Juniors are playing the front nine. Regulars are playing the back nine. Airplanes are departing and arriving overhead. Cars are zipping past the entrance.
Given its location, Airport Golf Course represents a symbolic place to craft a quiet message about golf course maintenance. The 18-hole municipal facility is adjacent to Port of Columbus (Ohio) International Airport, which serves close to seven million passengers per year.
Superintendent Chris Haughey has learned to ignore the planes. So, on this bustling day on the ground, he aligns four vehicles in a slightly diagonal formation between the 10th tee and 18th green. Even mechanical novices notice the difference between this quartet of vehicles and other riding mowers. Metallic tanks protrude from the bodies, one on each side of the two larger mowers.
Haughey starts a fairway unit and zooms to the 18th hole for a five-minute demonstration, mowing a few passes from 2 to 10. Golfers playing bordering holes plow ahead with approach shots. The roar of arriving and departing planes causes skyward glances. The hum of a propane-powered mower goes unnoticed.
When the Propane Education & Research Council selected eight locations for its propane-powered mowing demonstration program, Airport Golf Course fit the organization’s template. The R&R Products equipment landed at multiple facilities operated by management companies, but PERC officials also wanted a relationship with a municipal course in a city apt to experiment with green practices.
Enter Airport Golf Course, where a high-profile location proved an added bonus.
The city’s fleet includes 6,300 vehicles across a variety of applications, and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, which sent diesel prices soaring throughout the country, led to Columbus adopting a Green Fleet Action Plan, which uses metrics to track successes and establish long-term goals. Fleet operations manager Bill Burns says the city has made progress on adding biodiesel, electric and compressed natural gas vehicles to its on-road fleet. Columbus has trimmed its annual petroleum from 3,309,293 gallons in 2011 to 2,855,848 in 2015. Burns admits greening the off-road fleet is a bit trickier, although the city has added more than 20 propane-powered zero-turn mowers.
An existing relationship with R&R Products’ Jim Coker and trade show conversations with PERC deputy director of business development Jeremy Wishart convinced Burns trying propane-powered at a city-owned golf course was a worthwhile cause. The parks and recreation department operates six courses, and Burns quickly identified Airport Golf Course as the facility best positioned to participate in the demo program because of Haughey’s penchant for handling change. “As soon as I had enough information to give Chris a head’s up, I said, ‘Hey, this is what I think we can do,’” Burns says. “And Chris didn’t even take a breath. He said, ‘Let’s do it.’”
The course received four new pieces of equipment last July: a fairway mower with two 9 ½-gallon tanks, a surrounds mower with two 7 ½-gallon tanks, mechanical bunker rake with two 4-gallon tanks and greens mower with a 7 ½-gallon tank. In return for the equipment, Haughey and technician Matt Luck were required to create a log of usage data. Luck called the arrival of the equipment Airport Golf Course’s version of “Christmas in July.”
We as a society don’t really think about alternatives until it starts to hit us in the pocket. I hear routinely that a dollar figure like $3 a gallon is when fleet managers and owners start going, ‘What are my other alternatives.’” — Jeremy Wishart, PERC
Measurements collected by Haughey and Luck included acres and hours mowed, price per gallon of propane and labor performed on the equipment. The price of propane acquired by the city hovered around $2.15 per gallon this past summer, according to Haughey. The city had experience handling propane infrastructure such as cages and tanks because of its participation in a PERC incentive program involving zero-turn mowers. Still, Burns says the city’s propane usage “is a drop in the bucket” compared to its petroleum usage. The more propane the city uses, the more favorable rates it will receive via the bidding process, Burns adds. Gasoline prices in the U.S. averaged $2.25 per gallon as of mid-October, and the City of Columbus receives favorable rates because of the volume of petroleum it purchases.
A gallon of propane mows between two and three acres at Airport Golf Course while a gallon of diesel mows around four acres, according to Haughey. Luck, who has spent 13 years with the city, says the propane vehicles require less maintenance because the fuel burns cleaner. “You’re not changing oil as often or doing things like that,” Luck adds. “Maintenance-wise it’s costing us less money to take care of.”
PERC officials are compiling numbers logged by the courses involved in the demonstration program. Courses involved in the program received the option of purchasing the equipment at a discounted rate, and Columbus is mulling using propane-powered equipment past the period. “Purchasing anything – off-road, on-road – with taxpayer dollars is always a double-edged sword as the green technology is usually more expensive,” Burns says. Retrofitting existing equipment with propane tanks could be an attractive option for a municipal operation, and Wishart says petroleum-powered equipment “can be relatively easily” converted to run on propane. The possibility of converting some pieces of Columbus’ golf fleet excites Luck. “That would be neat to do,” he says. PERC offers landscape contractors a $500 incentive per mower to convert to propane.
None of the golf industry’s three major mower manufacturers have propane-powered equipment currently on the golf market, but Wishart says the demonstration program has raised awareness with OEMs. Stable fuel prices are temporarily shelving urgent demand for alternative energy forms. The average annual fuel budget for golf courses in 2016 is $25,100, according to GCI’s State of the Industry report. The average was $28,174 in 2012.
“We as a society don’t really think about alternatives until it starts to hit us in the pocket,” Wishart says. “I hear routinely that a dollar figure like $3 a gallon is when fleet managers and owners start going, ‘What are my other alternatives.’ And that’s $3 a gallon for your 87 octane. That doesn’t even include what the expense for a higher 93 non-ethanol blend is. So certainly as gas prices climb and diesel prices start to climb, we start seeing more attention.
“With that said in this golf market and the professional sports turf market, corporate image in having a sustainability goal or a green image carries as much weight to the right customers, forward-thinking customers to put something in place to have a true opportunity to kind of affect both sides of the spectrum, not just the financial, but also the environmental. It’s kind of that one-two punch, and if we get our messaging right and certainly if another OEM comes along or another two OEMs come along, I think it’s setting up for that perfect storm to being the right answer for everybody.”
Being involved in the demonstration program provided Haughey and Luck with rare opportunities to dabble with an energy form courses with higher budgets might resort to in the future. Airport Golf Course’s 100 acres, which include 24 acres of fairways, five acres of tees and four acres of greens, are maintained by a crew consisting of four workers. The naturalization of 20 acres in out of play areas represents the in-house efforts pursued by Haughey to help the city achieve broader environmental goals. The course opened in 1966 and was forced to close in 2011 for renovations because the airport needed to move a runway. Columbus-based architect Dr. Michael Hurdzan oversaw the golf portion of the project, which included the rerouting of 12 holes. Decreasing the number of bunkers from 22 to 12 further reduced the maintenance footprint. Hurdzan, coincidentally, worked on the initial design with Jack Kidwell.
Former Columbus Michael Coleman played golf at the course last year and saw the propane-powered mowers in action. Coleman served as a major proponent of greening the city’s fleet during a 16-year tenure as mayor that ended Jan. 1, 2016.
“We are one of eight golf courses in the United States of America to have done this,” Haughey says. “How cool is this? Little old Columbus Airport Golf Course is part of this. And the mayor has been here. How cool is that?”