements make it possible to go all-electric.
In California, all new landscaping equipment will be required to be zero-emission by 2024 or as soon as the California Air Resources Board deems it achievable, according to a law signed in October 2021.
But this transition doesn’t stop outside of California. Growers that aren’t in areas that restrict gas use are still choosing to go with battery-powered tools, according to Matt Gold, director of continuous improvement for national plant supplier Everde Growers.
Gold is based in Forest Grove, Oregon, and visits all the company’s farms in multiple states. Everde Growers uses electric trimmers, blowers and more in nursery production and is looking into the possibility of autonomous tractors.
“In my tenure in the nursery industry, I’ve seen that battery power didn’t last as long, so we also looked at gas-powered tools, which were more realistic options because the battery life wasn’t there,” Gold said. “But what we’re seeing now is that electric tools are lasting longer than in the past.”
Compared to gas-powered tools, electric tools are typically quieter, lighter to carry and don’t pollute the air the farmworkers breathe.
“If it’s more comfortable for the employee we see that as a win for morale, and their ability to use it longer if it’s more ergonomic and prevents injuries,” Gold said.
Everde Growers also made the switch from pneumatic nail guns to battery-powered nail guns. Compared with the airline, compressor, generator and power cords that go with the pneumatic guns, the battery-powered nail guns are less of a hassle to move around a worksite.
Gold is currently looking into the opportunity of using electric autonomous robots from a company called Directed Machines to do pruning and spacing.
Dan Abramson, co-founder and COO of Directed Machines, likened his company’s fully electric, solar-charged Land Care Robots to smartphones because of all the functions they’re capable of performing.
Instead of having a separate alarm clock, calculator and telephone, people can use a single device to do all those tasks and more. The Land Care Robot can tow, mow, trim, grade and more depending on which attachments it’s using.
“It adapts easily to perform hundreds of different tasks,” Abramson said.
The machine is autonomous, so it could help out a nursery or orchard that’s finding it difficult to hire enough qualified workers.
Outside of nurseries and orchards, the Land Care Robot has been used at golf courses, solar farms, parks and soccer fields. Its two main tasks are mowing and towing, but it is also useful for spraying, tilling, snow plowing and warding off predators, according to Abramson.
“Birds love eating blueberries, so we attach a sky puppet like you’d see at a car wash to the back of the robot and use it to patrol through the rows of the blueberry farm to scare away the birds,” he said.
It can pull more than 8,000 pounds and is compact enough to fit in the back of a Ford F-150 pickup truck. When it comes off the pickup truck, it’s able to connect to the vehicle and pull it up a hill.
The robot itself, without any additional pieces attached, sells for $16,800.
“We’ve been able to do that through exceptionally smart engineering choices,” Abramson said. While competing companies are using sophisticated, more expensive computers to run their robots, the Land Care Robot uses an inexpensive Raspberry Pi that requires less power.
“We are only using a small amount of power with the Raspberry Pi so we are able to do more per charge,” Abramson said.
Directed Machines was founded in 2018 and began selling these robots across North America in 2020.
Transitioning to electric
Ryan McLennan, commercial maintenance manager for Dennis’ 7 Dees Landscaping and Garden Centers, oversees the mowing, trimming and weeding for commercial clients and facilities in the Portland Metro area.
He said he’s been slowly transitioning to electric equipment over the last two seasons with one work crew at a time, starting with blowers, trimmers and edgers. He said the change has mostly been customer-driven.
“This is what they want, so let’s give it a try,” McLennan said. “It’s kind of our responsibility to do everything we can to reduce our carbon footprint while providing for customers.”
Commercial landscaping can be very fuel-intensive, which is a point of frustration to McLennan.
“I don’t think any landscaper feels good about burning $10,000 per month of diesel or gas,” he said. “The market has brought us to this point and if we can get to all-electric and running off of solar power and have our carbon footprint close to zero, that’s a dream of ours. It’s not that far away with this investment.”
One consideration for McLennan is the infrastructure required in going electric. While solar-charged equipment can stay outside, battery-charged tools need more planning involved.
“I need to think about how many hours of power I need for a day, and make sure the batteries will be charged before I leave,” McLennan said, adding that it could involve adding in charging stations as well.
While Dennis’ 7 Dees is going for it now, McLennan said many of his peers are holding back to let the technology catch up in performance and reliability before they invest.
“Every year the batteries are better, which is good and bad,” McLennan said. “The technology is improving but that means the investment I made last year is now obsolete.” Gas-powered equipment has been consistent for decades, but since electric tools are relatively new, they are changing and improving quickly.
McLennan said he’s been working with one of his main equipment suppliers, Horizon Distributors, which is selling a new line of electric equipment from a company called Greenworks.
Jeff Vachter, zone manager at Horizon Distributors in Vancouver, said he’s starting to see his customers inquire about battery-powered tools. While the mandate to outlaw gas-powered equipment is for California, Vachter believes Oregon and Washington tend to follow California.
Up until now, the electrical products his company has been distributing over the last five years haven’t been well received because the power, battery life and cost didn’t meet the standards of industry professionals.
“But due to current world events and gas prices almost doubling what it was last year at this time, people are starting to inquire about it now,” Vachter said.
His company began researching different manufacturers to see if there was something better to offer in the marketplace.
“Greenworks is probably the furthest ahead as far as battery equipment goes,” Vachter said.
While most manufacturers he researched have a few electric options, Greenworks has a complete line from 60-inch sit-on riding mowers to standing mowers. It also offers utility vehicles and snow throwers
According to Greenworks, the riding mowers last 14 acres before they need to be charged and its 82-volt hedge trimmer is advertised to be able to run for two hours at a time. Greenworks claims its commercial products can recharge in less than one hour.
So, Horizon Distributors decided to order mowers, line trimmers, edgers, backpack blowers, hedge trimmers and more from Greenworks to sell to their customers, including Dennis’ 7 Dees.
“We’re taking a gamble here because we haven’t had much luck with the other products we’ve tried,” Vachter said. “But as the gas bill is over $10,000 per month for one of our customers, if they can convert to battery they’ll have more initial upfront cost but in the long term they can save money by not having to buy fuel.”
Emily Lindblom is an Oregon-based freelance journalist covering business, environmental and agricultural news. She has a background in community reporting and a master’s degree in multimedia journalism. Visit her website at emilylindblom.com or reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.