Oct. 1 2000 12:00 AM

By Tracy Powell

Visitors are amazed at the breathtaking colors of Georgia?s ?Little Grand Canyon,? a.k.a. Providence Canyon, one of the state?s conservation parks. Oddly enough, as it is an area of natural conservation where tourists view the canyons and the red and purple hues of the soft canyon soil, its formation was the result of poor soil management. This is an extreme example of how erosion can permanently deface prime real estate, and create massive ditches, (the deepest being 150 feet) the result of poor farming practices in the 1800s.

If only they knew then what we know now about controlling erosion with hydroseeding, prime farmland wouldn?t have turned into a canyon.

Erosion control is needed now more than ever with increased land clearing, not for farms, but for homes, shopping centers, roadsides, and a plethora of reclamation sites. And with the hydroseeding and hydromulching materials and equipment on the market, the solution is literally in your hands.

?Hydroseeding and hydraulic mulching are tremendously cost-effective when compared to sodding and other traditional seeding methods,? says Wally Butman, executive vice president of the Finn Corporation, Fairfield, Ohio. ?Total cost of materials, equipment usage, labor and overhead will consistently be less than half the cost of sod installation (depending on region) and not much more than conventional seeding, with much greater performance. Our most recent cost analysis shows that a seeding and erosion control contractor can pay back a mid-sized hydroseeder in less than 20 acres of work.?

The secret to the fast germinating, even covering, which is hydroseeding?s claim to fame, is in the slurry, a mix of seed, fertilizer, in many cases lime, mulch, and a tackifying agent that makes the mix adhere to the ground.
According to Butman, the best selling hydroseeder models for erosion control work are typically the mid-size to large tank capacities, due to the job size being relatively large in most cases. These units range from 900 to 3,000 gallon capacities, and are able to cover one-quarter to one-full acre in a single pass.

?Hydroseeding is the method of choice for erosion control because it?s efficient, the results are better, and it?s less expensive,? says Bob Lisle, owner of Bridgeville, Delaware-based Easy Lawn, a company that manufactures and distributes hydroseeding equipment. ?Basically, you?re spraying seed, fertilizer and mulch onto the ground.?

Some form of erosion control has been around for centuries. Many years ago, equipment was developed to apply seed and straw. Today, however, hydroseeding equipment is so vastly improved that application hassles have virtually been eliminated.
?Landscape contractors run into situations where they?ve got to get seed and straw down, and they have a problem with blowing straw,? says Fred Smith, owner of Easy Lawn of South Carolina. ?If you have the slightest wind they can?t blow the straw; whereas with hydroseeding when you?re spraying out of a gun or hose, slight winds won?t affect the application. The problem is that the straw is either going to blow away or be washed away by a heavy rain,? explains Smith.

Smith, who also hydroseeds on a limited basis, has seen the application gain in popularity thanks to his region?s particularly hilly land. ?I?ve sold units to people who are hydroseeding in the mountains,? says Smith. ?Think of the steep slopes in those developments. They?re hydroseeding strictly for erosion control, but they also want it to look good.?

?The big thing is spraying the material,? says Lisle. ?It?s a very efficient application, making erosion control more affordable. A guy can get into it realistically for about $6,000 to $7,000, allowing him to offer hydroseeding at a reasonable rate.?
Easy Lawn has machines ranging in cost from $4,000 and up, and primarily sells machinery for residential and small commercial applications. They do, however, have larger equipment available for contractors wishing to get into the bigger jobs, such as highways. For these larger jobs, units in the 3,000-gallon range are needed, but even with a 1,500-gallon tank (which is the largest Easy Lawn sells), ?our guys do some highway work,? according to Lisle.

When taking on hydroseeding, don?t forget some of the basics of landscaping. ?It?s important to select the right kind of grass seed; fitting the grass to the application,? says Smith. ?Basically, proper hydroseeding begins with preparation. You must make sure the soil is prepped right, that there?s a good seedbed. Then apply the proper kind of seed in the right amount, the fertilizer, and the other ingredients that are necessary to help the seed to germinate and for the little seedlings to grow. Customers are looking for a pretty green lawn or a pretty green bank.

?Much of the success of hydro-seeding involves educating the landscape contractor that hydro-seeding is a viable way to go to control erosion.?

In many cases, erosion control has been a necessity handed down by local government. ?To many contractors, erosion control is becoming one of their top priorities,? says Butman. ?New legislation and regulations have reduced the minimum area of disturbed ground that requires an erosion control plan and implementation. These construction sites with exposed soil must be covered with approved sediment control material shortly after ground breaking to avoid costly fines and penalties. Many authorities hold permits and closing documents until the erosion control applications are complete.?

Smith agrees, as he sees his county authorities setting the standard on his and his contemporaries? jobs. ?If you?re disturbing the soil, you have to get some grass seed on it, and the municipalities or counties want it down in a big hurry.?

?You?re seeing fewer and fewer contractors ignoring erosion laws because they?re getting hammered harder and harder,? says Lisle. ?I?ve had contractors call us and say they?ve got to have a hydro-seeder tomorrow or they?re shutting the job down. And they have to get something out now.?

Neil Reinecker of Erosion Control Technologies, Inc., Branchville, New Jersey, sees such governmental mandates as a good thing for business. Most contractors have yet to realize the immense opportunity in the erosion control industry,? says Reinecker. ?Unfortunately, many perceive erosion control as a profit drain instead of a profit opportunity. In reality, federal, state, and local regulations have, for some time, and will continue to mandate the installation and maintenance of erosion control measures. As more and more contractors realize that these measures are not going to go away, more will become willing to accept them as a justifiable cost of construction thereby opening the door for more contractors to bid profitably on these aspects of every job.?

Thus the beauty of hydroseeding. That is, unless shortcuts are taken in an effort to pinch a penny, such as skimping on the amount of seed or mulch. James Lincoln, president and CEO of James Lincoln Corp. and Turf Maker Corp., Rowlett, Texas, sees such malpractice all the time.

?People spray ?colored water,? a very soupy or thin mulch material on the ground with seed and fertilizer, and if all the conditions are right they?ll produce a good stand of grass,? says Lincoln. ?But if you get a heavy rain, you?ll get horrible erosion. Added to that, not only is the mulch light, but also it may be inferior and may not have any tacking or soil binding agents in it.

?What we?re dealing with is all kinds of different jobs that have all kinds of different requirements, and then you have specifications that need to be followed,? notes Lincoln. ?We constantly see specifications that are either taken from a 30-year-old book, or just loaded with ignorance. Still, there is an awful lot of work being done without specifications.?

For some people, the temptation to skimp is easy to justify. You quote a fair price to your client, and then instead of using the bonded fiber matrixes (turnkey mulch products with other ingredients included such as tackifying agents) you quoted the job at, you go to the much less costly paper mulch. It doesn?t take a math wiz to figure the comparison: Bonded fiber matrix products are in the $35 range for a 50-pound bag, whereas paper mulch is in the $6 range for a 50-pound bag. The huge difference in price is due to better performance of the bonded fiber matrix, according to Lincoln. In terms of mulch-only products, Lincoln suggests that wood fiber mulch is by far the choice material for a hydroseed mix.

Reinecker agrees that some contractors do not apply the right amount of material for the job. ?There?s always someone who skimps to keep the extra money; that?s what gives the contractors a bad rap.?

The other side of the coin is because there?s a low cost of entry, where it doesn?t cost very much for a person to become a hydroseeding contractor, you do get some people who don?t have a clue as to what they?re doing.

Reinecker also sees lack of education as an impediment. Few contractors know what products are available, much less how to use them,? says Reinecker. ?The world?s leading erosion control organization is the International Erosion Control Association. Each year the IECA offers dozens (perhaps hundreds) of training courses all over the world. A membership in the IECA is well worth the money, and no matter where you are in the U.S.A., there will be a training seminar that can help you and your business in every aspect of erosion control,? says Reinecker.

Butman has also seen this need for additional information and education, and his company is taking this approach in an effort to produce knowledgeable erosion control contractors.

?Quality is everything when it comes to hydraulic seeding and erosion control,? says Butman. ?Most job failures are a result of improper application techniques or the use of inferior products that fail under extreme conditions. For this reason, Finn has begun an ?Education Initiative,? which will offer contractors specific training on proper application, equipment operation and maintenance, material selection and cost/profit analysis. The goal is to certify contractors in hydraulic seeding and mulching, ensuring quality work while building their business profitably.?

And profit is the name of the hydroseeding game.

?The average time it takes people to make their investment back is about six weeks,? says Lisle. ?The money is, quite frankly, astronomical. We have a guy in Massachusetts who bought a unit last year and he made $100,000 on a $25,000 machine. And he?s not unusual?my daughter and son-in-law, in their first year in business did $250,000 worth of hydroseeding. And that?s with one of our 900 gallon tanks.?

October 2000