Dec. 1 2004 12:00 AM

The selection of power equipment on the market for today’s landscape contractor is staggering. There’s equipment available for just about every job, and the options can be overwhelming. But purchasing the right equipment can mean big gains when it enables you to do a lot more with a lot less.

"Costs are going up in just about every area, especially for landscape contractors, including labor, fuel, and insurance," says John Marchionda, Senior Product Marketing Manager for Husqvarna Forest & Garden, Charlotte, North Carolina.. "Contractors are looking for more efficient ways of doing business to help reduce these costs.”

 The right equipment can dramatically increase efficiency and allow you to take on new jobs. But efficiency isn’t just about the time it takes to get a job done, it also includes:

  • The amount of hours you put on your machine and how quickly it pays for itself
  • The amount of down time you can expect due to breakdowns
  • The ease of operation and training time required
  • How well it fits in with the rest of your system and how quickly it transitions from one job to another.

Purchasing new equipment is an investment that requires time for careful planning. Time is a resource most landscape contractors don’t have a lot of. But the time you invest in equipment decisions is just as critical as the money you invest in the purchase.

“Do your homework!” says Ron Cox, co-owner of Cox Landscaping in Charlotte, North Carolina. “Take a good look at what’s out there and be sure of what you need before you buy. Look around at what other contractors are doing, but be aware that what they’re doing might not be right for your business at this time. Remember, you have to walk before you can run”

Cox, should know. After working for a landscape contractor and graduating from North Carolina State with a degree in horticulture, he knew he wanted go into business for himself. One of his brothers offered him start-up money. “I took off with a truck, a trailer, a walk-behind, an edger, and my crew, which consisted of me, myself, and I.”

Later his two brothers joined his rapidly growing business as co-owners. Since then the company has evolved from a one-man operation to a full-service lawn maintenance business serving approximately 140 apartment communities, hospitals, and other facilities and employing approximately 120 workers.

Making careful decisions about equipment has always been an important part of Cox’s business strategy. Over the years, his single walk-behind mower and edger have been replaced with a full array of equipment including approximately 25 weed-eaters, 30 blowers, 4 riding mowers, and 4 walk-behinds.

Husqvarna is Cox’s brand of choice because he finds their equipment user friendly, easy to maintain, and quick to repair. “You may have a machine that’s very good and efficient as long as it’s working, but if it breaks down all the time, what good is it?” Cox says. “Do your research. It’s not only the price of the machine that’s important. It’s also the ease of repair, the availability of parts, and the price of the parts.”

During the years he has been in business, Cox has seen a great deal of improvement in the equipment available. Size is one important change. “Over time, riders have grown much more compact,” says Cox. “With the newer equipment, you can put more machines on one truck.”

How much you can load onto one truck and how easily you can unload and assemble it is a major factor in the efficiency of your overall operation. You can simply do more jobs when you can make an easy transition from one job to the next. "The best solution for the mobile landscape contractor,” says Marchionda, “is a system that includes all the equipment needed for every job, packed and transported in a way that takes into account the order of use and other logistical concerns."

In addition to size and ease of transport, maneuverability on the job site has also improved dramatically. “ The anchor for the maintenance landscaper is probably a zero turn mower or ZTR,” says Marchionda. The precise maneuvering allowed by compact mowers that can rotate without any turning radius is the most efficient option for both large and small spaces.

Hand-held equipment is also benefiting from design innovations. “The use of what is referred to as ‘split-boom’ products is growing with landscape contractors,” says Joe Fahey, Vice President of Marketing, for Echo Inc., A split boom product refers to a shaft-mounted power head that will accept a variety of lower ends. “This way many different tasks (often in excess of 10) can be accomplished with a single engine,” says Fahey. “The advantage here is that only one engine is required to accomplish many different functions. When the engine is worn the contractor does not have to pay for new attachments, only the engine.”

“In the right situation, this can provide significant economy,” says Fahey. “The system is most efficient if used by small crews where a single person is multi-tasking. Larger crews often have different individuals spending periods of time with a single operation. In these cases dedicated units are the better option.”

What other factors should contractors consider when choosing hand-held equipment?

“The industry is rapidly changing due to government regulations and technology,” says Fahey. “The decision process isn’t the same as it used to be. Manufacturers have had to reduce their handheld emissions in excess of 80%. To do this, each manufacturer has committed to a different technology, including 4-stroke, 2/4 stroke, stratified charge or traditional 2-stroke with catalyst.

Conventional wisdom has been that landscape contractors will need to compromise and accept 4-stroke or 4-stroke derivatives. However, this is not true. Some manufacturers, including Echo, have been able to make 2-stroke engines emission compliant. This is good news for landscape contractors who appreciate the inherent advantages this technology has for handheld application.”

Another factor is engine durability. “As part of emissions regulations, all handheld manufacturers must rate the durability of their engines,” says Fahey. “The ratings are 300 hours (Category A), 125 hours (Category B) or 50 hours (Category C). Contractors need to check the products they are considering to make sure they are getting the most durability and best long-term value.”

Whether you’re considering large or small equipment purchases, carefully researching your potential use of new equipment is extremely important. “We track our equipment hours very carefully,” says Jay Tripathi, President of Gardenworks Inc., in Healdsburg , California . Tripathi bought a Toro Dingo four years ago and has been very impressed by what this compact utility loader can do.

“It has really improved productivity,” Tripathi says of the Dingo. “It makes us more efficient in everything we’re doing. We’ve estimated that one of these machines takes the place of between 1 and 1.5 workers.”

Tripathi is so impressed with the performance of the Dingo that the company is seriously considering adding another one to its fleet. But Tripathi emphasizes the need to make research-based decisions on equipment purchases. “We’re probably going to buy another one fairly soon,” Tripathi says, “but we’re tracking the hours on the one we own now to determine how well the equipment’s been utilized this year. My crew basically fights over it so we know it’s getting a lot of use. But we need to show how many hours it’s been billed out so we can truly justify getting another one.”

The Dingo’s popularity is due in part to its high power and lifting capacity in a compact, versatile, easy to use machine. “ It’s just easier to load, easier to transport, easier to drive, and easier to handle than a bigger machine like a traditional skid steer loader,” says Neil Bornstein, Senior Marketing Manager for the Siteworks/Dingo line. “ Yet it can do almost all the same kinds of jobs. It’s easier economically too.”

There are a number of mini skid steer loaders on the market. One of the most popular is the Kanga Loader, but there is also a Kanga Kid, for smaller jobs. Boxer is another brand name for loaders. Compact Power Equipment Inc., Ft. Sill, South Carolina markets and distributes these brands among others.

Most manufacturers offer a number of different models. Many of them come with a variety of attachments, including a trencher, backhoe, auger, snow plow, rake, etc. These attachments can be purchased either individually or you can put together an assortment combining them into a total system.. Buying the system is more economical and gives the contractor a machine that meets all of his or her needs right from the start.

Contractors also purchase new equipment to take advantage of the greater capacity and other features that newer models offer. Brian Koening, owner of Custom Landscaping Service in Shakopee Minnesota, owns two Power Trac compact utility tractors. He got the second one when the company came out with new models that had a greater lifting capacity. His company continues to keep both machines busy.

“Getting a Power Trac basically allowed me to do things much more efficiently,” says Koening. “They let me go places that I can’t go with skid steer machines. The articulated steering allows you to go over lawns without tearing them up. It saves so many headaches on repair work because it does virtually no damage.”

Eric Hart, of Hartscapes, in Eldersburg , Maryland , couldn’t agree more. Hartscapes, a residential landscape company owned and solely operated by Eric and MaryAnn Hart, owns four Power Tracs. “These machines have increased productivity by at least 100%,” says Hart. “Since our first unit, our company's revenues have almost tripled. In many cases we do jobs that we would probably not attempt if we didn’t own these machines.  We started like most companies with a skid steer but on most landscape jobs, we’re working on finished surfaces and need to transport heavy material like pavers and stone. With the Power Tracs, we can take a 3000 lb load across a finished lawn with virtually no damage to the surface. This saves countless hours that would be spent reseeding the lawn.”

When it comes to making decisions about large power equipment, renting is sometimes a good way to start. Renting can give contractors a chance to research the equipment by using it themselves on as many jobs as they want. Before committing to a purchase, they can track the hours they put into a rented machine and make projections on how quickly it could pay for itself. They can also learn which models and attachments work best for the kind of work they do.

Leasing is also becoming a more popular option. “Leasing is a way for contractors to not only lower their monthly payments but also to make sure that their fleet is current and continually in service,” says Marchionda. Leasing allows contractors to bundle the purchase of products under a single leasing arrangement and to take advantage of the most efficient technology available on the market instead of having to wait several years before making upgrades.”

Whatever equipment you decide to add, remember that the equipment alone is not going to make your company more efficient. Proper training for you and your employees will help insure that the equipment is being used safely and intelligently.

“Invest in your people and teach them well,” says Ron Cox. “Your company is only as good as the people who support it. Years ago, when I was doing primarily residential work, one of my customers told me I was going to have a sizable business one day. I thought, ‘I want to grow as long as I can do it right.’ Everything we have now has come from the quality work and excellent service we provide to our customers. We are very fortunate to have the business we do today.”