Irrigation Demo Program Case Study
California’s 76,400 farms produce $46.4 billion in crops annually and grow more than half of the nation’s U.S.-grown fruits, nuts, and vegetables. But all of that output comes with a price — a significant investment by California growers in energy and equipment.
The Propane Education & Research Council has worked with trusted engine manufacturers, including Power Solutions International, SRC Power Systems, Origin Engines, and Engine Distributors, Inc. since 2009 to commercialize a new generation of propane engines that offer farmers an affordable alternative to diesel.
In 2014, PERC partnered with engine manufacturers, California equipment dealers, and growers to test the performance of propane-powered engines in the state. Eight units were placed in fields to irrigate a variety of crop types, including rice, wine grapes, feed for dairy cattle, fruits, nuts, and vegetables for one growing season.
This case study highlights the results achieved by farmers irrigating three crop types: wine grapes, rice, and vegetables.
- 8 propane-powered engines
- 8 California producers
- 486,470 total estimated fuel savings
Tier 4 emissions regulations mandated by the Environmental Protection Agency and air pollution standards set by the California Air Resources Board have prompted California growers to explore alternative fuels. With rising costs for diesel and electricity, and higher upfront costs for engines, growers taking steps to upgrade the efficiency of their irrigation systems are turning to propane.
ENGINE PERFORMANCE IN WINE GRAPES
SHANDON HILLS RANCH / PASO ROBLES, CALIFORNIA
Shandon Hills Ranch, located about twenty miles east of Paso Robles, California, installed an 11.1-liter Power Solutions International propane engine, which is running beside a Tier 2, 8.3-liter diesel engine. Shandon Hills Ranch is one of several vineyards in California’s central valley farmed by Mesa Vineyard Management. The family-owned company has more than 25 years of experience in the viniculture industry and currently manages more than 7,000 acres of wine grapes.
The PSI engine pumps 1,000–2,000 gallons per minute, pumping water from a reservoir into a pressurized system for release through a drip irrigation system and sprinkler frost protection system. While irrigating, the propane engine runs approximately 80–90 hours per week. Shandon also irrigates with diesel engines and electric motors.
Shandon Hills Ranch is saving a staggering 70 percent with the propane engine, compared with the 8.3-liter diesel engine doing a similar job. The propane engine averaged only $8.40 in fuel costs per hour, while the diesel engine averaged $29.02 per hour to operate.
Fritz Helzer has previously irrigated with propane engines and has found many benefits from using the alternative fuel.
“Propane engines always start, always run, and are always clean,” Helzer said. “I’d recommend propane engines to other farmers because they burn clean and there’s no regulation [when compared with diesel]. They’re dependable and easy to operate.”
In addition to reduced fuel costs, Helzer gained additional irrigating hours with propane.
“Before propane, I would run the diesel engines during the day and turn on the electric motors at night,” Helzer said. “During the day, electric is expensive, as all the air conditioning and power consumed in California drives the load on the power grid. It’s more convenient and cheaper to use propane, and we’re able to get more hours.”
Helzer also noted that because his propane engine is CARB-certified, it doesn’t have the same reporting requirements as his diesel engines.
“I have to register my diesel engines [with CARB] and then renew them every year, and report hours of use every year. Propane engines are certified for use, so I don’t have to take as many steps,” he said.
It’s more convenient and cheaper to use propane, and we’re able to get more hours. Fritz Helzer, Wine Grape Producer
The weather can get up to 100 degrees here, but the propane engine is performing well, despite the heat. Lance Matteoli, Rice Producer
It’s easier to deal with propane motors because I can move them to where I need them. Michael Harris, Vegetable Producer
ENGINE PERFORMANCE IN RICE
MATTEOLI BROTHERS FARM / ROBBINS, CALIFORNIA
Matteoli Brothers Farm in Robbins, California installed a 5.7-liter Power Solutions International engine from Husker Power Products. The PSI engine pumps water from a well, which feeds an underground pipeline used to flood rice canals. The engine pumps approximately 2,000 gallons of water per minute.
Since the installation of the PSI engine, grower Lance Matteoli is realizing a 59 percent savings in fuel costs, compared with a Tier 4, 6.7-liter diesel engine running nearby that is doing a similar job. In 2014, he paid $11.17 per hour to irrigate with diesel, but paid only $6.07 per hour to irrigate with propane.
Matteoli ran the propane-powered engine twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week during the growing season. Despite the hot and dry conditions, Matteoli didn’t have to worry about the performance of the propane engine.
“The weather can get up to 100 degrees here, but the propane engine is performing well, despite the heat. It’s running at about 170–180 degrees,” Matteoli said. “I’m pretty happy with that. Our diesel engines typically run at 210 degrees, which can cause problems like overheating.”
Matteoli was pleased to discover how reliable the engine was, and that it was easy to operate and maintain. His maintenance team performs an oil change every 300 hours. He would recommend propane engines to any grower seeking a cost-effective, sustainable irrigation solution.
“The savings we’ve seen on fuel, and overall lower cost of operation are the main reasons why we’d recommend propane engines to any grower,” he said.
ENGINE PERFORMANCE IN VEGETABLES
H&H FARMS / ARVIN, CALIFORNIA
The growing season for H&H Farms of Arvin, California, lasts all year long. The specialty ag operation grows 1,500 acres of two crops every year, rotating between potatoes, carrots, alfalfa, garlic, and onions. California’s climate also means year-round irrigation needs.
H&H Farms installed a 10.3-liter propane-powered Origin engine to replace a 5.9-liter Tier 1 Cummins diesel engine. The propane engine is a booster application, pumping water from a local water district reservoir. Depending on the time of year, the engine may run up to 18 hours per day, five to seven days a week.
Michael Harris had never used a propane engine before the Origin 10.3-liter was installed. Many of the farm’s wells are powered by electric or diesel motors. With year-round irrigation, Harris reported reducing his fuel costs by over 30 percent by switching to propane. His energy costs declined from $16.98 per hour for diesel to $11.82 per hour with propane.
Another benefit Harris noted was the portability and reliability of the new engine.
“We have electric, but the service isn’t very good out here,” Harris said. “It’s easier to deal with propane motors because I can move them to where I need them.”
AN EMISSIONS-COMPLIANT, COST-SAVING SOLUTION
New propane engines provide a robust solution for California growers grappling with strict emissions standards and rising energy costs.
All eight growers in the California demonstration program found that irrigating with propane offered several advantages over diesel and electric options. On average, program participants reduced fuel costs per hour by 48 percent, with an estimated total fuel savings of $86,470 (1).
There are more than 30 models of propane-powered engines available in all 50 states, in a variety of sizes and horsepower ranges. The engines can also be outfitted with the latest telemetric technologies for remote monitoring and control via tablets and smartphones.
To help offset the upfront cost of new propane engines, PERC and the Western Propane Gas Association offer national and state incentive programs.
1. During the 2014 irrigation season in California when the demonstration was conducted, average propane prices were approximately $1.40-$1.50 and diesel was approximately $3.50 per gallon.