Sept. 1 2006 12:00 AM

There was a time when a number of small landscape contractors would forego purchasing equipment. Labor was cheap and readily available, so why buy equipment? Times have now changed. Today, labor is scarce and expensive, and the cost of doing business has skyrocketed

You just can’t get away with owning a minimal amount of equipment anymore. Equipment has become the mainstay of a landscape contractor’s business. From mowers to chain saws to compact excavators to trenchers, we need equipment. And not only that, we need a variety of equipment—you can’t get far building a landscape if you only have a shovel, and you can’t do much to maintain a property if you only have a mower. What about the hedges? Fertilizer application? What if you need to expand the irrigation system?

The right equipment can help you complete all these tasks and more. It helps employees be more productive and more efficient. One of the choices in buying equipment is to buy a dedicated machine, such as a mini-excavator with a bucket, or a trencher, or a lawn mower.

A dedicated piece of equipment is an excellent investment if you’re using it often and for long periods of time. For example, a dedicated trencher can be a great investment if you’re trenching for hours and hours a day.

But what if you only need a trencher periodically? Maybe you don’t use an auger very frequently, either, but you think it would make things a lot easier on those occasions when you do have a need for it.

If this sounds like you, maybe it’s time to think about having one piece of equipment that can handle a variety of attachments. This way you can have devices that perform a variety of tasks, but without the cost of dedicated equipment.

If you’ve ever wished for an easy way to beef up your bottom line, or that there were more working hours in the day, attachments are definitely something you should investigate. These labor-saving devices have many benefits.

Photo courtesy: Husquvarna

More productivity, less cost
Sean Sundberg, business-to-business planning manager for John Deere, Moline, Illinois, calls a piece of equipment without any attachments, “a slow ride out to the mailbox. You’re not doing any work without attachments. The right attachments can maximize the versality of a piece of equipment.”

Arguably, the biggest benefit to attachments is the way they can increase your productivity. “You can get double, if not triple, the amount of work done in a time period with attachments,” says Karrie Crocker, marketing manager for Compact Power, Inc., of Fort Mill, South Carolina. “You can have one loader, and turn it into a versatile tool, suitable for a wide variety of jobs.”

Mark Borst is president of Borst Landscape and Design, an award-winning, full-service landscape company based in Allendale, New Jersey. He calls himself a big fan of attachments, and says his company has always used them. They used to rent a lot of attachments, but as the business has grown, they’ve come to buy several of the ones that they’ve used most often.

“The right attachments doing the right job can almost replace a person,” Borst says. “Instead of three guys hand-raking a yard to remove the rocks and prepare the ground for sod, we can put a landscape rake on the front end of a skid steer to collect the rocks. It will get the job done and is operated by only one person.” Those other two guys are now free to work on other parts of the landscape, or even on another jobsite entirely. You can get more work done in a day.

Photo courtesy: John Deere

As another example of the time-saving properties of attachments, Crocker says, “It used to take hours to plant a number of trees, because it can be very time consuming to dig all the necessary holes. If you have an auger attachment, you can have a hole in minutes, pop the tree in, and move on to the next one. It’s a fraction of the time and effort.” The time and effort saved can be spent on another job.

Additionally, a machine is always consistent. A worker might be tired by the end of the day, and understandably so. If he’s hand-raking a yard, he can’t help but move a bit more slowly or even miss a spot after an eight-hour (or longer) day. A machine will never get tired, and the effort it saves the operator will help keep him fresh enough so nothing gets missed.

“A landscape contractor’s work is very physical. Your workers probably give you 100 percent already. By using machines and attachments to make their work a little bit easier, they can get even more done. They can give you 110 percent,” Sundberg says.

Photo courtesy: Walker Mowers

You might be worried about the time you lose switching between attachments. However, manufacturers are devoted to making the process of changing between different attachments quicker and easier. It can literally take only a few minutes. “The easier it is to operate, the more productive your workers will be,” emphasizes Sundberg. “You want to look for a machine and attachments that will give you the ability to drop off an attachment and pick up a new one quickly.”

“We’ve created a ‘complete package’ for our machines and attachments,” says Crocker. “You can get a trailer that will carry a skid steer and all of its attachments, like a toolbox on wheels. To save you time changing attachments, they all fit into the trailer face first, so you can just drive your machine up to the trailer, and attach right up. It not only saves you time, but also the backaches of maneuvering a heavy piece of equipment into position.”

Some manufacturers also have a “quick-attach” feature on their hydraulic attachments, to make the change from one to the next even faster. “The operator can drop off an attachment and hook up a new one without getting off the seat,” says Sundberg.

Aside from making your company more productive, using and buying the right attachments can actually help lessen your costs. For example, buying a series of attachments is much less expensive than buying a series of dedicated machines that you use only once in a while. Furthermore, if you find yourself frequently renting certain attachments, buying one or two of them can save you a significant amount of money in the long term.

Photo courtesy: Bobcat

Attachments are very affordable, and very durable; they last a long time with the proper maintenance. That means you won’t have to keep shelling out the rental costs for your favorite trenching attachment—if you own it, it’s just making you money, not costing you money.

What’s out there
There are a myriad of attachments available that attach to everything from skid steers to compact tractors to mowers. However, some attachments are more common than others. For skid steers, the bucket is probably the most popular attachment. Borst seems to agree, because when he spoke about the attachments his company owns, buckets were right at the top of the list. “We have tooth buckets for digging, and light material buckets for transporting materials like mulch,” he says.

The trencher is another popular attachment. This tool can make the job of digging a trench for irrigation work much easier, as can a backhoe. An auger power head with different bits can create different-sized holes in the ground, useful for everything from installing a sign post to planting a large tree. A leveler can prepare the soil for sod and seed, or be used to carry stone or bags of mulch. Pallet forks can easily move a pallet of sod off the delivery truck. “The lift capability on these machines is incredible,” Borst says.

Photo courtesy: Toro Site Works

Borst adds that his company has purchased several rototiller attachments, and uses them frequently to prepare the soil at jobsites. “We’ve also found a grapple bucket to be useful for picking up debris and brush. A front-end pincher can lift the ball of a tree, making tree-planting a one-person job, which is a nice labor-saver. We invested in a front-end sweeper to sweep up after jobs, and have also ended up using it to keep our own parking lot clean,” he says.

John Deere offers a “top and tilt kit,” which attaches to the rear of a tractor and allows you to smooth the ground at any angle you need. “You can move the box blade in any direction to get whatever grade you desire,” Sundberg says.

Bobcat takes the idea a bit further by offering box blades with laser control systems. “A transmitter emits a laser signal depicting the grade for a specific jobsite. The receiver on the box blade picks up the signal and automatically adjusts the box blade depth accordingly to achieve that grade. The signal specifies the desired elevation at every point on the jobsite,” explains Rae Dell Braaten, Bobcat’s attachment product manager.

Just about every landscape contractor carries a string trimmer in his truck. Many of these trimmers are dedicated pieces of equipment. “Every landscape contractor needs a wide variety of hand-held tools,” says Joe Fahey, Echo’s vice president of marketing. “You need a trimmer, edger, hedge clipper, etc. Each one has its own power head and engine.”

Now you also have the option of purchasing hand-held machines with attachments. You buy a single power source, but the unit can accomplish a variety of tasks because of the interchangeable heads. You don’t need to buy an engine over and over again.

Photo courtesy: PowerTrac

This allows you to get a lot of work done by a single person for an economical price. A basic package includes a string trimmer head, an edger, and a hedge trimmer, but a variety of other attachment heads are available, including an extended pole saw and brushes.

“Engines have a life expectancy,” Fahey continues. “It can be disappointing to have to throw an entire trimmer away because the engine died when the other parts are still functional. With attachments, if the engine on the power source dies, you can replace just that. The functional parts, the attachments, you can keep using.”

Choosing wisely
One caution Borst has when it comes to buying attachments is to “avoid under-purchasing, and avoid over-purchasing.” Buying only one or two attachments might not give you the versatility you need to truly make your purchases worthwhile; at the same time, buying more than you need can be a waste of your financial resources.

Manufacturers have a variety of good advice to give when it comes to purchasing attachments.

“You have to look at your business,” Sundberg says. “Consider the work you do, and the work you could be doing—your potential business. In what direction could you be going? The right attachments can help you get there.”

You might consider renting before you buy. Try it out. See how profitable it is. If a particular attachment is working out well for you, consider buying it. But don’t make the investment until you’re sure it’s going to help you. How much work is that attachment getting while you’re renting it? The more you can put it to work, the higher the return on your investment when you purchase.

When you get ready to make a purchase, look for a dealer with competitive financing programs. Can you wait to pay for it until after it’s done some work for you? Do you have the option of postponing payments during the off-season? Can you finance just the attachment, or will they only finance the big stuff? These are all issues to consider.

No matter which attachments you decide to buy, the bottom line is that they can help your bottom line. They make you more productive and versatile, and by doing that, attachments make you money.