As president of NatureScape Lawn and Landscape Care, Todd Furry isn’t merely a successful landscape professional. With thirteen locations in five Midwest states, he’s also a very savvy businessman. After working for a lawn maintenance firm for a number of years, he and his wife decided to start their own company in Appleton, Wisconsin. They ran that for three or four years, then opened a new branch in suburban Milwaukee. From there, the business has expanded to serve approximately 50,000 customers in locations in Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota, and Iowa.

When Furry found that many of his regular lawn care customers were also asking for tree and shrub care, he spotted an opportunity. He saw a way to serve the customers that were asking for this service and also to expand his business into a new area. So what did he do? He purchased a chipper.

Furry is among the many landscape contractors who are recognizing the benefits of operating their own chipper. Owning a chipper not only allows contractors to more efficiently satisfy the tree and shrub care needs of their clients, it also gives them a chance to establish a new revenue center with their current customer base and bring in new customers as well.

A chipper on site = problem solved
A growing demand for pruning and the need for more efficient disposal of waste is usually what drives landscape contractors to purchase a chipper. Burning bans, landfill restrictions, and increasing disposal fees can pose logistical challenges and eat away at profits for contractors who take on pruning. Add to that skyrocketing fuel costs and disposal becomes a huge issue. Every trip a truck makes to a landfill or other disposal site must be factored into the overall cost of doing a job.

Chippers do away with all of that. “With a chipper you can put a dump truck or trailer full of branches in the machine, chip it up, and what’s left will fit in a wheelbarrow,” says Sal Rizzo, president of Salsco, based in Cheshire, Connecticut. “The truck doesn’t have to leave the site until the job is done.”

“The biggest advantage of having a chipper is waste reduction,” agrees Jerry Morey, president of Bandit Industries in Remus, Michigan. “It reduces the number of trips and the amount of material that has to be hauled away. It makes the whole operation simpler, easier, and quicker.”

“If you do pruning on a regular basis, even twice a week, I can’t imagine not having a chipper,” says Furry. “You don’t have to worry about tying down the waste or tarping it down on a truck. If you lose things off the back of your truck, you can get into some serious trouble.” With a chipper on-site, these logistical problems are ground down to practically nothing.

From solving a problem to growing a business
For many contractors, like Furry, the need for a chipper starts as a problem-solving necessity, but it often evolves into a lucrative business move. After purchasing his first Vermeer chipper five years ago, Furry decided to add a chipper at two of his other locations as well. “We used to do pruning only on demand, and we’d try to stuff all the waste into a truck. Now we can offer a more complete service which we’re marketing to all of our customers. It’s a huge growth area for us. We now send a pruning crew out every day at two branches, and nearly every day at a third. Our goal is to have a truck and chipper at every location, and send a pruning crew out every day at every branch.”

Furry’s experience is not unique. “We’re seeing more landscaper contractors who are branching off into tree work,” says Rob Faber, commercial sales specialist for Morbark, Inc.,Winn, Michigan. “Often they start off renting them and then realize that they have a call for them on a regular basis.”

Photo courtesy: Vermeer Mfg

When a number of their customers start asking for significant pruning work, contractors are often faced with a dilemma, says Chris Nichols, environmental product manager for Vermeer Manufacturing, Pella, Iowa. “They can do one of three things. They can decide to hire an outside contractor or local arborist to take care of it. They can rent a chipper. Or they can buy a chipper and add the service as a functional part of their business.”

Lets look at option one. When you subcontract to another company, you have an added level of complication, Nichols points out. “You have to worry about their availability, their cost and the quality of their work because you’re going to be held accountable.”

Renting is another option. While renting is often a good way to start out, especially when you’re shopping for machines and want to try them out, relying on renting on a regular basis has its pitfalls.

“To rent a medium-sized chipper can cost you around $200 per day,” says Rizzo. “To borrow the money for a chipper might cost $200 per month.” Even if you use it only a few times during that month, you’ve made a good investment.

But rental fees aren’t the only costs, according to Rizzo. “If you rent, you also have to worry about whether you’ll have it when you want it. There’s a dollar value associated with that. You also have to worry about whether it will be in the same condition it was when you last used it. There’s a dollar value associated with that too. Any time you send someone down to the rental store to get the machine only to find that it’s not working for some reason and you have to bring it back, it’s not $200 a day anymore.”

Nichols points out that with a rental, you also deal with a learning curve with every new machine you use. “There’s a loss of productivity that results if you’re renting a machine you haven’t had a lot of experience with.” Needless to say, this can also be a safety issue.

When the demand for pruning is steady, purchasing a chipper often makes the most sense. “Adding a brush chipper to your arsenal might be a great way to grow your business,” Nichols says. “If you own a chipper, you’ll be able to bid more jobs or offer services to your landscape customers that could make the machine very profitable. It’s a very simple transition. You don’t have to find a whole new customer base.”

Taking on this new work does require additional training. “You have to participate in training programs to learn how to do quality tree care” says Nichols. “You may be a master in the landscaping field, but tree care is a different area of expertise.” Organizations like the Tree Care Industry Association (TCIA) and the International Society of Arboriculture (ISA) offer information on education and training.

Finding the right chipper for the job
Like any heavy equipment, a chipper is a serious investment and you’ll want to think carefully about choosing the right one for your needs. A machine that works well for one company might turn into a disaster for another. Talking with manufacturer’s representatives and dealers, visiting trade shows, taking a demo, and renting are all ways to get to know machines and understand which options are important for the kind of work you do.

Start by looking only at commercial-grade machines. “You’ll pay a bit more for a commercial-grade machine,” says Faber, “but if you’re using it all the time, you want to spend the extra money for longevity.”

The next step is deciding what type of material and what diameter you’ll be chipping. “If you’re just doing trim work, a 6-8 inch capacity will be fine,” says Faber. “If you’re doing some small removals or bigger branches, you’ll want to step it up to 12 inches or more.”

Photo courtesy: Bandit

“A good rule of thumb is to buy one that’s rated to a couple of inches more than what you regularly plan to chip,” Faber continues. “If you want to do an occasional 6-inch piece, a 6-inch machine will be fine. But if the majority of your work with be with 6-inch pieces, step up to a 9-inch chipper. If you do a majority of 9-inch branches, step up to a 12-inch chipper. If you’re maxing out your machine all the time, it’s not going to hold up as well. It’s like driving a car. The speedometer might go up to 100 mph, but the car is not designed to do that all the time.”

“Don’t ever buy a chipper that’s under capacity,” agrees Furry. “It makes much more sense to buy one that’s slightly over capacity. It’s worth it; you’ll save yourself the headache of not going through blades too fast and not putting more wear and tear on the engine.”

It’s important to balance capacity with portability, however. “If you’re not going to be doing 20-inch takedowns, you don’t need the biggest machine,” says Nichols. “There are smaller, more compact machines that would be perfect for your business.”

After you’ve determined the basic size you’re looking for, evaluate machines based on reliability, safety, and maintenance/serviceability issues. “A key for everyone is maintenance,” says Faber. “How easy is it to maintain and service your machine? Are all the grease points accessible; how easy is it to change your knives? That’s your biggest maintenance issue. That’s where you’ll have the biggest wear of parts.”

Evaluate safety not just by the number of safety features a machine has but also by how your staff will actually use the equipment. Consider who will use the machine, how training will take place, who will be responsible for training, and who will supervise safe use at the jobsite. Choose equipment whose safety features fit seamlessly with the way you plan to use the machine. Then invest the time it takes for everyone who uses it to thoroughly understand its safe operation.

Environmental Responsibility
The problem of landfill overuse is changing the way we do a lot of things and landscaping is one of them. Brush that has been processed by a chipper composts much more quickly than brush left whole. Even in areas where green waste is accepted at landfills, it’s simply wasteful to dump whole brush when it could be turned into a more valuable product.

Some landscaping firms are even investing in their own recycling units that convert waste into products people can use. “Larger landscape companies have started to purchase our “Beast” recyclers,” says Morey. They convert their own waste into the kinds of mulch they can use.” These machines can also turn waste into products like boiler fuel, animal bedding, and the raw material for compressed board.

Vermeer recently launched the new HG200, a compact tow-behind machine that can be used on-site to process waste and size the end product, resulting in a mulch that can be used on-site or sold as animal bedding or other products. This gives contractors yet another way to increase revenue while doing a good turn for the environment.

The next time you’re asked to do some pruning, take a moment to think. Have disposal issues made pruning a headache of a job that you do only on request? If so, maybe it’s time to invest in a chipper and turn that job into a new growth area for your company.