Today’s technology empowers workers to make big jobs small with power equipment. When your company is selected to build a landscape or maintain it, you have a big job to do. But what can transform a large job into a series of smaller, more manageable tasks that makes the hard work seem easy? Horsepower, of course.
High-performance equipment has revolutionized the landscape industry and cut down the hours that back-bending and backbreaking labor once occupied. What used to take hours for crews to accomplish with axes, rakes and other handheld tools can take only minutes with the latest in high-performance power equipment. Landscape contractors and other professional crews rely on power equipment to get the job done on time and within budget.
“You can do just about everything—trimming, cutting, edging, vacuuming, blowing,” said Marv Mathwig, product manager of power tools with Stihl, Inc., based in Virginia Beach, Virginia. “It is really wide open for the application of outdoor power tools.”
“They clearly drive the efficiency, when you consider the size of the properties that we work with,” says Brett Lemcke, vice president of RM Landscape Inc., in Rochester, New York. “They help us stay within our time-frame for getting the work done.”
Trimming trees and bushes is easier with trimmers, but selecting the best model for your needs depends on how often you’re using this equipment.
“You really need to match up the most powerful tools with what is best for you. If you’re trimming six to seven hours a day, there can be a big difference between using a 13-pound trimmer and a 10-pound trimmer, because fatigue can be a big factor,” Mathwig noted.
“As Americans, we sometimes want the biggest, baddest, most powerful tools that we can get. But you really want to ask yourself about the ergonomics and how comfortable you’re going to be using that equipment,” Mathwig said, noting that users should pick equipment that they can comfortably handle and that conforms to their own physical height. The most deluxe model may not be the best for your specific needs, so use caution when assembling your arsenal of equipment.
Edgers Are you searching for that perfectly clean, angular look on borders, walkways and other uniform areas? You need look no further than a power edger to get the job done with relative ease every time.
“Edgers really give you that nice, clean, consistently crisp edge that people are looking for. They give that manicured professional look,” said Mathwig. “It’s much easier to use an edger than a trimmer, or doing it by hand.”
Depending on the soil makeup, a curved shaft model is ideal for softer turf, while a straight shaft will produce that perfect, manicured look on tougher soils, Mathwig explained.
Chainsaws Sheer power is often associated with a chainsaw. Chainsaws make the dangerous and onerous work of felling trees and cutting wood into a task that is manageable and efficient. And it can even be fun at times.
“There’s something about working with a chainsaw. When its running and you’re cutting wood, it’s a real pleasure to work with,” said Ron Jensen, senior manager of product training and consumer support at Echo Outdoor Equipment in Lake Zurich, Illinois.
“I always look for something that’s durable and has good balance. Electric isn’t an option for me since I’m using it outdoors,” said Eric Whipp, owner of Landscape Technologies of San Dimas, California.
Unless a landscape contracting company has an arborist on staff, they should never allow crew members to climb trees to trim them.
First and foremost, it’s unsafe; secondly, they don’t have the expertise.
Their crew should only be trimming trees from the ground.
Giraffes developed long necks to eat the high-hanging leaves off trees. But you don’t need to be a long-necked animal to take care of your trees.
Hard-to-reach branches several feet off the ground are now cut easily by the professional equipped with a pole pruner. Time spent setting up and climbing a ladder for tree work can be cut in two with expandable pruners. Fiberglass poles are recommended, as they do not conduct electricity. Never use a metal pole pruner, as contact with a live electric wire can be disastrous, even fatal.
Once you’re done cutting, clipping and mowing, it’s cleanup time. And there is a power tool that can take a cleanup task from hours to minutes, with power. A field littered with freshly fallen leaves could take hours for manual laborers to clean up. But motorized backpack blowers can do in minutes what would normally take a lot more time to accomplish raking by hand. However, despite saving time, wearing the heavy backpack carries inherent hazards. Backpack blowers weigh more, and hearing protection should be worn at all times to guard against the noise of the blower.
Some models are available with noise reduction features that are handy for keeping neighbors and bystanders happy, as many people find the noise offensive, especially on weekends.
For smaller companies and start-ups with just a few employees and limited resources, acquiring a combination machine that can do several tasks makes perfect sense. Rather than spending start-up costs on a trimmer, edger, blower and other devices, one machine equipped with multiple attachments can help get all of these jobs done. The combination machines can also save money and storage space in your truck and tool shed to boot.
Carlos Chavarria of Total Properties, a landscape contractor in Stamford, Connecticut, depends on these combination machines. Rather than paying for the same stick more than once by purchasing multiple tools, a single engine with multiple attachments is better for some.
“I try to consolidate the equipment and get as much as I can from the right machine with different attachments. It’s very convenient. It saves time and money, since time is money,” Chavarria said. “I also look for equipment that is lighter and has less weight, and is more efficient.”
However, companies with more crews and greater work volume depend on heavier, specialized equipment. Durability and longevity of equipment are the main factors that dictate a purchase for many contractors.
“Those combos aren’t really an option for us,” said Whipp. “We’re looking for heavier-duty equipment. It’s got to have durability, as it’s going to be used in the dirt and get thrown around. It’s got to take a lot of abuse.”
Despite the elementary aspect of safety, many professionals deliberately skimp on their own protection.
Although debris can kick up into an operator’s eyes and face and loud machine noises can damage hearing, vital safety precautions are frequently ignored. Shortcuts on safety are happening despite OSHA standards and many companies’ policies on safety.
“It happens all the time—corners get cut, people get careless,” said Cary Shepherd, noting the high frequency of power tool accidents. Shepherd is a senior product specialist with Husqvarna, headquartered in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Safety must be stressed, including a complete personal protection equipment (PPE) kit. Your PPE should include head, hearing, vision, hand and foot protection, as well as a pair of safety chaps. Multi-layered and tough, these chaps are resistant to the chiseling action of a chainsaw, in case the tool is accidentally dropped.
“You see it quite often. People don’t wear their safety glasses or their hearing protection because they think that they’re not going to look cool wearing it,” said Jensen. “All of this equipment is very loud and it can damage hearing over time,” said Dan Therson, product manager at Stihl Inc., Virginia Beach, Virginia.
Loose-fitting clothing that could become entangled in machinery should be avoided. Even an employee’s long hair can be a danger if it is not tied back in a ponytail. Other experts agree and reported that neglect of just one piece of safety equipment can be dangerous.
Regardless of how it happens, injured employees can mean major medical expenses for employers and higher insurance premiums for your company. Additional premiums hurt your bottom line, and negative publicity surrounding accidents can even unfairly tarnish your company’s image and reputation.
The user’s manual should be read carefully before any piece of equipment is used. But many people, even some working professionals, only give the manual a casual look through, or totally ignore the instructions after they remove the new tool from its box. All users should read the entire product manual thoroughly from cover to cover.
If new equipment is acquired without a paper manual, consult with the manufacturer’s website to ensure that all of its parts are in place and that proper operation guidelines are followed.
“The big guys in the industry— they all get it with safety. They understand that PPE costs are a lot cheaper than any injuries,” Shepherd said, noting that professionals are always safety conscious and that safety is a part of larger companies’ corporate culture.
But a strong safety record is also good for company morale, and keeps insurance premiums manageable. Regardless of how careful your employees are, all it takes is one accident for multiple effects to ripple through your company.
Once you have assembled the right tools for your business, here are a few tips to keep in mind. Check the tools for cracks, tears or other damage. Chain brakes on chainsaws should be checked and tested regularly. Air filters need routine changing, and cooling systems should be running smoothly. Great care should always be used when fueling machinery, to avoid spills that could easily catch fire.
Maintaining your equipment year-round becomes paramount to avoid making unneeded additions due to damage or improper storage. If you take care of your tools, your tools will take care of your needs. “I’ve had tools that have broken down in two years—that’s terrible. There’s no reason that a tool shouldn’t last longer,” Whipp said.
Going Green and the Bottom Line
Despite a push by some manufacturers to “go green” with their tools by using environmentally-friendly fuel conversions and battery-powered equipment, the average landscape contractor also needs to keep his costs in mind. Electric tools that depend on a power supply are not an option for some outdoor workers. Battery-operated equipment still needs longer-lasting batteries.
“We want to be environmentally sensitive, but the power tool manufacturers sometimes forget that we work with a volume of clients. Conversion is so expensive. If I spend $2,000 on converting equipment, I have to make up the costs by doing a lot more work,” Chavarria said.
“We engage our suppliers and we want to stay at the forefront of it (environmentally-friendly tools),” Lemcke said. His company is in the research and development phase of employing ‘greener tools,’ and while electric-powered packs are ideal for small jobs, fuel-powered is still preferred when tackling larger properties.
As fuel costs continue to rise, more companies will be analyzing their options carefully when considering going greener and incorporating tools that use power packs instead of fuel. But until technology can match Thor’s magic hammer, the professionals are still empowered with other choices to keep up.