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Grinding for Dollars

| Power Equipment

As long as there have been politicians running for office, there have been stump speeches. That is, that species of campaigning where the candidate ascends a real or virtual tree stump to address—or harangue!—a crowd of onlookers.

Kind of makes you want to grind down all the stumps in the universe. We in the landscape business can’t rid the world of speechifying and bloviating. However, with the right equipment and training, we can get rid of our customers’ unsightly and even dangerous tree stumps...and make more than a few bucks in the process.

In a recent survey conducted by this magazine, almost a third of the landscape contractors who responded to the survey reported that they now offer stump grinding as part of their array of services. That percentage has to be even higher for landscape contractors who work with trees as a matter of course. Grinding stumps is a money

Grinding stumps is a money maker. Owner Allan Dreblow of The Bulldog Landscaping, Appleton, Wisconsin, says that when his crews see a stump, they’ll discuss its removal with the customer. “We make a good profit while offering an essential service.”

Getting into the stump grinding business makes sense from the point of view of both the customer and the contractor. From the customer’s point of view, tree stumps are unsightly, and pose a safety hazard to people and property. They make terrain uneven, increasing the likelihood of a potentially dangerous collision or accident.

From the contractor’s point of view, offering this service is both a way to take care of your current clients and open new vistas for generating additional revenue. Best of all, the business is right in front of you, 24/7.

If you want to get an idea of how many stumps need grinding, do this quick test: for one week, have your crews count the number of tree stumps they encounter on properties under your care. That number accounts for your existing customers.

As for new business, pick a typical street or streets in geographic areas that you service, drive through slowly or walk through, and count the stumps in sight. Even though you’re able to see mostly front yards, you’ll count many stumps on properties you don’t service. (Not yet, anyway!) There’s money to be made in stump grinding; how much varies from locale to locale. It’s not uncommon for contractors to charge between $2 and $5 per inch of grinding, with inches measured between the farthest root points on the stump.

For example, a tree trunk might only be 24 inches in diameter, but that tree can also have above-ground roots extending another three feet in each direction. That’s 36 inches plus 36 inches of roots, plus 24 inches of trunk, which equals 96 inches of grinding. Multiply by your per-inch charge, and the dollars add up quickly.

Stump grinding equipment ranges in size from small walk-behind units, with small engines, all the way up to seriously heavy-duty units designed for forestry service. Stump cutters vary in horsepower and engine size (some have small 200cc engines, some with a 6.5 hp engine), the number of teeth on the cutting arm and wheel, power sources (gas vs. diesel), and portability.

Meanwhile, at the other end of the spectrum, you’ll find heavy-duty grinders that can handle just about any task, but are likely far too large to get through a backyard gate. The Fecon S400 grinder weighs more than 2.5 tons, is 10 feet long, and operates at between 200 and 300 horsepower.

“The highest-priced unit we manufacture sells for $138,000,” says Danny Falatok, president of J.P. Carlton Company, Spartanburg, South Carolina, a manufacturer of stump grinding equipment. “The average unit we sell is about $55,000.”

That could be overkill in our market.

Small walk-behind units range from $2,500 to $4,000 in cost.

John Swanson, product manager at Exmark, Beatrice, Nebraska, and a seven-year veteran of the company, says that their smallest units can be lifted in and out of a pickup truck by one person, while the larger one weighs 240 pounds and has lift handles for two people.

How you intend to use the equipment will dictate what size stump grinder you will rent or buy. For example, many landscape contractors begin doing stump removal because a few clients ask. Most likely, they’ll begin by renting, since they think this will be a one-time use. However, once a landscape contractor tries the equipment, and sees how easy it is to use, he might consider purchasing a smaller walk-behind unit.

Buckeye Landscape Service, Blacklick, Ohio, is a full-service landscape contracting firm that both owns a small stump grinding machine and rents larger ones as needs arise. According to Mike Estes, sales and production manager for the company, stump grinding isn’t a core business, but a valuable add-on they can offer existing customers. “We’d rather do it ourselves than farm it out.”

Another reason you might consider offering stump removal services is to avoid some of the problems involved in working with subcontractors. Richmond, Maine landscape contractor Jon McKenney, who’s been running McKenney Tree and Landscaping for 27 years, also points to operational control as a reason to do it himself.

“Before we started doing the grinding ourselves, we’d call in a subcontractor,” he relates. “The problem was, the subcontractor would gouge my customer’s lawn or otherwise mess up the property, and I’d be the one who had to fight him to come clean it up. Now, as an owner/operator, I’ll be more careful with my own work. Plus, if I gouge a lawn, it doesn’t bother me as much to fix my own mistake.”

As for Dreblow, he’s been in the industry for ten years and has run his contracting company since 2006. He maintains that a good reason for you to grind your customers’ stumps is that you can be sure that chips and dust left behind from the service can be disposed of properly.

“I’ve seen that too many tree companies leave the fallout behind for the customer to handle,” Dreblow says. “For us, as a service-oriented landscape company, we want the tree gone, the stump gone, and the mess gone. Our customers should not have to deal with the mess.”

“We do a lot of tree work, and we can gain additional revenue from getting rid of the stump,” Dreblow tells us. “Depending on the size, we’ll either remove it with a mini-excavator or grind it. When you get into something like a 24-inch oak stump, you may as well grind it, because pulling it out of the ground is a difficult process.”

If this is a business you are going to get into, Dreblow cautions not to undersell yourself in the marketplace. “If there’s an error that I see competitors repeating constantly, it’s that they don’t charge enough,” he declares. “They’ll charge $60 for a stump, and you can’t even rent a piece of equipment at that price.”

He also urges you to talk with your customers as you enter the business. “At first, we had customers who didn’t realize we offered the service. Now, when we see a stump on the property of an account, we’ll talk to them about its removal.”

Sometimes, even if your customer is okay with the stump “as is,” there’s no guarantee that a stump will not change size or shape. Fact is, some trees may be downed but not out. Felled poplars, willows, and others will send out “shoots” from their stumps or root systems. With an intact stump, your customer could find himself with an unwanted sapling or saplings sprouting through the year.

Operator safety is always a key consideration and all equipment should have some sort of safety device. Walk-behind stump grinders almost always have some sort of interlocking system where if the operator is not at the handlebars, the cutting blade will not turn. Swanson explains that the operator must squeeze a squeeze ball in order for the blade to spin. No squeeze, no grind.

Dreblow emphasizes that grinding stumps—like all aspects of our business where power equipment is used —requires attention to safety. “It’s crazy how many people get permanently hurt from flying wood chips because they’re not wearing the right safety gear,” he laments. “Splinters can act as daggers. You don’t want a dagger in your eye.”

At Bulldog, all operators must wear protective head gear, eye gear, ear plugs, and steel-toed shoes. Dreblow suggests that operators take it one step further, and learn something about the internal biochemistry of trees.

“Trees have different kinds of chemicals in them that can be irritants when mixed with sawdust,” he explains. “It’s particularly an issue with fresh-cut stumps that might still be green. So, to protect against inhaling these irritants and potentially damaging their lungs, my crews wear masks most of the time. It helps their breathing.”

Careful assessment of the grinding area is crucial. McKenney and others warn that it’s easy to get complacent and overlook hazards, like rocks and debris, that can be kicked up by the grinder. Before the actual grinding starts, you might well want to rake debris out of the way. Absolutely make sure that underground hazards like utility lines, irrigation lines, cable television lines and the like have been flagged by your customers.

It’s also important to carefully inspect and maintain your equipment.

McKenney says that too often, an operator might not check the condition of the cutting blade teeth before starting a job, or even in the midst of a job. “Loose teeth will break more easily than tight ones,” he reminds. You can save time, energy, and a trip to the supply store if you inspect your equipment before starting your day. McKenney also makes a point of doing a routine oil check for all his machines on a daily basis, before work gets underway. Stump cutter engines work hard.

These operational issues are no more complex than for any other aspect of your business. Armed with the right equipment and a modicum of training, stump grinding service may be a natural for you to offer your customers and the world.

Best of all, you won’t ever have to listen to a stump speech about it.

 
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