Imagine three towering oak trees and the knee-high piles of leaves they left on the ground. Rather than spending countless hours raking and bagging, we tried to find shortcuts -- ways to make our lives easier. We tried different bagging systems, different ways of raking. We'd divide the yard; we even tried using the lawnmower to pick up the leaves. But the rake worked best. One afternoon, I heard a commotion outside. I peeked out to see our neighbor walking around his yard with a machine strapped to his back. He was blowing leaves into a nice pile. It sure looked better than a rake to me!

When you started in the business you may have been forced to use a rake or a variety of hand tools. Perhaps you started in business in the '70s, prior to the introduction of power hand tools, or maybe you couldn't afford them when you were just starting out. You had to spend long, back-breaking hours sawing branches, hand trimming shrubbery, and then use a rake and broom to clean up the plant waste. When your business expanded, you needed a way to be more efficient, more productive. You needed a way to make your life easier.

Of all the equipment in your arsenal, it is perhaps the smallest and least expensive power hand tools that make the difference between a two-hour job and an all day job. These power tools keep your men moving and your profits rolling in.

"Handheld power tools have really helped advance the cause of landscape contractors because they greatly increase productivity on the job," said Rick Cuddihe, with Husqvarna Professional Outdoor Power Products, Charlotte, North Carolina, "particularly in trimming, edging and blowing. These products save time and effort. More work can be accomplished at a faster rate. This in turn creates more revenue streams."

Of the handheld power tools available on the market today, there are three that are especially useful and should be staples in your equipment arsenal. These are the hedge trimmer, blower and chain saw. These gas-powered workhorses are designed to keep you productive and profitable. They cut job time down to a fraction of what it would normally be. These standbys should have a home on any truck or trailer.

Let?s first examine the hedge trimmer.

Hedge trimming used to be the responsibility of one guy. It was an all day job. If the property was large enough, one employee would spend an entire day or days on end trimming and shaping hedges. Imagine the old days and the massive estates with the large garden mazes trimmed with six foot hedges.

Imagine how long it took to shape them. I wonder if the poor guy whose job it was to keep those hedges trimmed ever really saw a break from it. How much easier would his job have been had a gas-powered hedge trimmer been available to him?

Hedge trimmers maintain the manicured look of the hedges and shrubs on a property. They allow for precision cutting at a rapid pace without the frustrating task of only being able to cut a very small area with each stroke. There are many types of hedge trimmers on the market and most are available in either single-sided or dual-sided configurations.

There are gas-powered models, electric ones, cordless varieties and they are all available in different sizes and different blade types depending on the job's requirements. Cutting bars generally range from 18 to 40 inches.

Smaller, lighter versions with articulating heads make it more convenient to cut from every angle. But after the hedges have been clipped, you're left with the time consuming task of cleaning up the clippings.

This leads us to the blower, one of the most dynamic time savers available today. I think about how much easier my job would have been to complete if I had had the use of a blower rather than a rake to clean up the never-ending piles of leaves. What once required several strokes with a rake to clear a small area can be done in a matter of seconds with a blower. You can clear leaves, grass clippings or any lightweight yard waste simply by aiming the hose in the right direction.

Blowers used to be large, cumbersome machines to use. Somewhere strapped to your back, others you pushed along; both made an awful lot of noise. As the years progressed so has the technology. Blowers are lighter and weigh about half of what they did a few years ago.

"If an operator is running a piece of equipment that just six or seven years ago weighed 15 pounds and now weighs 11 pounds," said Linda Beatte, Little Wonder, Southampton, Pennsylvania, "he's going to be able to do more work. He's going to be less fatigued. A happier operator spells more productivity and more profitability for the company."

Due to increasing noise restrictions, manufacturers are also making the machines quieter. "There is an emerging category in blowers --  the quiet blower," said Beatte. "A lower decibel blower is useful in areas where there have been noise restrictions." And while modern blowers are more fuel efficient, they spew fewer emissions.

The third and final staple for any trailer is the chain saw.

Although the chain saw may not be used on a daily basis, nearly every contractor has needed one at some point or another.

Chain saws have the ability to increase revenue. "Storm damage is an increasing opportunity for contractors," said Cuddihe. "In the wake of hurricanes, floods and tornadoes, the chain saw has become a wonder tool." The demand for chain saws spikes exponentially when there is a natural disaster and tons of fallen trees and destroyed structures need to be cleared.

Imagine how long it would take to hand saw a fallen tree into portable chunks. Now imagine how long it would take if you had a chain saw. Even though these tools aren't the big boys in your arsenal, often they can be the most dangerous. Safety is a huge factor with any tool on any job, and any company would be remiss if they didn't focus on the safe use of each tool. "The bigger the company, the more crews and equipment it has in the field, the more potential for injury," said Jim Schweigert, JRCO Inc., New Hope, Minnesota.

Although the chain saw sees the least amount of action, it is hands down the most dangerous piece of handheld power equipment. "The chain saw causes more injuries annually than any other power tool," said Cuddihe.

"Anyone who has ever used a power saw of any kind knows that there is a universal occurrence called 'kickback,'" continued Cuddihe. "Which means the blade will catch and it will send the entire unit in the other direction. With all of the force and torque of the saw, it's going to throw itself in your direction." A chain saw should not just be thrown on a trailer and used by any member of the crew. Employees should be properly trained in chain-saw operation.

"A chain saw needs to be respected," said Cuddihe. "The second you don't respect it is the second you get hurt." It's the same with the hedge trimmers. When you combine moving teeth with all day use, there is the potential for injury.

Often these machines have guards in place to prevent injury from blades or flying debris. These safety shields and guards are designed to protect you and your crew. Some crew members might see these extra wings and flares as obstacles; they might remove them to make work just a little more productive. In order to do their job and for the safety of the person using the equipment, they must be kept in place. Removing them is probably not the best idea.

Blowers tend to be the least dangerous of the three tools discussed here; however, they can cause massive amounts of flying debris. Anyone standing downwind of the blower's force can get peppered with flying sand and small rocks.

Because the risk for injury can be great, it is the responsibility of the company to make sure that each operator has been trained in the proper use of each piece of equipment. Once a week, every week, you should hold a 5 to 10 minute safety meeting. These meetings are known as tailgate training sessions. Cover the basics or review the safety precautions for a particular power tool. Do this on a weekly basis, no exceptions. Also make sure that each crew leader is properly trained on every piece of equipment that his crew will use.

The tools that you may have been using for many years may not be as powerful as the newer versions. Loud, bulky, heavy machines have given way to smaller, more fuel-efficient types. The noise levels and weight go down, but the power goes up. Although smaller and more convenient, these job-efficient units pack a bigger punch than their predecessors and are more comfortable to use. When purchasing these new tools, re-train employees on their use.

As you look to add these handheld workhorses to your inventory or if you're ready for some new ones, there are a few things to look for. As the technology increases, look for tools that are making advancements in the following areas.

Safety should always be priority number one. Ergonomics are increasingly more popular with manufacturers, as they know that keeping the operator comfortable is an important feature. Today's tools are lighter, weighing half of what they did a decade ago. They are more powerful than they used to be, using only a fraction of the fuel that they once did. Finally, manufacturers are looking to make these power tools quieter and cut back on the noise pollution.

"With each passing year, the machines become lighter, easier to use, more fuel efficient, more comfortable, and more powerful," said Cuddihe. "Lighter, easier to use machines mean that at the end of the day, the operator won?t be as tired. When fatigue increases, so does the chance of injury."

Simply put, these tools cut down on work time and work load. They allow your men to be more productive, but it is incumbent on the company to make certain that the operators are well-trained in the operation of the equipment, and that the tools are well-maintained.

If only I had a blower when I was growing up, I too might have enjoyed the beauty of the fall foliage.