There’s an old industrial short subject called “Spring Fever.” In it, a man’s wife won’t let him go out and play golf until he fixes a broken sofa spring. Frustrated, he yells: “I hope I never see another spring as long as I live!” Then, Coily the Spring Sprite suddenly appears. He makes the man’s wish come true, just to teach him a lesson. The man soon realizes that his watch, his screen door closer, even his car will no longer work, because there are no more springs in the world.
He begs Coily’s forgiveness, and the springs return. That man will never badmouth springs again!
It’s the same with your power tools. If a sprite were to suddenly appear and take all of them away, not only would you question your sanity, but you would find your workload impossible. That’s how valuable power tools have become in saving you labor, time and money.
As Lori Anewalt, co-owner of Anewalt’s Landscape Contracting, Inc., in Bernville, Pennsylvania, puts it, “The only people doing landscape work around here without using power tools are my Amish and Mennonite friends.” Her company owns about 150 pieces of power equipment.
Michael Candillo, owner of Raymore, Missouri-based Golden Gate Lawn and Landscape, LLC, owns about 20 to 25 power tools.
“We’re running three two-man crews right now. Each crew will have at least two backpack blowers. A mowing crew will have three to four string trimmers, a couple of hedge trimmers, and maybe a chainsaw. A landscaping crew will have even more extensive tools—concrete saws, and things of that nature.”
“Anything that a power tool does automatically saves you in human labor,” said Linda Beattie, brand marketing manager for Little Wonder, a division of Southhampton, Pennsylvania-based Schiller Grounds Care, Inc. “Whether that’s labor, meaning the amount of people required to do a specific task, or the amount of physical exertion that one person must make for that task.”
“Think about a hedge trimmer, for example,” Beattie continues. “If you were to shear a hedge with scissors, it would take one person an enormous amount of time. If that’s all a landscape contractor had, he’d have to have four or five guys out there shearing. How effective is that, using four or five people, when one person can do it with a powered machine in minutes as compared to hours?” “It’s a savings in time; less time to get a job done means that more jobs get done in a day. Then there’s the wear and tear that’s saved on the actual operators or users.”
“I’ve never really thought about it before, because we live in a world where we’re absolutely spoiled with technology,” said Candillo. “But if we didn’t have all these different power tools, it would make a big difference in what we could get done within a day. It would definitely affect the way we hire.”
A blower may be a landscape contractor’s best friend. When Candillo, was asked which of his power tools he couldn’t live without, he said it’d be a close call between his blowers and his trimmers. “Everything we do requires a blower at the end to clean up and remove debris, so they’re pretty important to us.”
Anewalt grew up working in her parents’ vineyard business. She remembers the day they got their first blower. “Prior to that, it was always, ‘Pick up a broom if you don’t have anything else to do.’ I remember seeing that blower work for the first time, saying, ‘Whoa! You can blow everything off in about 60 seconds!’”
The blower soon became a necessity for her parents’ business, as it is now for hers. “After cutting a client’s grass, we blow the driveway off. Some of our clients have very long driveways, as much as a tenth of a mile long. If we used a push broom, that would be a 45-minute project. With a blower, it takes three minutes. If we had to do that with a push broom, it just wouldn’t even happen.”
As construction supervisor at Blue Sky Landscape Services, Inc., in Puyallup, Washington, Bill Ayers finds blowers indispensible for cleaning up after completing hardscape jobs. “They’re a definite time saver, as well as saving on the fatigue of the guys on the crew.”
Hedge and string trimmers
Rolland Kuhr, owner of Naturescape Designs in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, depends heavily on his hedge trimmers. “A job that would take me one to two hours by hand takes ten to fifteen minutes with a power hedge trimmer,” says Kuhr.
As operations manager, plant and tree care, for Stay Green, Inc., in Valencia, California, Jorge Castaneda oversees crews that maintain large commercial and residential properties. He says his crews “couldn’t function without hedge trimmers.” He can’t even imagine getting through all the jobs they complete in a day without them.
Edgers are used by contractors to cleanly finish off areas where landscape beds or lawns meet pavement.
While a power edger is another great labor and timesaver, it’s not considered as much a can’t-live-without-it item as some of the others by many landscape people.
“It seems like every day, I drive by somewhere and see three landscape workers using shovels, trying to put in an edge,” says Beattie. “Edging devices have been out since the 1950s, but we still have landscape outfits that use the labor of three people just to produce an edge.”
Chain and pole saws
Now we come to the real power players: the chainsaw, and it’s tall, lanky cousin, the pole saw. Chainsaws cut through trees, logs and thick brush as if they were butter. Most landscape companies own at least one chainsaw.
“There are chainsaws available at every level of power you can imagine,” said Dan Pherson, product manager at STIHL, headquartered in Virginia Beach, Virginia. “They range from really large saws used in logging, to very small, lightweight saws that are used for arborist work. Somewhere in between is where the saws used by landscapers fall.”
“There are many different things that a contractor would use a chainsaw for,” adds Pherson. “Especially if they offer tree services.”
Kuhr is one of those. As a certified arborist and a consulting arborist as well as a landscape contractor, his chainsaws are his MVPs. “When I’m cutting a tree down, or a branch with a pretty big diameter, a chainsaw saves me a lot of time and labor.”
A pole saw is essentially a small chainsaw attached to the end of a pole. They’re used for cutting branches high up in trees, saving the need to rent a cherry picker.
Some manufacturers make basic motor platforms to which edgers, trimmers, blowers and even chainsaws come as attachments you can switch in and out at will. It’s kind of a Swiss Army knife approach. The advantage of doing it this way is in not having to buy a lot of separate machines. For a one- or two-person company, this could work well.
Bigger operations would probably be better off with dedicated singletask machines. “When you’re attaching and detaching parts, it does lend itself to some dirt ingestion, so there’s extra maintenance involved in keeping those connections clean,” said Gent Simmons, handheld product manager for North America for the Husqvarna Group, Charlotte, North Carolina. “And you have more wear and tear on the engine itself.”
“Most professionals have done the math, and figured out that they save more money in the long run by having dedicated units. For a high-production landscape crew, the quality is there, but it might not fit the business model.”
The power question
The consensus among contractors and manufacturers is that for maximum power, gasoline is still the way to go. But you may not need all that power all the time. If you require a chainsaw to lumberjack through thick tree trunks and heavy brush, then it’s probably best to stick to gasoline. As for the other tools, you could probably make the switch to battery power without losing productivity.
Stay Green is a large company that’s trying to live up to the adjective in its name. “We’re moving to battery power for our small power tools, and for our mowers, to propane,” says Castaneda. “We’re trying to leave no carbon footprint. We also do maintenance for a number of high-end homeowner’s associations in Santa Monica, California. There, you’re not allowed to use gas-powered blowers.”
When the batteries max out, crew members just switch them out for charged ones. “Each crew has about five sets of batteries for the day. As they’re driving, they’re charging them, just like you charge your mobile phone.”
Battery power has come a long way. “Some of these tools that are coming out are just as productive, if not more productive, than their gas counterparts,” contends Pherson. “As far as I’m concerned, the lithium-ion battery tools are here to stay. I expect in the future more and more tools that are lithium-ion powered to catch up with their gas counterparts.”
Maintenance and repairs
For complicated repairs, some contractors turn to local repair shops or dealers. Some larger companies have their own full-time in-house repair and maintenance shops.
Candillo used to send every repair job out. “I recently hired a foreman who’d been a mechanic in the past. So now we fix smaller problems inhouse.”
Kuhr says, “I can fix some things, but not all. Like the other day, a pull-cord broke on one of my chainsaws. I took it to the shop where I bring all my chainsaws, and dropped it off while I did some other important things. They fixed it in half an hour. I picked it up and went back to work.”
When it comes to sharpening saw chains, Kuhr prefers not to do it himself. “I take my chain to a place, and pay them to put it through their machine for about ten dollars, rather than me spending my time doing it. They put the dull chain into the machine, and zzzit! It’s done in ten minutes.”
Find a good dealer
When it’s time to buy, Pherson suggests going to an independent servicing dealer. “That’s somebody who is really going to know about the product and understand how you’re going to be using it.” You don’t want to buy too much tool, or too little, for your needs.
A relationship with a good dealer is crucial. “When you ask landscape people what is the number-one reason they buy the brand they buy, they’ll say, ‘I trust my dealer; he does quality work and gets my stuff back to me on time,’” says Simmons. “It’s a business partnership. A contractor might be a big fan of our company’s products, but if the dealer they trust sells something else, they’ll go in a different direction.”
Safety We can’t talk about power tools without saying a word or two about safety. These tools are safe, when used properly, and when no one has decided to make ill-advised ‘improvements,’ like taking the guard off of a trimmer.
Of course, all safety efforts can be overcome with a few seconds of carelessness. Make sure your people are well-trained and required to use the proper safety equipment at all times.
Be careful about ethanol
As everyone knows by now, ethanol can really do a number on small engines. Most areas now have gasoline with at least ten percent ethanol. A few states are seeing E15, and even E85.
Candillo used to get many years of use out of his blowers. “We used to use big backpack blowers that cost $800 apiece. But with the ethanol, after a year, I’d take it into the repair shop, and they’d say the motor was trashed, not even worth repairing.”
Now Candillo buys what he calls “throwaways,” cheap, handheld blowers that cost around $200 each. “I literally buy them with the mindset that we won’t do any maintenance on them; we’ll just run them until they die. All because of fuel.”
Use ethanol-free fuel, if you can find it. If you must use E10, STIHL advises that you use a minimum of only 89 octane gas, and only fresh fuel. Buy just enough gas so that you’ll easily use it up within a twomonth period. Drain all the gas out before storing a tool.
Powering your growth
Power tools do more than just make jobs go faster. They may also be the key to how fast, and how big, your company grows.
When asked if she’d have to hire additional people if she didn’t have these tools, Anewalt laughs heartily. “There’s no doubt about it: our business would not be growing at the pace that it is if we didn’t use power tools.”
“If we didn’t use them, maybe we’d slow down and smell the roses more,” she said. “But, looking at it from a business perspective, we need to keep using them to make the money we need to cover our overhead and to pay for our employees— all of those good things.”