Dec. 1 2002 12:00 AM

The old clich??time is money,? is not lost on the labor-intensive landscaping industry. Company owners and managers understand the need to get the job done, and done well, then get the equipment back on the truck and move on to the next job. That is what makes money in this competitive business.
Using power hand tools is a piece of the equation that must ultimately result in profit for the contractor. But while using power hand tools saves time, and therefore money, the tools must perform well to ensure a spot on the trucks going out to jobs.

There are no groundbreaking inventions in this segment of the market on the horizon, such as the introduction of the string line trimmer a few decades ago. Continuous improvements on the most used hand-held power tools ? line trimmers, hedge trimmers, backpack blowers and even edgers ? are necessary to keep those in the field competitive and performing well.

?Time is valuable,? says contractor Ron Kujawa, owner of KEI in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. ?This is a labor-intensive business, and whatever tools and equipment reduce our labor costs, I want. I need our guys to do the job, get the equipment back on the truck and get down the road.?

Manufacturers and suppliers have gotten the message and continue to make incremental changes on a regular basis on the standard small power equipment. ?Performance, convenience and efficiency are the key ingredients,? says David Navroth, director of sales for Schiller-Pfeiffer, Southampton, Pennsylvania, manufacturers of Little Wonder and Mantis power tools. ?This continues to be the driving force from our customers.?

The company?s response to these needs, in part, includes an electric hedge trimmer that weighs about half as much as a gas trimmer, which can be operated from a small generator that fits on the back of a golf cart, making it more portable. While contractors traditionally shy away from electrical hand tools, the company believes the portability of this trimmer, and its answer to some of the country?s fights over pollution from the gas equipment, as well as noise pollution, may give it more credibility, says Dusty Sparks, regional sales manager for Schiller-Pfeiffer. ?It gives the performance of a gas trimmer, but with less noise and pollution,? he says.

The company also made its hedge trimmer more convenient, by combining its uses for both small and large trimming jobs. Reaching up to 60 inches or used as a 36-inch trimmer with two quick releases of the extension, contractors need only carry one trimmer on the job, Sparks says, adding that this translates into cost and time savings. In addition, while some contractors may decide to use an extended or longer hedge trimmer, rather than typically carrying a smaller one to avoid returning to the truck when a longer unit is needed, the larger trimmer increases fatigue, possibly causing an operator to work slower. All this again translates into labor cost, he says.

Using ergonomics to lessen fatigue has been a spotlight for Husqvarna, Charlotte, North Carolina. Most recently, this has resulted in hedge trimmers that vibrate less than traditional trimmers, according to Mark Michaels, business unit manager for handheld products. ?Anything we?ve made safer with ergonomics has proven to be more efficient,? he says. ?Less vibration coming through the handle of the trimmer to the operator results in less fatigue, and therefore, the worker is more productive.?

?While we understand the improved performance and productivity that the design creates, our customers usually don?t,? Michaels adds. ?They tell us it feels better, but they don?t really know why. Customers won?t pay more for a better handle, so it?s our other features that they normally look at ? the specs.?

However, that doesn?t stop Husqvarna from keeping ergonomics as a key ingredient, he says, since they understand that this adds more to the efficiency of the equipment being sought by contractors.

?Efficiency is the main ingredient in the contracting business,? says Landon J. Reeve IV, president of Chapel Valley Landscape, Woodbine, Maryland. ?The biggest problem is downtime. The key to efficiency is to have equipment up and running.?

?For my company,? Reeve says, ?that means doing weekly maintenance to ensure continued service, and choosing equipment that is durable, and simple in design. There?s nothing more frustrating than going out with two pieces of equipment and when you get to the job, one of them won?t work.?

That?s one reason spares are usually on the truck. Also, equipment that causes a lot of downtime is noted and not purchased again by his company.

Reeve prefers equipment that has few attachments, while other contractors may be inclined to buy equipment that can perform more than one task. This gives the contractor the efficiency and economic savings they may be looking for, while still being productive.

That?s the concept behind the Mantis combination edger, a cross between the larger, heavier push edger, and the lighter stick edger. ?This design will save time and money,? says Sparks. Some contractors might not want to invest in a push edger, in addition to buying the more portable stick edger, which can be used quickly and easily to maintain edges.

Besides the portability issue, push edgers may not be used often, usually just for the first edging of the season or a new edge that must be broken, and they are generally more costly than other pieces of equipment.

However, as an increasing number of people prefer natural, defined edges over plastic and steel edging for flower and plant beds, an edger becomes necessary. The edger is quicker and more efficient than using a shovel to cut the edge, and then removing the dirt by hand ? again saving time and labor costs.

Edgers are also used along concrete areas and walkways. When the first cuts are made, the heavier walk-behind edgers are usually necessary. But to keep up the edge, the lighter and more portable stick edgers are efficient, hence the dilemma: do you buy two pieces of equipment that are not required on a weekly basis? Not only does cost become an issue, but how about the fatigue of your field people?

The combination edger, at 18 pounds, is just a fraction of the size of a push edger, at a weight of 50 to 70 pounds. ?We know we need to fill the needs and demands of the customer, and to continue to find ways to make things work more efficiently,? Navroth says.

Kujawa agrees with the need to continue improving the equipment that is available, but he also cautions not to compromise the performance by focusing too strongly on improving convenience. Since power hand tools, in the grand scheme of the business, are not expensive investments, he says, trying to cut costs isn?t necessarily the way to make improvements. The focus should be primarily on what he considers the three ?essential? pieces of small power tools required in the landscaping business.

According to Kujawa, the top spot belongs to the string line trimmer. ?It?s the most necessary of all hand-held power tools because of the amount of time it saves, and the finished look it gives the property. He remembers when it was introduced, and calls that revolutionary; but today, he says, the line trimmer is more reliable, and a necessity for contractors to achieve the look the customers want, quickly.

The backpack blower is his second choice because of the speed with which it can clear walkways and concrete areas of clippings and debris. Blowers have replaced rakes and other more labor-intensive hand tools. No one wants to go out to their property after it?s been cared for and walk over clippings on the sidewalk or leaves crunching on the patio.

The hedge trimmer is the final of the three essential tools on a landscape contractor?s truck, Kujawa says. While not necessary for every maintenance visit, it makes trimming hedges quick and efficient. What once took a lot of time using hand shears or pruners can, in some cases, be done in a fraction of the time, with the desired smooth appearance.

Edgers are also needed periodically, Kujawa adds, but aren?t as essential to the job as the other three. They are likely to be used only once a month, but he wouldn?t discourage them from being a part of the equipment loaded on a contractor?s truck.

?Clients want it faster, better, cheaper. We need to find ways to make that happen without compromising a good job, and that means using quality performing equipment,? he says.

Honda Power Equipment is introducing a new trimmer and stick edger that will be available early next year. The trimmer uses a 25cc, four-stroke gas engine that eliminates the time spent mixing gas and oil. ?This could be an answer to the contractor?s efforts to meet the fast-paced lifestyles of their clients,? says Sage Marie, Honda?s Power Equipment public relations director. The company also introduced a hand-held trimmer.

?We?re improving what?s available and meeting the needs of the contractors,? Marie says of the new equipment. She adds that they also offer lower emissions and improved fuel efficiency, so they save money, as well as offer an option to reduce the pollution that is a concern in some areas of the country.

New Environmental Protection Agency emission standards which will take effect in 2005 are the driving force behind Virginia Beach, Virginia-based Stihl?s new 4-Mix engine that combines the power, durability and reliability of the two-cycle engine with the lower emissions and noise of the four-cycle engine, says Thomas Elsner, Stihl?s national service manager. ?This engine provides the technology without the concern that it won?t be able to be used in two years,? he says. ?Products must have low downtime, with little or no repairs, and still meet all the requirements.?

Although there are no new ?revolutionary? products coming into this segment of the market, hand-held power tools are continually being upgraded to make the landscape contractor?s job more efficient and productive.

December 2002