April 15 2016 01:43 PM

If you're an action-movie fan, you may have heard a character— perhaps a superhero—boasting: “I have the strength of ten men!” As a landscape or irrigation contractor, you probably have wished that you could make that same claim at times, especially when confronted with a particularly Herculean task.

Luckily for you, a retreat into the world of fantasy isn’t necessary in order to realize such strength. It already exists in the form of compact utility loaders, otherwise known as mini-skid steers, and utility vehicles (UTVs). While small in footprint, there’s nothing ‘mini’ about the might of either of these classes of machines.

Owning or leasing one of these units will give your company the added strength of two, three or four additional crew members, saving you both time and labor, and increasing your profitability.

Mini-skids, maxi work capacity

A big fan of the mini-skid steer is just-retired contractor Kevin McNevin, former owner and member/ manager of Shamrock Landscape Services, LLC, in Hood River, Oregon, who says, “When someone wants a water feature, rock work, or pavers, a mini-skid is what you need to move the material into place, and move it around in a timely manner.”

A mini-skid can get into somebody’s backyard, even when there’s a narrow passageway or gate.

McNevin added that it beats going to the local big-box hardware store and picking up ten day laborers to do it all by hand. (What did we say about ‘the strength of ten men’?) Having a mini-skid to place boulders cuts his labor costs in half or more.

A mini-skid has a distinct advantage over its bigger brother, the full-sized skid-steer loader. Ten years ago, McNevin purchased a full-sized unit. It was the smallest one he could find at the time, but it was still five feet, six inches wide.

“The two things we discovered about it were: one, it couldn’t get into a lot of places; and two, even in that size range, it still had a limited lifting capacity. I couldn’t lift a 3,000-pound pallet of sod with it.”

McNevin has another good example. One particularly grueling paver job involved moving some 20 yards of excavated dirt in wheelbarrows up a hill to a dump trailer. “I had two guys working for me, and those two hung in there all day. For eight solid hours, I ran the mini-skid. I’d load two or three scoops of earth into a wheelbarrow, and one guy would run it up the hill. Then I’d do the same thing again with the second man, and we relayed like that, all day long.” A hard enough task, to be sure; but without the mini-skid’s help, one that he estimates would have taken three more days to complete.

Josh Beddow, marketing manager for Toro Sitework Systems, says the stand-on aspect of the mini-skid has a lot of appeal to the landscape contractor market. You’re often doing a variety of tasks, and getting on and off machines repeatedly. Not having to climb in and out of a cab every time you want to move something out of the way, or fetch a tool, is a big advantage.

Joe Spatz is fleet manager at Grunder Landscape Company in Miamisburg, Ohio, a company that does a great deal of hardscaping as well as landscape maintenance. The company owns three mini-skids that rack up more than 300 hours a year each.

“We use them heavily, for both hardscaping and landscaping, like drilling holes for planting trees,” he reports. The company also owns some larger skid-steer loaders, but the mini-skids are rapidly replacing them.

“We used to have four of the fullsized loaders, but we’re down to two. The hours for the big machines are going down, while the hours for our mini-skids have consistently gone up.”

“We’ve found the minis to be so much more versatile than the big machines. They do far less yard damage, and you can get them through small residential gates.”

Mike Clarkson says he wishes he’d had a mini-skid when he first started his business, Lexington, Kentucky-based Lawn Works, Inc., 26 years ago, when he was installing and maintaining landscapes. Now that he also does hardscaping, snow removal and installs irrigation systems, he can’t do without them. He relates this story from his company’s early days:

“We were planting some trees at a shopping center, just two other guys and me, coming in on a Saturday. We started the job at 8:30 a.m., but the other two guys had to leave early. I had a dinner date to get to with the woman who would become my wife, and she kept calling and asking when I’d be done.”

“After the two guys left, I hit solid rock,” he continued. “It was just me and a shovel, and I didn’t finish the job until 9 p.m. It had taken all day to plant seven trees. As we’re eating dinner at 11 p.m. that night, at the only place still open, I was thinking, ‘There’s got to be an easier way.’” There was. On a recent day, he and his crew, with the help of two mini-skid steers, planted 176 trees —a far cry from only seven!

Some of the trees he plants have 400-pound root balls. He says that in his pre-skid-steer days, it would have taken four or five men to take a tree like that off the truck, put it on a tree dolly, and wrestle it in into the ground. Now, with just two men and a mini-skid with a pincer attachment, the job goes much faster.

Clarkson figures that not having a mini-skid when he started out cost him thousands of dollars in revenue. “I’d encourage anybody starting out in the landscape business to buy one as soon as he can. Every time one of my mini-skids goes out on a job, my net profit is at least three times what my other crews net me.”

Spatz likes the fact that using a mini-skid means that there’s less chance of incurring a worker’s comp claim. “It takes a lot of the sheer physical effort out of tasks,” he commented. He also finds that they’re a lot more user-friendly for less experienced operators.

Better visibility is another advantage stand-on mini-skids have over full-sized skid-steer loaders. “There are a lot of blind spots with those full-sized cab units,” said Spatz. “But standing on the back of a mini-skid, you can see 360 degrees around you.”

Most mini-skid steers are available with either tracks or wheels.

Many contractors like tracked vehicles because they’re less likely to leave ruts. Some manufacturers even offer you a choice of narrow or wide tracks.

Versatility, via attachments

When you buy or lease a mini-skid steer, you’re getting several machines in one, with the magic of attachments. Add a blade and it becomes a snow plow; add a fork, and it becomes a forklift. Think of the money this saves—not having to own dedicated units that are one-trick ponies. That’s fewer machines you have to buy, maintain, repair, insure and store.

Before Grunder Landscape bought its first mini-skid, it purchased a dedicated stump grinder and trencher. Now, the trencher is gone, and the stump grinder mostly sits idle.

“We offer about 35 different attachments—concrete breakers, stump grinders, soil cultivators, and there are even more available from aftermarket suppliers,” said Beddow. “They’re really quite versatile machines, when you consider all the attachments you can get.”

Grunder has three trailers that are equipped identically. When a crew member goes to a job with a mini-skid, he has all the necessary attachments: a trencher, a tree auger, a bucket, a fork, a stump grinder, a rototiller and a land-leveler.

When a job constructing flowerbeds comes in, crew members amend the clay soil with compost using a 42-inch-wide rototiller attachment. “We used to use a walk-behind rototiller for this,” said Spatz. “That was another big tool we had to load every day.”

“Now, we use the mini-skid’s rototiller attachment. It’s twice as wide as a walk-behind rototiller, so it’s much faster. Normally, amending beds is a very demanding task, but with the mini-skid, it’s not.”

Clarkson owns four mini-skids that share ten attachments. Among them are a trencher, a pipe puller, a fork, a ball hitch, a ripper, three different buckets, a leveler, hydraulic pincers, and an auger with two bits —a 24-inch and a 16-inch.

He uses his leveler attachment to lay rolls of sod. “We can carry 15 to 20 rolls of sod on it. With a wheelbarrow, you might be able to load eight rolls. And then the barrow’s overloaded, and tips over.”

Mini-skids will help your crews do their jobs more efficiently. It will help your company save on labor costs, which in turn will allow your company to be more productive, which will help to bid a project more competitively.

Utility vehicles (UTVs)

Have you ever wished for a vehicle, much smaller and more nimble than your truck, but that has the capacity to transport two, four, even six people, along with an abundance of materials and tools? One that you could take into places your truck can’t—or shouldn’t—go, such as on wet lawns, without carving ruts?

Fortunately for you, such vehicles do exist. They’re called utility vehicles, UTVs or simply ‘utes’ for short.

They are able to haul or tow around a thousand pounds or more.

They have side-by-side seating, seat belts and roll-over protection, and generously-sized cargo boxes at the rear, plus more storage in the cab area. They also have a number of attachments available, making them even more versatile.

UTVs come in dozens of configurations, with plenty of standard and optional features and accessories. You can get roofs and doors for full-weather enclosure on most units.

Some models even offer optional power steering. You can find EFI engines, integrated cargo tool boxes, backup alarms, LED lights and tool racks.

Many utes are available with a choice of either gas or diesel engines, and at least one manufacturer has an electric unit.

“A UTV cuts down the amount of walking a crew has to do,” said Christine Cheng, marketing manager for UTVs at Toro. “That means less fatigue, and less-fatigued workers are more productive.”

McNevin wishes that he’d had a UTV on a recent commercial job.

“We had to install irrigation and plantings in a one-mile-long cul-de-sac,” he recalls. “The pump house for the irrigation system was right in the middle. We’re talking a half-mile of irrigation piping to the right, and a half-mile of it to the left.”

Having access to a UTV would not only have helped him and his men get the job done faster, they would have avoided what he calls, “the three-o-clock stumble,” the point where fatigue really starts to hit you, but the workday isn’t over yet.

“You discover you need a ten-cent irrigation part, so you walk a half-mile back to the truck—and by the time you get there, you’re so tired, you’ve already forgotten what the heck it was you needed,” said Mc- Nevin. “You walk all the way back, but then, a little later, you find that you’re out of glue.” Even though there’s another can in the truck, it’s another half-mile walk—a full-mile round trip—away.

Miguel Arciniega, product manager for the Gravely Atlas JSV (Job Site Vehicle), at the Brillion, Wisconsin-based Ariens Corporation, offers an example of an application that’s tailor-made for a UTV.

“In Las Vegas (and some other cities), there are these big, landscaped median strips between the opposing sides of the road. You’ll see crews walking up and down these islands carrying push mowers, string trimmers and things like that. If they had UTVs, especially ones with landscape-tool racks, they’d get a lot more done, faster.”

Joshua Tankersley, a 28-year veteran tree care professional and certified arborist, is president and owner of Enviro Tree Service, LLC, in Winter Park, Florida. Ninety-five percent of his work is commercial maintenance, maintaining trees for Disney World, Sea World, Universal Studios and many other Central Florida resorts and HOAs.

He’s used UTVs for twenty years, and currently owns seven. “We used to use these small UTVs with little six-by-ten-foot trailers,” said Tankersley. “We’d load up the debris, drive it out to the edge of the parking lot, and unload it by hand, a process that took upwards of 15 minutes.”

Last year, he bought two new, larger units with automatic dump features, and has just purchased a third that’s in the process of being modified. Now, when his crews unload, using the automatic dump feature, it only takes 15 seconds. “From 15 minutes to 15 seconds—you can imagine the huge amount of money that’s saved us. The new UTVs paid for themselves the first year.” In any book, that’s a good return on investment.

Clarkson believes that “having the right equipment is the only way for a contractor to make it these days. To make money, you need to reduce the time it takes to do jobs, and machines do that for you.”

UTVs can considerably cut down the amount of time you must spend to get your work done. And they can even, dare we say it, add some fun as well.