Aug. 1 2002 12:00 AM

When the hand-held power tool side of a company blends into the background, then these tools are fulfilling their purpose well. Line trimmers, hedge trimmers, edgers, backpack blowers and chainsaws aren?t the contractor?s most expensive tools, nor are they the most difficult to maintain. And usually, one doesn?t have to do a lot of research in the hand tool selection process, as opposed to the contemplation that goes into choosing the best mower.

Hand tools are pretty basic to the day-to-day activities of the landscape professional, a piece of the equation that looms undetected in the shadows. However, any company CEO can tell you that poorly functioning hand tools can impact quality to the point that the best and brightest crews or the most state-of-the-art zero-turn-radius machines can?t remedy the shortfalls. Take hand tools away from the industry, and see how efficiently consumers? landscape needs are met.

One of those CEOs who understands well the role of hand-held power equipment is Tom Heaviland, president of Heaviland Enterprises in Vista, California. ?Besides labor, we?re extremely reliant on good performing hand tools to make us efficient,? he says. ?We?re always looking for ways to be competitive and keep our costs down, and the right hand tool just adds to our efficiency and effectiveness in the field. It plays a huge role in what we do and how we do it.?

A wise investment in hand-held power tools can go a long way.

Life?s a little easier
For the most part, what hand tools have done is to mechanize those chores that were traditionally done with much tedium, and ever-expanding technology has continued to mean more improvements. As is the case with their larger counterparts, improvements in engines and materials have led to trimmers, chainsaws and other equipment that weigh less and last longer.

?Over a period of time, they?ve all become lighter,? says Ron Kujawa, CEO of KEI in Cudahy, Wisconsin. ?They?ve all become quieter. They?ve become more user-friendly in many ways. I think that most of the manufacturers have worked very diligently to try and make their products more appealing to the end user.?

Better and lighter machines mean that work is completed faster with less user fatigue. Modern instruments require less maintenance, which directly addresses corporate downtime. Heaviland applauds manufacturers, too, for making their products quieter, which really means a lot in those areas with strict noise control standards. This again plays into the notion of hand-held power equipment as ?stealth? tools: the less you?re aware of them, the better.

Some of the hand tool features that manufacturers boast of today include interchangeable attachments, low-maintenance filtration systems, steel drive shafts, diaphragm carburetors and anti-vibration. It?s difficult to imagine that technology could make these machines even more durable and user-friendly, say many landscape professionals. Given the level of near-perfection that some of these products have already attained, are hand-held machines apt to become any quieter, lighter and more fuel efficient over the next few years?

The weight of the law
Many in the industry feel that the evolution has peaked and that a ?de-evolution? of sorts should be expected, especially in light of current and pending emissions mandates. These legislated standards are apt to mean slightly heavier trimmers and other tools, and the changes could also translate to lighter pocketbooks for consumers.

?The introduction and the continual improvement of these tools have made the work a lot easier for people,? says Kujawa. ?It?s made crews more efficient. I think that any time we would be restricted on some of these things the quality of the jobs could go down and the cost could become prohibitive. I feel that some of these communities and states should really consider the ultimate effects of what they?re doing. Too much well-intentioned legislation really causes problems in the final analysis.?

According to Echo?s Joe Fahey, the legislation that essentially began the hand tool emissions debate was conceived by the California Air Resources Board (CARB). Currently, CARB requires these products to operate at an emissions level of 54 grams per horsepower-hour of hydrocarbons and nitrogen oxides. ?That?s a pretty strict emission level, considering the fact that basic two-cycle, hand-held engines are historically well over 200,? Fahey explains. In other words, manufacturers have faced a significant challenge in making tools compliant.

And while the standards began in California, the EPA is taking the concept national, albeit on a declining, annual scale. ?For example,? says Fahey, ?in 2001, we had to be at 184 grams per horsepower hour, and this year, we?re at 146. Next year, it?s 110. In 2004, it?s 74, and in 2005, it?s 37, which is lower than CARB currently is.? Furthermore, Fahey points out that 37 grams per horsepower hour signifies hand tool emissions reductions of greater than 80 percent.

EPA?s technical guidance document, ?Small Engine Emission Standards,? attempts to explain the reasoning behind such strict guidelines: ?According to EPA estimates, in many large urban areas, pre-1997 lawn and garden equipment accounts for as much as five percent of the total man-made hydrocarbons that contribute to ozone formation. EPA expects that reducing emissions from small engines will help to alleviate the formation of ground-level ozone, resulting in a decrease of air pollution-related problems for urban residents.?

Making it happen
The average end user might look at this mandated 80 percent reduction and think ?Wow,? and that?s basically what the manufacturers have said.

?Everybody looks at each other,? says Fahey, ?and they say, ?How are we going to do that??? He explains that some manufacturers are going to four-cycle engines, while others are switching to a two-cycle/four-cycle hybridization developed by the military a couple of decades ago. Still others are remaining true to two-cycle and reducing emissions via catalytic mufflers or other innovations. (And at least one company is approaching the emissions mandates with battery-powered, commercial-grade landscape equipment.) Furthermore, says Fahey, the solutions touch the realms of competition and survival as they find their way into marketing campaigns.

?It?s a fascinating scenario that the industry?s in right now, because not only is it a technological, engineering, manufacturing issue, but it?s also a marketing issue,? he says. ?Everyone is working on their own to come up with a solution, and the solutions are coming in many different formats.?
With all the pressure that?s been placed on hand tool manufacturers, the full effect has been slow in reaching contractors. Heaviland discusses how his company used to use two-cycle mowers, but now they can?t. Otherwise, emissions haven?t really affected daily operations. ?Other than the 21-inch mowers,? he says, ?we haven?t been impacted.?

Because emissions standards haven?t been felt green-industry-wide so far, a great many landscape professionals aren?t overly concerned with what?s at stake. One typical response among contractors is to ignore the issue and consider it something for the manufacturers to work out among themselves. ?A lot of people are saying, ?Well, it?s the manufacturers? issue; they?ll just deal with it,?? explains Fahey. ?But customers should be aware of what the outcome is.? It?s probable that the outcome could mean heavier or more costly trimmers, chainsaws or blowers, and it will be the end user who will ? quite literally ? shoulder such modifications. (On the other hand, the EPA estimates that the emissions regulations will only increase equipment costs by five to seven dollars per unit, but that these costs will be recovered through improved fuel efficiency and durability.)
The contractors who have been keeping a close eye on the matter are wondering what improved emissions will mean to them.

Maximizing the equipments? potential
Regardless of what the future holds for hand tools, landscape contractors can take certain steps to get the most out of this equipment. For instance, here are a few things a company can do to ensure that blowers, trimmers or chainsaws do what they were designed to do, and serve as an asset rather than a liability:
? Find a manufacturer whose products serve your crews? needs and stick with that brand. ?We try to stay with one manufacturer,? says Heaviland. ?Try to keep it real consistent.?
? If using two-cycle machinery, mix fuel using oil from the tool?s manufacturer. Maybe the difference in the various oils is too minute to make a difference, but why risk it?
? Train your employees in the proper use of hand tools, and follow the manufacturer?s recommended maintenance schedule.
? Protect the tools. Secure them in the vehicles or trailers when traveling, and avoid excessive exposure to dirt or precipitation.
Hand-held power equipment may be among the smallest and least expensive equipment on a company?s trucks, but by no means are they the least significant. These machines are expected to run daily in a host of conditions. It?s with these tools that you mind the details, and without them, all the knowledge and experience that your company collectively possesses wouldn?t account for nearly as much.
Hand tools have come far in recent years, but has hand-held power equipment technology advanced as far as it can without the costs outweighing the benefits? Perhaps that?s a question we should keep asking ourselves in the coming years as government gets more involved in the engineering of these products. u

July 2002