The Year of the Battery
When Greg Taylor, owner of GTM Services in Largo, Florida, went to the Green Industry Expo (GIE) in 2014, he noticed that there were a few more companies selling battery-powered outdoor equipment. He saw one display where contractors could try out battery-powered string trimmers on cardboard, and decided to give the demo a shot.
“I went in thinking that I would try it, really lay into the thing, and it would stall,” said Taylor, “but it didn’t.” The string trimmer had more power than Taylor expected, but he still wasn’t sure. However, later that year, Taylor’s hedge trimmer broke down, and he remembered what he’d seen at the GIE show.
He also recalled that, “It came with a 90-day guarantee, so I thought to myself, ‘Hey, if it works, great. If it doesn’t, I can just take it back.’” Taylor found that the hedge trimmer was perfect. It had enough power, and he ran out of energy before the battery did. In addition, he didn’t have to worry about buying gas for it, perform maintenance on it, or worry about the carburetor clogging when he didn’t use it that often.
Taylor’s story is being repeated across the country. While outdoor power equipment using lithium-ion batteries was once mostly consumer-oriented, tool lines geared toward landscape contractors are starting to gain traction. The equipment has been around for a few years, but now it’s starting to enter the mainstream at the professional level.
In Towson, Maryland, Tyler Delin, a product manager for DeWalt’s Outdoor Power Equipment division, said he’s seen firsthand how this trend has grown. “Battery power has been relevant for the past five or six years, but mostly where contractors are operating in cities with noise-limiting ordinances, or where they have clients who value low emissions,” he said. “In the past couple of years, we’re actually seeing contractors outside of those niches getting off the fence and into battery-powered equipment.”
So what’s changed? To understand that, we first have to understand what tools the green industry uses, what we need them to do, and what qualities we look for when considering a purchase. Just to clarify, for our purposes here, we’ll only be talking about handheld outdoor power equipment. While mowers, mini-skid-steers, stand-on aerators and the like all qualify as outdoor power equipment, they are a different segment. This is about the powered hand tools that we use on a daily or weekly basis.
The handheld tools we might carry on our trucks include string trimmers, leaf blowers, hedge trimmers, edgers, brush cutters, pole hedge trimmers and chainsaws. Whether they’re moving air or cutting through things, these tools need a lot of power. Traditionally, that power has been provided by small, 2- or 4-stroke gas engines, and make no mistake, gas power still makes up most of the market for contractors right now.
Gas provides a lot of power and, for the heaviest pieces of equipment, like backpack blowers, batteries still can’t quite compete. The 2-stroke engines are simple, lighter than other engines, and have fewer parts to break. The downside is that the user has to mix oil and gas together. The 4-stroke engines produce fewer emissions, don’t require fuel mixing, and are more fuel-efficient, but they are also heavier and more complex.
Marv Mathwig, power tools product manager for STIHL, headquartered in Virginia Beach, Virginia, says that his company has taken a hybrid approach. “In September, we launched a new line of equipment, with 4- stroke engines that don’t have oil pumps or reservoirs,” he said. You mix fuel and oil for it, just as you would with a 2-stroke, but it burns cleaner than a 2-stroke, even without a heavy, hot, catalytic muffler.
When looking at engines, it’s worth considering the power-to-weight ratio, if you’re expecting to use that tool on a daily basis. Buying a piece of equipment without any anti-vibration mechanisms, or one that is particularly heavy, can be a recipe for disaster. Those are both examples of poor ergonomics, and the science of ergonomics doesn’t exist just to make your employees happy, but to keep them safe.
Take a moment to think about how your crews look at the start of the day, and compare it to how they look by the end of the day. If your employees go out bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, but come back to the yard slumping with fatigue, they’re at risk and your business is, too. Using poorly-designed power equipment may be the cause.
Three things affect your level of fatigue when you use a power tool: noise, vibration and weight. Obviously, a heavy tool is harder to carry and use than a lighter one, but vibration and noise can be just as tough on you in the long run. Tired employees are more likely to be sloppy or cut corners. A buildup of physical fatigue can also affect mental faculties; tired people make more mistakes.
Power tool manufacturers are trying to reduce this factor. “We reduced the weight at the end of our gearbox by two ounces on one of our units,” said Mathwig. “People pick it up and say, ‘I don’t feel a difference’; but I guarantee you, if they try using it over the course of a 10- or 12-hour day, they’re going feel a difference.”
You may think that fatigue isn’t worth worrying about, as feeling tired at the end of the day can almost be nice; it carries with it a sense of accomplishment. But here’s something you may not have considered: ergonomics can affect turnover. Consider a young man, fresh out of high school, looking for his first job. He could find work at a call center, or doing data entry, but he knows how boring that would be. He wants to be outside, in the fresh air, being active.
So he finds work with a landscape company, but he isn’t prepared for just how heavy the workload is. He comes home exhausted every day, too tired to do anything more than shower, eat dinner in front of the TV, and go to bed. In a month, he’ll have some more muscle, and things will get easier, but he won’t last that long. By Wednesday, a nice comfy seat in an air-conditioned room starts sounding pretty good to him, so he calls a temp agency. On Monday, he’s a no-show.
In this economy, green-industry companies are scrambling to meet their labor needs. The more attractive you can make the job, the better.
The prospect of working around a lot of noise and exhaust fumes may not be an interest-killer in the same way that radioactive waste or coal dust is, but it isn’t exactly enticing, either.
Those are long-term health risks, but the short-term safety issues are also worth considering. It seems obvious, but every string trimmer, chainsaw or edger comes with guidelines about how to operate it safely, and everyone who touches that tool should know those guidelines. Having a safety program in place, and requiring employees to wear their Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) whenever they’re in the field, is at least as important as what you buy. All the safety features in the world won’t protect your employees if they misuse the tools.
Regular maintenance is an ancillary but important part of safe operation as well. “You’ve got to make sure that there are no cracks in trimmer heads or blades,” said Christian Johnssen, product manager for handheld and battery-powered products at Husqvarna USA in Charlotte, North Carolina. “Make sure that there’s nothing which could break and hurt someone in any way.”
“When we think about maintaining our handheld power equipment, we’re mostly thinking about cleaning air and fuel filters, or replacing spark plugs,” said Johnssen. One of the draws of battery-powered equipment is that contractors can shed those maintenance burdens. Batteries just need to be plugged in every night. The lithium-ion formulas used now are a lot hardier than the old, nickel-cadmium batteries of yesteryear.
That brings up another important concept: runtime versus work time. If you’re looking at a battery-tool combination with a 45-minute runtime, you may think that you’ll have to buy six or eight of those batteries to keep it up and running, but that’s not the case. It’s worth checking, to be sure, but generally, runtime refers to how long a battery will last at full trigger.
“You can get three hours of work time out of 50 minutes of runtime,” said Delin. “Because you’re not always fully on the trigger; you’re also walking from one location to another.” During those three hours, a second battery can be hooked up to a trickle charger on the truck. As soon as the first one runs out of power, you swap them. Johnssen recommends having two batteries per tool for that reason, but you may be able to get away with fewer.
Manufacturers are also getting better about catering to green-industry charging needs. We spend whole shifts without any available outlets, so they offer multi-battery charging stations that can hook up to a truck battery through an inverter. The inverter has a safety mechanism to keep the truck’s battery from being drained dry. One company is coming out with a charger that’s designed to attach to a zero-turn mower and draw power from it.
There are some other striking advantages to having a piece of equipment with no engine. The only noise and vibration in the tool comes from the action of the motor.
Imagine, no more engine maintenance, no more burning your arm on a hot machine—and you don’t have to yank a pull cord every time you start a machine. If a crew uses four or five tools on each property, and handles 20 properties per day, you can be talking upwards of a hundred pulls per day, which can cause repetitive strain injuries over time. In addition, you won’t get the engine blowups from bad 2-stroke mixing, or failures to start from clogged fuel lines.
The cost of refilling is not to be sneezed at, either. Taylor uses half the fuel he used to, now that he’s switched to battery power on his string trimmers, his hedge trimmer, chainsaw and handheld blower. “I still use gas for my backpack blower, and for my edger,” he said. “Being in Florida, I have to edge all the beds every three weeks or so, and it uses up a lot of fuel.”
Battery-powered equipment costs more up-front than gas, but electricity is generally cheaper than gasoline. You may find that it’s actually cheaper in the long run, though it depends on what you buy and what region of the country you’re in. Some regions have much higher fuel costs than others.
Keep in mind, handheld outdoor power equipment is designed to keep your costs manageable. Raking leaves would take too many people to do commercially, so we use backpack blowers. One person with a hedge trimmer can do the work of five people with clippers. Just think of how many people it would take to replace one employee with a string trimmer.
Power equipment empowers your employees, so spend some time, do a little homework, and decide if your equipment needs an upgrade. You might be glad you did.