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Propane or diesel engines?

Propane or diesel engines?

How do propane engines stack up? Incentive program provides $400 per liter of engine size. Details provided.

When it comes time to purchase your next irrigation pump, is it worth considering a propane engine? For a variety of reasons, more and more producers are saying yes.

It turns out that not only do propane engines cost about half what a comparable, EPA-certified Tier 4 diesel engine does, but there are further potential cost offsets through the Propane Education and Research Council (PERC) Propane Farm Incentive Program.

“We’ve been very successful with the irrigation engine reintroduction over the last few years in the Midwest and on down through the Mississippi Delta,” says Mark Leitman, PERC director of business development and marketing. “That whole area is heavily irrigated. Nebraska is a big success -- a lot of irrigation, particularly in the eastern two-thirds.”

There are two reasons for that success, says Leitman. “First, the propane marketers have come together with the engine suppliers to address the concerns of farmers. Where will I get propane? Who will keep the tank full? What’s the price going to be?”

Once a farmer knows that the price of propane is very affordable compared to diesel and there’s a reliable supply, “those questions go away.

“Second, on the engine side, farmers want to know about reliability. How will it perform compared to a diesel engine? What does the performance curve look like? What will the cost be?

“Once the worries about economics, performance and service -- what happens if the engine breaks down -- it’s an easier decision for the farmer.”

The Propane Education and Research Council is a national check-off organization, says Leitman. “In that sense, we’re like the Cotton Board or eggs, pork and all the others. Of course we’re also different because we deal with energy and where they fall under the jurisdiction of the USDA, we fall under the Department of Energy’s oversight.”

Each time a gallon of propane gas is sold for domestic use in the United States the check-off is assessed at four-tenths of a cent. To put that in context, a small gas cylinder used on a grill would provide the check-off with about two pennies.

The funds collected are used for research, safety and training. “The research involves lab testing, working with manufacturers to develop newer engines with newer emission control devices then get them through the EPA certification program.

“Once that was solid, we put together what’s known as the ‘Farm Incentive Program.’ That allows a farmer to apply for a small grant, or incentive, to offset the purchase of the new propane engines. In return, we ask those farmers to collect some data on the performance of the engines for a year.

“The research angle is we learn how the engines perform. That’s a positive for us and for the manufacturers. And what’s good for the farmers is they’re able to buy down the cost of the new equipment.”


As an example of what propane engines are capable of, Leitman points to Swindle Farms of Elaine, Ark. “Through a few applications, they were granted a total of 11 engines at five or six locations. Most were 5.7-liter GM engines purchased through Cunningham Propane in West Helena, Ark. They saw significant savings.”

How significant? Swindle Farms reduced fuel costs “by 68 percent per hour compared with their diesel-fueled engines.

“Many of our users in 2013 found propane costs right at $1.50 per gallon. That was on about 150 tests nationwide. The diesel cost was close to $3.50 so there was a good chance to save money by switching to propane.”

Not only is the cost for a new 5.7-liter GM propane engine cheaper than an equivalent horsepower diesel engine, says Leitman. “The propane engines can meet strict emission standards more easily because the fuel is cleaner to begin with.”

Sometimes the engines are placed permanently at the well. It’s also common for them to be mounted on a small trailer for security and storage and maintenance during the offseason.

“One other plus is propane is an American-made fuel and it’s a good thing for everyone to get behind.”

How does the incentive program work?

“We want to push this very hard because it’s such a great opportunity for farmers. In 2013, we had over 200 applicants that were granted and supplied. In 2014, we’d love to reach 250 approvals.

“This is real money and not difficult to get.

“Essentially, it pays $400 per liter of engine size. So, simple math, if you bought an 8.0-liter engine times $400, it would provide $3,200. The incentive for a 5.7-liter engine would be $2,120.”

In return, farmers simply have to collect very basic fuel consumption data -- things like hours of use and maintenance. “They provide us with that data after harvest in November or December. That’s it."

Data from 2013 survey shows propane irrigation engines slashed producers’ fuel costs an average of 56 percent per hour compared with similar diesel-powered engines. Further, the producers reduced overall fuel consumption by 37 percent per hour.

“We accept any new, EPA-certified engine in the program. We don’t accept rebuilt, remanufactured or non-EPA certified engines.”

The incentive not only works for irrigation engines but also for some grain dryers. There is also funding available for some flame weed control for organic operations.

Producers can find an application for the incentive program at

Contact Leitman at:

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