Irrigation and Other ‘Load-Leveling’ Products

art42Lawn mowers and agricultural irrigation engines are great “load leveling” technologies for the propane industry because consumers and farmers use them primarily in the summer, which is the low point of the year in propane consumption.
By selling those products, the propane marketer can keep his or her delivery trucks and employees busy year-round, using assets that would otherwise be sitting still, said Mark Leitman, who is director of business development and marketing for the Propane Education & Research Council (PERC).
Irrigation, especially, is a key target area for the propane industry because those engines run a great deal of hours pumping water. They tend to run more in dryer, warmer climates. Farmers typically water crops from around May through September.
“It’s just a great time of year for us to consume lots of propane, counter to our typical heating season,” Leitman told BPN.
Leitman notes that four main original equipment manufacturers are currently offering propane irrigation products. Dozens of dealers distribute those companies’ products. Overall, more than four companies offer propane irrigation products (a list is available at www.agpropane.com), but the main four are Engine Distributors (EDI, Blackwood, NJ); Origin Engines (Kearney, Neb.); Power Solutions Inc. (PSI; Wood Dale, Ill.); and Buck’s Engines (Oklahoma City).
The engines are not new. But about five years ago the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) began requiring emission certification on engines used for off-road purposes on farms. The requirements forced irrigation engine companies to add closed-loop fuel systems —including catalytic converters for controlling exhaust emissions— and then certify the engines. That, of course, added to the manufacturers’ costs.
“We approached the engine manufacturers a few years ago and found ways to work with them and help them get over that certifications hurdle, and that’s really what PERC’s role has been for the past few years, helping them to ensure that there’s propane product on the market that’s available for sale.”
EDI offers several off-road irrigation engines available from Ford Motor Co. They are the same core engines that Ford uses in several of its on-road trucks and vehicles. EDI is currently developing a 3.7L irrigation engine that runs on propane.
“When the 3.7 is completed, they’ll have essentially a full product line, from 6.8 down to 1.5 liters,” Leitman stated. “The 6.8L is one of their most popular models for irrigation.”
Bucks Engines has worked with PERC to certify two engines, but the company also sells a family of several other engines.
“They were one of the first ones we worked with on a certification effort,” Leitman noted. “We quickly got a 5.7L certified, and we promoted it heavily through things like our FEED [Farm Equipment Efficiency Demonstration] program. We later we did an 8.0L with them and then [other engine companies] came on board saying ‘We’ve got other engines we can develop.’”
Origin Engines offers engines at 8.0L and 10.3L. “It’s a company from Nebraska that has been in the engine development business for a long time, but they’re beginning efforts in the alt-fuel area with a couple propane engines,” Leitman noted. PERC funded a project to support development of these two large engines, and they will be available for sale this year. Origin is working with at least two major dealers—Industrial Irrigation in Nebraska and Western Power in California—located in important areas of the country for the products.
“They’ll have dealerships in key markets that can begin to address the market, sales and service,” Leitman said.
PERC since December 2011 has worked with wholesale provider PSI to develop a full family of engines. Retail sales company Husker Power Products sells PSI engines almost nationwide. Three of the four PERC-funded engines, a 3.0L, 4.3L, and 5.7L, are complete. The fourth engine, an 8.8L, is awaiting California Air Resources Board (CARB) approval.
California Clean Air Technologies (CCAT) is another company Leitman mentioned as important in the propane-powered irrigation sector. PERC funded a program with CCAT to develop a dual fuel retrofit system that uses propane to displace diesel fuel in diesel engines.
“Its science is to take an existing diesel engine and redevelop the engine fuel and control system to essentially inject propane into the engine to reduce overall fuel cost,” Leitman remarked. “You’re reducing the amount of diesel and replacing it with propane. The benefit is reduced operating cost and carbon emissions.“ PERC hopes to display the CCAT engine at this month’s World Ag Expo.
Leitman noted that these irrigation engines are certified for other off-road equipment in addition to irrigation. Some of them might be the same type of engine used in a forklift, for example. They could include equipment towed behind a truck at a job site, like air compressors or chippers for the tree trimming industry, or lifts for construction at a job site. They can even be used for “aquaculture,” which has involved moving water from pond to pond or aerating the water with oxygen.
“The livestock industry may use water pumps to water livestock. The cranberry industry uses it for harvesting purposes, so there are all sorts of off-road power applications in agriculture and other industrial markets. Anywhere there’s a need for off-road power is a potential candidate and target market.”
Irrigation is a main area of focus for Leitman, but he is also spending time focusing on other areas of agriculture. Developing better grain drying technology is another key area of the council’s energy efficiency strategy,
“Over time, the technology has gotten better,” he said. “Part of getting better is the drive toward more and more efficiency, which as we know in business if we don’t get better and continue to improve, we stand the risk of being replaced entirely by competing energy sources.”
The Mathews Co. and Grain Systems Inc. (GSI), said to be two of the largest grain storage system manufacturers in the world, are key grain drying partners of PERC, and the council has worked with the two companies to develop technology that Leitman says is substantially more efficient than previous generations. The latest technology recovers and recaptures more waste heat, which reduces fuel consumption and has improved efficiency of the product by up to 20 percent.  GSI’s X-Stream grain dryer has improved its ability to eliminate the problem of hot and cool spots in the drying process. Hot spots lead to over-drying, which can lead to cracked kernels and reduced crop quality.
By reducing hot spots, “You get a better, more consistently dried product in every part of the grain dryer,” Leitman stated. Mathews’ latest product focuses on re-circulating waste heat, he explained. The company redesigned its product’s entire air chamber and air flow system to recycle warm air coming out of the dryer and reinject some or all of it back into the dryer.
Heating more evenly is also a goal for heaters used to heat greenhouse crops or swine. PERC has worked with L.B. White to test and improve technology related to the heaters’ control and ventilation systems. Swine heaters keep the pigs warm in the barn. Leitman explained that farmers use the product mostly for smaller pigs.
“And 1 degree makes a big difference,” Leitman noted. “Whatever the key temperature is, you want it to be that temperature in every part of that building.”
PERC has also worked on flame weed control for organic farmers, who must operate in a mostly chemical-free environment. The concept is not new, but PERC worked with the University of Nebraska to test and develop technology now available from a start-up weed and pest flaming company, Agricultural Flaming Innovations (AFI), that makes flame weed control more efficient.
“Instead of running an open flame through the field, they’ve built shields or a housing, if you will, over the top of the torches to maintain more heat around the plants toward the weeds that they’re trying to kill,” Leitman said. “Some of the researchers and investors got together and started a company to bring this to market.” He explained that the product, attached to the back of a tractor, is a burner system that works similar to the way a furnace works, using multiple burners with housings built around them. The unit includes a propane tank, torches, a frame, and a fuel delivery system.  
Weeds are the No. 1 problem in crop production, Leitman noted. That’s why some of the chemical companies have been so successful, he added. They found chemical means to controlling weeds. But chemicals are a controversial topic and Leitman noted they must be used with great care. Also,  some plants are developing resistance to chemicals.
“The flame is non-selective,” he stated. “It will control everything in the target zone.”
Leitman notes that the AFI system can reduce fuel consumption by more than half compared to current technologies. PERC has supported farm equipment company Behlen Manufacturing for the past year to help bring the product to market.
“Propane flame weeding would be even more popular if it were less expensive, and this should cut the propane cost significantly and give organic producers another option to control weeds.” – Daryl Lubinsky