June 17 2016 04:35 PM

Taken as a whole, our industry is one of the greatest unremarked-upon workhorses of society. Landscape contractors get more done with less fuss than any other profession. Every member of our crews is expected to do the work of three, four, or even ten people regularly, rain or shine.

How is this possible? The answer is hiding in plain sight. If you haven’t already realized it, it’s only because it’s so obvious that you don’t even think about it. I’m talking about power equipment; in many ways, it’s the lifeblood of our industry.

With just the simplest of hand-held power tools, a single employee can do a job that would take an entire crew to complete manually. We use hand-held power equipment so regularly and rely on it so much, that it’s hard to imagine trying to do business without it.

Power equipment is a prime example of the old business aphorism that you have to spend money to make money. To get a better idea of the most common factors that drive our purchases, I talked with some of the major manufacturers for our market.

Walt Rose, national sales manager of Husqvarna’s Commercial Lawn and Garden division in Charlotte, North Carolina, says that there are three chief design considerations for contractors when it comes to hand-held power equipment. “Everybody’s concerned about the ergonomics, weight, and performance when it comes to hand-held products,” he said.

If Husqvarna, or any other manufacturer, can make a tool easier to use, less tiring to carry around, or more powerful, it’s pretty easy to see how that benefits us. Strange as it may seem, though, lighter isn’t always better. “Backpack blowers are a great example,” he said. “A large blower can put out more than 970 cubic feet per minute (CFMs). It will be heavy, but it’ll get the same amount of work done in about half the time as a smaller blower.”

That said, when picking a blower, you can’t completely ignore the strain it will put on the user, either. If an employee is running a blower for three or four hours at a time during the fall, he’s got to be able to keep his fatigue level down. As his fatigue level increases, accidents become more likely. Even well-trained people make mistakes when they’re too tired to think straight.

With other hand-held tools, like string trimmers, one also has to weigh sheer performance against other considerations. “When it comes to string trimmers, buyers are looking at balance,” Rose said. “They are also looking at the ease of replacing the trimmer line, because they might do that three or four times a day.”

Whenever you can make a frequent task easier, faster, or simpler, it’ll save you time or headcount. That kind of thinking may be what’s behind another trend in specialty turf equipment, stand-on units.

We’re seeing a lot of stand-on applications now, for core plugging, fertilization, etc. Stand-on machines seem like technological marvels compared to walk-behinds, as they’re less taxing on the users, as well as more efficient. For companies that have crews dedicated to tasks like coring and overseeding, the increased speed pays for itself. The higher performance makes them an attractive rental option for smaller operations as well.

Another major trend in hand-held power equipment has been the rise of cordless, battery-powered tools, says Kris Kiser, president of the Outdoor Power Equipment Institute (OPEI), Alexandria, Virginia. “All these battery technologies have advanced; runtime has increased, charge speed has gotten faster, while lithium ion pricing and availability have improved,” he said. “So now they’re finding their way into the marketplace.”

There are a lot of reasons to consider buying battery-powered equipment. For one, they produce no emissions. Customers are more environmentally conscious than ever before, and even if your business doesn’t have an eco-green focus, you may find that battery-powered equipment is a real marketing coup.

They’re also a lot less noisy than gas-powered tools. Communities around the country have restricted the usage of, or even banned, leaf blowers because of the noise they make. For contractors operating in these communities, it’s either battery power, or manual labor.

Tyler Delin, product manager for DeWalt Outdoor Power in Towson, Maryland, says that battery-powered tools are perfect for early mornings, where gas engine blowers would be too noisy. “I’ve actually had contractors tell me that they can take phone calls while using their battery-operated string trimmer,” he said.

Even without noise regulations, plenty of commercial clients are put off by the volume of our tools. “We’re actually seeing commercial companies have ten gas crews, and then two battery-powered crews to service specific properties,” said Delin. “They maintain hospitals, resorts, universities, theme parks and golf courses.”

Clients aren’t the only ones who directly benefit from using quieter tools. Continued exposure to high noise levels may cause hearing loss, hypertension and sleep disorders. Cutting down on the decibels will certainly reduce crew members’ stress, and may be a healthy company policy in the long term.

Those are only the immediate benefits, which may be why contractors who make the switch don’t often switch back. “They don’t miss buying fuel all the time,” Rose said.

“They don’t miss the fuel theft, they don’t miss the fuel leaks, and they don’t miss the repairs that come from using the wrong fuel.” Fewer engines to take care of means lower maintenance costs, and you’re never losing business because your gear is getting repaired.

Which is not to say that batteries are completely immune to the ravages of time. Your batteries will lose capacity with time and use, so a battery that will last the workday now may not in a year or two. Keeping a spare battery or two on a trickle charger in the truck for that eventuality isn’t a bad idea.

Still, the worry for most contractors when it comes to battery-powered equipment is whether it has enough power to get the job done. “Battery power is in the range where its performance is comparable to gas, and we’re seeing landscape contractors actually using it instead of gas,” Delin said.

For most tools, the question isn’t whether the battery can achieve the same power as the gas equivalent, but whether it can achieve the same runtime. Battery capacity is measured in watt-hours, which is voltage multiplied by amp-hours. For most outdoor power equipment lines, the voltage is constant, which means a battery’s amp-hours roughly equate to its runtime.

With a hedge trimmer, even a four amp-hour 40V battery will achieve higher runtimes than gas, but that same battery in a string trimmer or leaf blower will get less runtime. To surpass gas, you probably need to go up to a 7.5 amp-hour battery, but it is possible.

The applications that are most power-intensive, like leaf-blowing in the fall when there are many leaves on the ground, will probably be a bit too tough for the current batterypowered equipment to be practical.

“There are just certain applications, and certain configurations, where cordless will take a long time to catch up,” said Dennis Stauch, vice president of Outdoor Power Equipment for Makita in La Mirada, California.

“The adoption of battery-powered equipment in our market mirrors the switch from corded to cordless tools in the indoor power tools world,” said Stauch. “When cordless first came out, Makita was primarily a corded tool company, and we still sell a lot of corded tools,” he said. “I think cordless is going to be an excellent addition for companies, but it’s going to go hand-in-hand with other products on the market.”

That’s why, along with their battery powered products, they’ve introduced a line of 4-stroke hand-held tools. I asked him the reason for the new engine configuration: “4-stroke machines are always cleaner, with fewer emissions than 2-stroke equipment, and yet they can still have the same durability,” Stauch said.

Our industry is one of the last still using 2-stroke engines, which require fuel mixing, and produce a lot of emissions. You may find that switching away from 2-stroke equipment will simplify your operations.

You won’t have to carry separate fuel cans, and 4-strokes are less finicky to start up, saving space and time.

Which is not to say that 2-stroke tools are inherently bad. “Don’t get me wrong, 2-stroke machines are very, very good,” said Stauch.

“They’re good for multi-position operation, and there are all kinds of positives about them, just not from an emissions standpoint.”

Naturally, 4-stroke machines will require oil changes just like your mowers do, but Stauch says it’s still a net benefit. “If you sit down and determine the actual cost associated with changing the oil as opposed to running a 2-stroke mix, it’s dollar savings into your pocket.” Whatever equipment you’re thinking of buying, being mindful of maintenance is never a bad idea.

You’re spending tens of thousands of dollars on equipment, yet you could be leaving thousands on the table. Spending a little time on a regular basis to see that your gear is kept shipshape could extend its service life by years. “It’s a huge diamond in the rough out there,” said Stauch, “just waiting for companies to take advantage of it.”

Also worth considering is that hand-held tools are just one element of outdoor power equipment. No discussion of the topic would be complete without at least making mention of larger machines, like compact utility loaders (also known as mini-skid steers) and mowers.

These topics are big enough that they merit their own articles, but to put it simply, they offer even greater labor savings than their smaller cousins. A single operator on a zeroturn mower can do many times the work of a walk-behind, let alone a push mower. Compact utility loaders offer similar efficiencies, but for moving materials and earth, rather than mowing lawns.

Both categories of machines offer a host of attachments that make them highly adaptable. “Buckets and forks are obviously our most popular attachments for moving materials, especially for landscape contractors,” said Josh Beddow, marketing manager for Toro Siteworks Systems in Bloomington, Minnesota. “For digging work, augers and trenchers are the most popular choices.”

Some hand-held lines also offer a variety of attachments. A combi-tool would allow your string trimmer to also be your power broom, your edger or your pole saw. While this is chiefly aimed at the consumer market, some contractors are buying them to save space and money. For applications that may crop up infrequently, like sawing tree limbs, or applications that are highly seasonal, like hedge trimming, a combination tool can be a smart move.

That’s really what it comes down to when choosing power equipment —determining what the smartest move is for your operation. No one else can tell you how much power you need, or how important noise is for your crews or worksite. You’ll have to determine that for yourself.

“One of the nice things about outdoor power equipment is that there’s a product for everybody,” Kiser said. “Regardless of your size, strength, age or sex, there’s something for you. There’s big stuff, small stuff, gas stuff, hybrid stuff, battery stuff, electric stuff or propane stuff. You can find something you can hold, carry or wear.”

The great strength of the green industry has been our ability to simultaneously react to, and modify, our environment. We’re used to fielding nature’s curveballs; compared to those, hitting the pitches from state and federal agencies are simple.

Partly, our ability to change with the times comes out of the technological advances that come with them, but that isn’t all. We make our decisions with open eyes, knowing the effects our actions will have on the communities we serve. It’s caring for our clients’ landscapes that drives us.

Buy the tool that will do that job well, and you’ll never go wrong.