One of the many decisions a business owner has to make is when and if to purchase new equipment. You ask yourself, “Will this tool help me expand? Cut costs? Streamline the work flow? Will I get a good return on my investment?” These considerations are the same, whether we’re talking about a bigger mower, a piece of software, a skip loader, or anything else.
If a lot of your business consists of landscape maintenance, you may have considered buying a wood chipper to speed cleanup of debris and trimmings. Or, you may have been thinking of expanding into tree services. In that case, a chipper is something you won’t be able to do without.
“A lot of landscape contractors are buying machines now, and they’re seeing additional revenue streams from chipping,” said Jason Morey, sales manager for Remus, Michigan-based Bandit Industries, Inc. “Having a machine that can make debris more manageable is a plus. It can be recycled right on the spot as ground cover.”
Cost, horsepower, engines and feed rates
Professional-grade compact brush chippers will run you between $3,000 to $10,000. One company makes a compact professional-grade brush chipper that can process three-inch diameter branches and fits through a standard 36-inch garden gate. It gives you 13 horsepower (hp), and costs around $3,200. Another manufacturer makes a 25hp unit with a six-inch capacity. It also fits through a gate, and costs around $6,000.
“For most contractors, if landscape is their primary business and trees are a side service, the best pick is a six- to 12-inch capacity chipper,” said J.R. Bowling, vice president of Rayco Manufacturing, Inc., in Wooster, Ohio. “Some manufacturers offer eight- or nine-inch capacities.”
Another consideration when buying is engine brand. “Some folks might prefer one brand over another,” said Bowling, whose company sells models with engines from a number of different manufacturers. If you’re in the landscape maintenance business and the mowers have certain brand engines, there can be common parts, filters and things like that.
Most chippers in this category can process 80 feet per minute. “Feed rate is dependent on the type of wood you’re processing,” says Chris Osgood, national sales manager for Dosko in Rogers, Minnesota. “The softer the wood, the faster it’ll feed. These machines are gravity-fed, so the steeper the angle, the faster the feed. Also, the size of the branch makes a difference, too.”
When you start looking at chippers that can process branches bigger than 12 inches, you make a big jump, into the $30,000 to $40,000 range. Generally speaking, the larger the capacity, the higher the price will be. But most landscape contractors don’t need a big chipper, unless they’re using the chipper on a full-time basis. Those high-dollar units are more suited for arborists or large tree service operations.
Features to look for
Some chippers, usually the bigger models, have optional equipment available. As with vehicles, you’ll need to determine which ones are worth the investment. Shawn Cressman, president of Cressman’s Lawn & Tree Care in Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania, found one particular option downright indispensible. “One of our chippers has a winch above the in-feed chute,” he said. “For the extra money it cost, it’s turned out to be one of the best pieces of equipment I own.”
When Cressmans’ crew needs to drag logs or heavy brush up a hill, they hook the winch cable onto the load. They can drag ten branches at a time right into the chipper. “It saves a lot of labor, and my guys aren’t all exhausted by 10 a.m. from dragging heavy logs around.”
“Fuel efficiency and chipping power should be a big part of choosing a chipper,” advises Morey. “Also, you should look at the overall smoothness of the chipping action, and how uniform the end product is.” He suggests buying machines that cut chips small. “The smaller the chip size, the more chips you can fit in a truck. That reduces the number of times you have to go back and forth to the dump site.”
“Stay away from excessive electronic gizmos and gadgets,” advises Cressman. “The last thing you need is some electronic part to get broken in the middle of a job,” he adds. “Something mechanical like a throttle cable, I can fix that easily. But if it’s an electronic piece that we’d need to order in, or take to a dealer to get fixed, it’s down for several days. You lose a lot of money.”
Taking care of trees can be a lucrative business, as Cressman’s father discovered. “My dad started out in 1975, mowing lawns for executives at Bethlehem Steel,” he said. “They wanted to deal with just one company for everything, and they weren’t the kind of people you said no to. So when they said, ‘We want you to prune these trees,’ you learned how.”
Tree work has helped this family business thrive for more than thirty years. “We have crews that cut grass, crews that prune trees and crews that just do landscapes,” said Cressman. “So we’re very diversified. If we have a drought, and can’t mow, we have trees to prune and landscape work to do. In the winter, if there’s no snow to plow, we still have tree work. There’s always some cash flow.”
However, before you jump into offering tree work, know your limitations. Many landscape companies start by pruning the low branches, the ones you can reach from the ground. You can step up once you’ve experienced what’s involved in tree climbing. It’s dangerous, and the worker’s comp rates are very, very high—close to four times greater than those of a landscape company.
In the chips?
A chipper can come in handy for reducing all those landscape trimmings down to a much more manageable size. That can help chip away at costs for labor, fuel, vehicle wear and tear, and dumping fees.
Think about a trash compactor. Instead of several large bags of trash to be hauled to the curb, the compactor squeezes it all down to one small bag. It’s the same here. Fewer trips to a dump site means less money spent on gas, labor, vehicle depreciation, and those pesky fees.
But it’s also possible that the stream of chips produced by your chipper could become another stream of revenue. “We work with a company that makes mulch,” said Quentin Nowland, general manager at Michael Lynch Landscape and Tree Service, Inc. in Wayland, Massachusetts. “Essentially, it’s like getting a discounted price on our mulch. We give them the material, they process it, and give it back to us for our customers.”
There may be a lot of revenue literally lying around, waiting for you to harvest it. Nor’easters, hurricanes and tornadoes leave a lot of downed trees and limbs in their wake. Somebody’s got to clean that up. Why not you?
As with any piece of equipment, maintenance is key. “Most people will do the routine maintenance themselves, because chippers by nature are not very complex machines,” said Bowling. “But they are maintenance-intensive machines.” Most of the maintenance is pretty typical: changing air filters, greasing bearings and tensioning belts.
Knife sharpening is different. It needs to be done often, and it requires a special machine. “If someone owns a brush chipper, they should locate a source for sharpening the knives,” says Bowling. Keep two or three extra sets of knives on hand to avoid downtime.
Size matters Buy a machine sturdy enough for the job. “We’ve tried using the small homeowner-type grinders like you see advertised on TV,” said Rich Angelo, founder and owner of Stay Green, Inc., in Valencia, California. “We burned them out. They just don’t work in commercial environments. Then we bought small, commercial-grade chippers. They’re not as big as the ones our tree guys use, but still work great, because they’re built for 18 hours of work a day.”
“For us, size is important,” said Nowland. “Some companies do all commercial and municipal work, so size isn’t as big of a factor there. But we’re trying to back into narrow driveways and residential houses, tight spaces.” The biggest and best machine out there isn’t any good if a crew can’t maneuver it where it needs to be.
A wood chipper is probably the most dangerous piece of equipment you’ll ever own, because of its potential for grave injury and death. Thankfully, all the major manufacturers have vastly improved their safety features over the years.
Most new chippers have emergency stop buttons in more than one location. Many companies have also installed startup safeties; the machines won’t start when the disc, drum or feed is engaged, or when an inspection cover is off.
Of course, safety can be enhanced with training and policy. Cressman says, “It’s extremely important to get properly educated in tree care and safety.
Stay Green puts a high priority on safety. “We’ve been fortunate that we’ve achieved an accident-free record in our tree care division,” said Jorge Castaneda, Stay Green’s operations manager for tree and plant health care.
That’s probably due to the company’s strict safety rules. “It’s real common-sense stuff, like don’t use your foot to push in debris,” said Castaneda. “I’ve seen a lot of people from other companies doing that, but for us, that’s a big no-no.”
Another rule is that one crew member never feeds a chipper alone. “That way, if one person gets stuck, the other can reach the brake,” said Castaneda. “We never leave one person alone, and say, ‘Hey, go chip this out, and we’ll see you over there.’”
Whether they’re making short work of trimmings or entire trees, wood chippers are powerful tools. It’s up to you to determine if buying one is right for your business now, or might be in the future. If you stick with a major brand and treat it with the respect and care it deserves, your chipper should give you good service for many years to come.