Dec. 1 2004 12:00 AM

What is one piece of equipment that you can buy for your business to help you grow your company, cut your costs, satisfy your customers, enhance your community image, and do your part for the environment all at the same time? The answer: invest in a brush chipper. That’s right, adding a brush chipper to your fleet can do all of those things for your landscaping business and more.

A growing number of landscape contractors are recognizing the value of using brush chippers in their day-to-day operations. The right chipper can help you:

  • Work more efficiently by reducing labor costs, dumping fees, and fuel expenses
  • Expand your business into new service areas such as tree work and disaster clean-up
  • Produce a valuable product that you can either use, sell for profit, or donate as a community service
  • Do your part for the environment by recycling material that would otherwise contribute to landfill overuse.
Cutting Costs and Increasing Efficiency

As fuel costs, landfill fees, and no-burn laws increase, chippers can cut business expenses in a variety of ways, according to Rob Faber, commercial sales specialist for Morbark Industries in Winn, Michigan. “The biggest advantage to chipping material versus piling it in the trailer and hauling it away is saving on dumping fees. Dumping fees for garden waste are going up all the time. With a chipper, you can dramatically reduce the amount of green waste you need to haul. For every four box-loads of raw green waste you start with, you end up with only one box of chips.”

Dumping fees aren’t the only cost savings. “You also have to take into account the cost of fuel you use to transport the waste to and from the dump site,” Faber says. And don’t forget manpower. “Your crew can spend more of their time actually working at the landscape site instead of traveling to and from the landfill.”

Kent Warner, western regional sales manager for Bandit Industries in Remus, Michigan, agrees. “Typically, I get a phone call from a landscape contractor who is getting tired of loading that stuff in a truck and taking it to a landfill. When contractors start using a brush chipper, they find that there’s a marked difference in how quickly they get their work done.”

Darrin Campbell of Green Thumb Lawn & Landscape, in Wichita, Kansas, cites this increased efficiency as the number one benefit of using a chipper. “It definitely cuts down on manpower,” says Campbell. “Instead of making five trips to the dump, you can make one.” With today’s gas prices, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that manpower is not the only savings there.”

New Markets

Brush chippers also give landscape contractors new options for expanding their business. “If you’re looking to grow your business, owning a chipper might be a great move,” says Chris Nichols, environmental sales manager for Vermeer Manufacturing in Pella, Iowa. “The tree care industry is really booming and it makes great business sense for landscape contractors to move into tree service for a variety of reasons.

“First of all, they don’t have to go out and call on a new set of customers. The same customers that are already using their landscape services are usually going to need tree service at some point,” said Nichols. “When that happens, you’re already there with the people and the tools, you already have the trust of the customer, and when they see a tree that needs to be taken down, it’s an easy transition to make.”

Many landscape contractors at first take small steps into the tree business but find that high demand takes them further. “Contractors often start using chippers when they’re asked to do some light pruning as part of an existing job,” says Faber. “But many find that the demand for tree maintenance grows rapidly until they work up into a full-fledged tree service.”

Pembroke Landscaping in North Bennington, Vermont, is one example of a company that started in landscaping and moved into tree service as well. “We always did some pruning, but we got into tree work more aggressively about 12 years ago,” says Jared Clawson, foreman at Pembroke. He agrees that there is no better way to deal with brush not only for large-scale operations, but also for the smaller landscape contractor. “If you’re generating brush in any kind of volume at all, it’s such a timesaver. It’s just an excellent way to get rid of volume and turn it into a material that you can use.”

Green Thumb Lawn and Landscape purchased their first brush chipper when they acquired a tree service from a colleague who was retiring and merged it into their existing landscape business. Now a full-service tree and landscape business, they recently purchased their second chipper so they could work on bigger trees. They currently operate both, depending on the situation.

Nichols points out that owning a chipper can also expand a contractor’s options in some areas of the country during late fall or early spring when there isn’t a lot of other landscape work going on. “It can also give them a chance to expand into the disaster cleanup area,” he says. “If you have a chipper in your fleet, and an ice storm comes along, it really adds to your options.”

“We find that the chippers are great for storm cleanup,” says Darrin Campbell of Green Thumb Lawn and Landscape. “You can get the stuff out of the way without hauling it away.”

A Product You Can Use – Green Business Sense

Although increased efficiency and new business potential are perhaps the biggest reasons that contractors purchase chippers, the value of the product that chippers produce and the positive environmental impact are no less important. “When you chip you end up with a product you can actually use instead of a waste product,” says Faber of Morbark.

Many, like Green Thumb Lawn and Landscape, are able to recycle the material right on site or take it to another job site to use around flowerbeds or pathways. Some are even able to market what they chip.

“Depending on the species you’re working with, and whether you’re chipping clean logs and branches, the end product could be used as decorative mulch,” says Nichols. Chipped product that is less attractive still provides all the benefits of mulch, and can be used in parts of the landscape that are not as highly visible. Contractors can provide a public service by donating chipped material to community organizations that will gladly use it in playgrounds and other public spaces.

Landscape contractors can also opt to compost the material they chip either to use in their own business or to add to a community composting site. Chipped green waste decomposes many times faster than it would if left whole.

No matter what landscape professionals do with the end product, using a chipper has a significant positive impact on the environment. Green waste makes up a large proportion of landfill contents. Burying green waste not only takes up landfill space unnecessarily, it also prevents it from decomposing properly and prevents valuable nutrients from returning to the landscape.

Many communities are passing legislation to keep green waste out of landfills. When landscape contractors recycle green waste either as mulch or chips, they are making a significant contribution not only to their own bottom line, but also to their customers’ land, to their community, and to the environment.

Decisions, decisions

So once you decide to try a chipper, how do you know what kind is best for you? Manufacturers and contractors agree that the biggest question is size. “It all depends on how in-depth you’re going to go into the tree business,” says Faber. He says smaller models work best for contractors who are doing pruning or light trimming.

Nichols agrees. “If you’re getting into general tree care, not including complete takedowns, a model that handles 6 to 10-inch diameter limbs makes sense. If you work up to a full-time tree service with complete takedowns of dead or damaged trees, you’re going to want one that handles 12-20 inches.

Campbell of Green Thumb says that when it comes to capacity, “It’s better to have a little too much, than not enough.” Like many complete landscape businesses, his company found that they could not meet the demand for service to larger trees with the model they had, so they scaled up on their next purchase.

Warner of Bandit Industries agrees that size and capacity are the biggest decisions to make. “When it comes to size, there’s no reason to overkill, but you don’t want to go for something under-capacity and under-power for your situation either. You want something that’s big enough to handle the biggest limbs but not so big that accessibility becomes an issue.” Contractors need to keep in mind that the largest models are not necessarily going to fit into the places they want to bring them. Weight is also a factor. Many contractors don’t have vehicles large enough to tow the bigger chippers.

Obviously, it’s critical to choose the right model for your needs. Manufacturers can help contractors make these decisions through informational literature and videos and by guiding them through questions about the kind of use they expect out of their machine.

Renting is another option that can help landscape contractors decide what kind of model is best for them and how much use they’re going to get out of it. Brush chippers with a six-to-nine inch capacity are widely available to rent by the day, the week, or the month.

“Renting a chipper is definitely an option at first,” says Nichols. “It will help you see how much you might actually use it. But with tax depreciation laws, it often makes more sense to own versus rent. If you think you can keep a chipper busy one to three days a week, you can probably justify buying one. If not, renting is a viable option.”

No matter what size chipper you choose, safety is critical. For manufacturers, product safety is the number one concern. Chipper manufacturers build numerous, highly effective safety features into their machines to help ensure that nothing goes into the feeder that shouldn’t, and to enable an operator to stop the machine instantly if necessary.

What is one simple thing contractors can do to help ensure operator safety? An important safety rule for using a chipper is making sure you and your crew are familiar with exactly how the chipper works and understand all its controls. Proper use is important for safe operation. Important tools to help crew members understand safe operation are the operator’s manual and safety video. Be sure all crew members review and understand these materials before operating the chipper.

Like all power equipment, chippers that are not used correctly are simply dangerous. But using a chipper safely is not hard; it simply takes a conscientious contractor and crew.

Next time you’re loading brush into a truck and getting ready to make a few trips to the landfill, think about what you’re holding in your hands. With much less effort, time, and cost than you’re spending to handle it now, you can convert a huge pile of nothing into a resource that’s much easier to transport and far more valuable to you, your customers, and the environment.