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Getting to the green: Improving golf cart efficiency

One of golf’s least celebrated yet major environmental triumphs is the wide spread adoption of the golf cart. Developed primarily for our industry, these low-speed vehicles have now been adopted worldwide by private communities and urban centers as an alternative to conventional automobiles. Future technologies that will power our automobiles in the future are often tested and showcased on the golf cart platform. A few of note are Yamaha’s methane-powered golf cart (yes, poo-powered), hydrogen (Toro Workman) and even algae and compressed air. But let’s leave the future behind us for now and look at why golf courses are transitioning from gas to electric. Let’s also examine the pros and cons of each and review a few options to help improve your operational efficiency no matter what kind of cart you have.

Gasoline carts
Gas-powered carts are dependable, especially on those longer hillier hauls and in temperatures below freezing where battery capacity (how many amp-hours it can hold) is reduced as temperature goes down. The old 2-cycle gas engines were dirty and loud compared to the new 4-cycle engines, and they eliminate the need to mix your oil and gas. Gas carts are cheap to maintain, and it’s easier to refill them with gas than wait for an electric cart to be charged. Generally, gasoline models have a higher carrying capability than electric carts, making it better suited for utility use.

But gas engines are still noisy and produce emissions causing some municipalities to begin the process of banning them in private communities where they’re allowed on local roadways. Most maintenance equipment is gas powered and requires significant investment into the appropriate infrastructure to support gasoline delivery, storage, fill-up and used oil disposal. However, times are changing and an increase of electric maintenance equipment and people movers on the market will surely replace gas guzzlers eventually. So how much longer will your facility invest in a technology that is all ready being phased out?

Electric drive
Besides being preferred by golfers for their quietness, smooth operation, and lack of exhaust fumes, electric carts have 85 percent lower fuel costs, generate one-fifth of the emissions and are three times more fuel efficient then gasoline-powered golf carts . The infrastructure to support charging and battery maintenance and disposal is a fraction of the gasoline costs, and comes with fewer points of environmental or health and safety risk. Newer carts have a little more guts and storage capacity then the earlier electric models, and some even come with regenerative breaking which captures (generates) energy while applying the break, returning up to 10 percent more power back into the batteries under “normal operating conditions” . Batteries must be recycled appropriately, and luckily most states and provinces require retailers selling lead-acid batteries to take in old ones for recycling.

Newer lithium-ion battery packs (like those from GRRReen.com, visit their savings calculator) have many benefits over lead-acid, including no battery acid or corrosion, significantly more useful energy output, designed to last 3000 or more cycles, less sensitive to cold, greater vehicle range and a higher energy density.

Tips and tricks for overall improved efficiency
Increasing your cart’s efficiency can lower operating costs and enable your course to keep prices attractive to golfers, while widening your profit margins. Here are a few things to consider when trying to cut down expenses and improve performance:

Stimp my ride
We all know the importance of lowering ball rolling resistance on playing surfaces, but why not with our carts too? Rolling Resistance (RR) explains energy depletion through tires over a distance and is influenced by tires and driving surface characteristics.

Many different tire factors influence the RR such as:
• Tire shape, tread pattern, depth, size and a softer tire
as a higher RR than harder compounds.
• Higher air pressure in the tire generally reduces RR,
recommended PSI is usually between 18-25, check tire
wall and do not over-inflate.
• Environmental conditions such as higher ambient
temperature, rain, snow or wind all influence RR.

The surface texture of driving surfaces influences RR and fuel consumption by as much as 12 percent on paved driving surfaces, and far greater on turf, gravel and sand. Concrete cart paths are more energy intensive to install then gravel and asphalt, but allow for less RR against tires . Also, rain events have been known to greatly reduce cart revenue on courses without a well-designed cart path, but, of course, the drawback is that under “cart path only” rules, USGA studies show rounds can take longer than walking with a pull cart on the fairways, but at least you’ve got golfers while it’s raining.

Hack your cart
There are some fantastic aftermarket kits available to help make better use of your energy, and even generate it. For instance, hybrid kits are available for gas carts that enable a quieter electric drive mode for when passing golfers on the green, or they can be used as a generator to run power tools such as electric drills while out in the field. The PowerPod Kit will be available starting in November 2011 throughout North America.

Adding solar panel roofs to electric golf carts has become quite trendy. In Toronto (not best for solar) panels boosted the electrical input to an amount equivalent to 12 percent of consumption . When the carts were recharged at night however, this 12 percent benefit was reduced to between 7 and 10 percent due to efficiency losses inherent in the charging process. The average return on investment is between 3 and 10 years, depending on government rebates, your current cost of electricity and the amount of sunlight and energy you can generate. Solar panels (hard tops and peel-and-stick) are available through many golf cart distributors, and most manufacturers have or will be releasing models in the near future with built-in photovoltaic cells.

Kick it route down
Tripcalculator.org is a free Web app that will help put a dollar value on the route you choose. Obviously, there are significant variables not taken into account here, including RR of driving surface, topography and driver behavior, but it’s a good start to help understand where corners can be cut on your more popular driving routes.

Maintenance, maintenance, maintenance
One of the easiest ways to reach or maintain peak performance of your gas engine is to service it regularly, neglecting this results in reduced HP, fuel efficiency and all around performance of the cart.

Electric carts need attention too, especially with batteries. Take care of corrosion by cleaning batteries with a baking soda solution monthly, and because charged lead-acid batteries do not have a memory, mechanics should “equalize” batteries monthly by running a second charge cycle and forcing a full charge on every cell. Try to use electric carts at least once per month. If you cannot take your golf cart out in the winter, force a charge cycle by unplugging the charger from the cart and plugging it back in.

Scott is the founder and lead consultant of Out on a Limb Environmental Management Solutions for golf courses, and is editor and contributor at Turfhugger.com. Contact him at scott.ooal@gmail.com

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