July 15 2015 02:22 PM

Working Smarter ... Not Harder

Training

Many dealers offer free training; why not take advantage of it? Even experienced professionals can learn more efficient ways of doing things, or become aware of bad habits they may have developed. Also, new models may not operate exactly the same way the old ones did.

“A guy who’s not paying attention and wants to start the chainsaw the way he’s always done it may flood the engine,” says Phelps. “Then he thinks it’s a piece of junk, throws it in the trailer, and says, ‘I can’t use that.’ But all he needs is a little bit of training. The smart companies will spend time training their operators.” It’s a matter of both safety and productivity.

Maintenance

Maintenance, or more precisely, the lack of it, is a common source of unnecessary costs, according to Simmons. Many contractors feel that there just aren’t enough hours in the day to do preventative work, such as changing oil or tightening chains. That’s why repair shops often see power tools that have been run into the ground, their working lifespans shortened considerably.

It’s easy to see why. In a demanding day that starts very early and can end quite late, it’s one more thing to fit into an already toocrowded schedule. But Simmons advises, “In the long run, you actually save time and money when you put a good preventative maintenance program into place. Yet I know so many landscape people who don’t even think about their machines until they’re broken.”

An effective maintenance plan doesn’t have to put a lot of demands on your time. Often all that’s needed are regular filter and oil changes, just as you’d do for your car. “It’s little things, like checking the spark plugs occasionally to make sure there’s no carbon buildup. In the long run, it saves you money because when a machine goes down, it can be very costly,” Simmons said. The cost adds up not only in repair bills, but in downtime.

Contractors have various ways of dealing with this. Some have in-house shops; others, even some large companies, have arrangements with local repair facilities where they take their equipment regularly. The key word is ‘regularly.’ There are smartphone apps that can keep track of the amount of time that tools are being used. After a certain number of hours, it’s time for maintenance.

Fuel

Unless you’ve been hiding your head in the sand, you know about the ethanol controversy. Most at-the-pump gasoline now contains at least ten percent ethanol, and there is a push to make this percentage even higher. If you have access to gasoline without ethanol, it’s a good idea to use it in all your two-stroke equipment.

Even ten-percent ethanol is problematic, for the simple fact that it attracts water. As Phelps describes, “If you let that fuel sit, as that five-gallon tank gets toward the bottom, the ethanol in there attracts moisture, and the fuel starts to separate. Now there are three layers: water, alcohol and gas. The first two don’t do well in an engine.” They can also void your warranty.

Water can cause hard starts, and even cause a tool to simply stop. Gas with water in it burns much hotter, leaving “burn marks scorching your cylinders. It really requires rethinking the way you mix and fuel your equipment.”

When your crews gas up their tools in the morning, make sure they read the stickers on the pumps. There are some states where E-15 and even E-85 pumps will be side-by-side with E-10. If you mix your own fuel, only mix enough for a few weeks at a time. When you’re storing your tools for the winter, drain all the fuel out, or at least, put in some stabilizer.

There is an alternative. Partly due to this issue, some contractors are switching over to propane- or battery-powered tools. Simmons believes, “The momentum is in favor of battery-powered equipment. More and more professionals are going to start moving in that direction because the performance is as good as it is.” To keep running all day, they keep extra batteries in their trucks, hooked up to trickle chargers.

More about safety

Skimping on protective gear is a gamble not worth taking. Have policies in place requiring that safety glasses, hearing protection and gloves be worn at all times.

And when you bring out the heavy artillery, such as chainsaws, protective gear such as chaps, goggles and hardhats are a must. Hannah says many people will skip donning protective gear when they pick up that chainsaw to “just go cut one thing.” An injury only takes a few seconds, but being out on worker’s comp can last for weeks.

At her workshops, Hannah has competitions to see who can get into full protection the fastest. “It seems stupid, but it really works to drive the point home that you can literally put on head-to-toe safety gear in less than one minute.”

What’s ahead?

With the pace of technology going as fast as it is, we in the green industry have a lot to look forward to. Many improvements have already been made, says Simmons, “but the knowledge about them needs to get out there more.” For instance, he explains that there are battery-powered line trimmers, hedge trimmers and top-handle chainsaws that are the equal of their gas-powered counterparts, but many contractors have never tried them.

Battery-powered tools are more popular in cities with noise and emissions regulations. These municipalities restrict the hours during which gas-powered tools can be used, but have no limits on battery-powered equipment.

As reducing our carbon footprint becomes an increasing concern, manufacturers will keep working on more powerful, longer-lasting batteries. And urban clients will seek out landscape contractors who use battery-powered equipment. Less noise and zero exhaust fumes will make clients happy—the kind of happy that brags and makes referrals, and is possibly the most effective way to advertise to their neighbors.

Power tools are getting more powerful, more efficient, and easier to use and maintain than ever before, simply because there are a lot of manufacturers out there competing for your hard-earned dollar. You just might need to tweak your thinking a bit—regarding maintenance, training and fuel—to get the best bang for your buck. Doing so ups your game and gives you an edge over your competition.

It’s time to power up!

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