Power Tools

Working Smarter ... Not Harder

It’s been said that the ability to use and create tools is what sets the human species apart more so than anything else. Still, progress has been relatively slow. We didn’t advance from the Stone Age to smelting copper and tin until about 5,500 years ago. This seems odd to us, here in the 21st century, where rapid technological change is the norm. Just a few years ago, a cellular phone was a luxury item. Now, virtually everyone has a smartphone, even small children.

The same thing is true of our landscape tools. The technological revolution has turned manual rakes and reel mowers into quaint, archaic antiques.

Today, we rely on tools with horsepower to make short work of everyday jobs and increase our productivity. The power tools we use now have improved tremendously from those of just 20 to 30 years ago, and the next generation will be even more advanced.

They’ll be more durable, more fuel-efficient, less noisy, and emit lower, if any, emissions. A power tool of the future will not only have a motor, but a microchip—a tiny brain that will continuously monitor the engine, keep it in tune, and even diagnose any problem as it occurs, before any real damage can be done.

Buy right

All this speculation about power tools of the future is interesting, but let’s not forget their purpose: making money. “Let’s face it, professional landscapers are in the business of business,” said Roger Phelps, communications manager at STIHL Inc., Virginia Beach, Virginia. “They’re trying to build capital. So anything that assists them in making money, or saving money, is going to be beneficial.”

How do they make you money? By making your crews more productive. The right power tools let them perform more work in less time, with less of a human toll in fatigue. The right equipment choices can even reduce the amount of people-power needed to complete tasks.

Manufacturers of power tools are always working on ways to make them more comfortable and less fatiguing to use. This isn’t just a matter of comfort; the longer someone can use a tool without undue strain, the more productive he’ll be. Take ergonomic features into account when making your buying decisions.

So buying the right equipment is essential. And that process starts with finding a good dealer, insists Bethany Hannah, independent chainsaw instructor. “Finding a dealer in your local area that you can go to with questions is so important. These machines are required to keep working for long periods of time. There’s always something that can go wrong, so being able to tap into a dealer’s expertise and experience is essential.”

According to Gent Simmons, handheld product manager at Charlotte, North Carolina-based Husqvarna USA, “The number-one thing to look for when selecting a power tool is durability. When you’re considering a purchase, you need a quality engine, one that will hold up eight hours a day, five days a week.”

A good local dealer should also show you how to properly use the tool, demonstrate all of its different features, and explain what’s required to maintain it.

Look for a dealer who wants to build a long-term trust relationship with you, one who isn’t just out to make a quick buck. You need a reliable dealer who can advise you well and ensure that you’re selecting the best tools for your business.

Your part of this relationship is making sure you let your dealer know exactly how you’ll be using the tool and under what conditions. For instance, say you’re in the market for a leaf blower. José Cantu, co-founder of Saw House in Houston, Texas, points out that one contractor might just need a step-up from a broom for quick cleanups; a cheaper, less cumbersome handheld unit might work just fine for him. A landscape maintenance contractor, however, who needs to blow a lot of leaves off a lot of driveways, needs the greater power and efficiency of a backpack blower.

Don’t overlook safety features. Chainsaws, while perfectly safe when used properly, have the potential to cause injuries from kickback.

As Hannah explains, “Kickback is an uncontrollable force that happens when a certain part of the tip of the cutting bar is impacted. Even the strongest guy out there cannot stop the forces of kick back.” Any new chainsaw should come with safety features, such as chain-breaks, that will stop the chain from moving should it hit someone’s wrist during a kickback scenario.

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Training

Many dealers offer free training; why not take advantage of it? Even experienced professionals can learn more efficient ways of doing things, or become aware of bad habits they may have developed. Also, new models may not operate exactly the same way the old ones did.

“A guy who’s not paying attention and wants to start the chainsaw the way he’s always done it may flood the engine,” says Phelps. “Then he thinks it’s a piece of junk, throws it in the trailer, and says, ‘I can’t use that.’ But all he needs is a little bit of training. The smart companies will spend time training their operators.” It’s a matter of both safety and productivity.

Maintenance

Maintenance, or more precisely, the lack of it, is a common source of unnecessary costs, according to Simmons. Many contractors feel that there just aren’t enough hours in the day to do preventative work, such as changing oil or tightening chains. That’s why repair shops often see power tools that have been run into the ground, their working lifespans shortened considerably.

It’s easy to see why. In a demanding day that starts very early and can end quite late, it’s one more thing to fit into an already toocrowded schedule. But Simmons advises, “In the long run, you actually save time and money when you put a good preventative maintenance program into place. Yet I know so many landscape people who don’t even think about their machines until they’re broken.”

An effective maintenance plan doesn’t have to put a lot of demands on your time. Often all that’s needed are regular filter and oil changes, just as you’d do for your car. “It’s little things, like checking the spark plugs occasionally to make sure there’s no carbon buildup. In the long run, it saves you money because when a machine goes down, it can be very costly,” Simmons said. The cost adds up not only in repair bills, but in downtime.

Contractors have various ways of dealing with this. Some have in-house shops; others, even some large companies, have arrangements with local repair facilities where they take their equipment regularly. The key word is ‘regularly.’ There are smartphone apps that can keep track of the amount of time that tools are being used. After a certain number of hours, it’s time for maintenance.

Fuel

Unless you’ve been hiding your head in the sand, you know about the ethanol controversy. Most at-the-pump gasoline now contains at least ten percent ethanol, and there is a push to make this percentage even higher. If you have access to gasoline without ethanol, it’s a good idea to use it in all your two-stroke equipment.

Even ten-percent ethanol is problematic, for the simple fact that it attracts water. As Phelps describes, “If you let that fuel sit, as that five-gallon tank gets toward the bottom, the ethanol in there attracts moisture, and the fuel starts to separate. Now there are three layers: water, alcohol and gas. The first two don’t do well in an engine.” They can also void your warranty.

Water can cause hard starts, and even cause a tool to simply stop. Gas with water in it burns much hotter, leaving “burn marks scorching your cylinders. It really requires rethinking the way you mix and fuel your equipment.”

When your crews gas up their tools in the morning, make sure they read the stickers on the pumps. There are some states where E-15 and even E-85 pumps will be side-by-side with E-10. If you mix your own fuel, only mix enough for a few weeks at a time. When you’re storing your tools for the winter, drain all the fuel out, or at least, put in some stabilizer.

There is an alternative. Partly due to this issue, some contractors are switching over to propane- or battery-powered tools. Simmons believes, “The momentum is in favor of battery-powered equipment. More and more professionals are going to start moving in that direction because the performance is as good as it is.” To keep running all day, they keep extra batteries in their trucks, hooked up to trickle chargers.

More about safety

Skimping on protective gear is a gamble not worth taking. Have policies in place requiring that safety glasses, hearing protection and gloves be worn at all times.

And when you bring out the heavy artillery, such as chainsaws, protective gear such as chaps, goggles and hardhats are a must. Hannah says many people will skip donning protective gear when they pick up that chainsaw to “just go cut one thing.” An injury only takes a few seconds, but being out on worker’s comp can last for weeks.

At her workshops, Hannah has competitions to see who can get into full protection the fastest. “It seems stupid, but it really works to drive the point home that you can literally put on head-to-toe safety gear in less than one minute.”

What’s ahead?

With the pace of technology going as fast as it is, we in the green industry have a lot to look forward to. Many improvements have already been made, says Simmons, “but the knowledge about them needs to get out there more.” For instance, he explains that there are battery-powered line trimmers, hedge trimmers and top-handle chainsaws that are the equal of their gas-powered counterparts, but many contractors have never tried them.

Battery-powered tools are more popular in cities with noise and emissions regulations. These municipalities restrict the hours during which gas-powered tools can be used, but have no limits on battery-powered equipment.

As reducing our carbon footprint becomes an increasing concern, manufacturers will keep working on more powerful, longer-lasting batteries. And urban clients will seek out landscape contractors who use battery-powered equipment. Less noise and zero exhaust fumes will make clients happy—the kind of happy that brags and makes referrals, and is possibly the most effective way to advertise to their neighbors.

Power tools are getting more powerful, more efficient, and easier to use and maintain than ever before, simply because there are a lot of manufacturers out there competing for your hard-earned dollar. You just might need to tweak your thinking a bit—regarding maintenance, training and fuel—to get the best bang for your buck. Doing so ups your game and gives you an edge over your competition.

It’s time to power up!