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Add Muscle to Your Business with Power Tools

KEITH ROBERTS | Landscape

What landscape contractor can honestly say they didn’t start cleaning up leaves with the rake? Even today, if you are starting out, especially on a tight budget, chances are you would begin by using a rake. Probably, one of the first pieces of power equipment you would purchase, after a lawn mower, would be a blower.

The blower is the norm now, and the odds are you wouldn’t go back to using a rake even if you were paid extra to do it. Something as simple as blowing leaves from one place to another has made a job so much easier, and more efficient. Not to mention safer; certain parts of the anatomy, especially the back, are quite grateful for the switch from manual labor to automated convenience.

How about edging, remember the old hand trimmers? They operated on a single wheel with steel blades, on a long wooden handle. As you pushed the trimmer, you needed to apply downward pressure and it would cut the grass creeping over a border. Power tools have made it so that you’ll probably never trim this way again.

Thanks to minituraturization and new technology, power tools are now lighter; with a far superior attention to ergonomics that lessens fatigue. Reduction in noise levels, an unpleasant attribute that has always gone hand in hand with landscape power tools, are becoming more tolerable as companies succeed in muffling their sound while tackling the air pollution factor, and of course, reliability of the equipment has improved tremendously.

Before we talk about some of the more popular power tools in a landscaper’s truck, we should examine the quality of tools available. Power tools are not created equal, and a landscape contractor should not compromise quality, because sometime the cheapest ends up being the most expensive.

Generally, there are two types of power tools, those used by professionals and those purchased by homeowners. The consumer products were meant to be used on an occasional basis, not for hours every day use. The equipment for the consumer is less expensive; however it is not heavy duty and won’t stand up to daily heavy use. They are usually sold in hardware stores; such as Home Depot’s and Lowe’s.

Professionals buy a more heavy duty product, usually through a dealership as opposed to a hardware store. This heavy duty equipment was meant to work every day on every job. It will not break down after a short period of use.

This leads us to what is believed to be the most important factor to consider when buying a tool: its durability. “The main thing is durability; the tool has to be solid and it must be able to take a beating,” says Jim Hood, creative manager at RedMax, located in Norcross, Georgia. “Typically a contractor will replace his power tools every two to three years. But tools made now should be expected to last four to six years. We design our tools to do the latter.”

Warranty is also important. “The contractor should probably ask himself how well the company backs up their product,” says Hood. “The key thing is warranty.”

According to Hood, companies are often required to list how many hours a power tool is expected to last. Ratings include 50, 125, and 300. For homeowners, 50 or 125 hour rated products may be the best bet, but for a landscape contractor, choosing these tools for every day work could spell problems. They are simply not designed for that high level of use.

“There is a mandate by the EPA basically stating that the carburetor must be rebuilt after a certain amount of time,” says Jeff Marcinowski, engineering manager for Little Wonder in Southampton, Pennsylvania. “Its very important for contractors to purchase equipment rated for 300 hours.”

Lynette Hart, manager of Portable Power Equipment at John Deere, wants landscape contractors not to associate emission reduction technology with loss of power. “Look for a unit that has a good HP rating for its engine size.”

Let’s look at some of the most common power hand tools used by landscape contractors. They would be line trimmers, blowers, hedge trimmers-including the extended reach units, and chain saws. Each kind of tool has different things that you should be looking for in regards to its quality; things that will ultimately make it either a time saver or a money robbing machine.

Starting with line trimmers; these machines are considered by many to be a “must-have” in the tool shed of anybody in landscape maintenance. “For trimmers, you want a unit with a high power to weight ratio,” says Hart. “You want a unit with good power, but you don’t want it too heavy.”

When looking at the edger you’re considering purchasing, see if the vital components are adequately protected. If it doesn’t look like it can survive a ride in a trailer and seems fragile enough not to absorb an occasional drop while in use, you may want to think twice about buying it.

If you plan to rely on the same edger for years to come, through thick and thin, you’re going to have to replace some parts at some time. Although this is considered general maintenance, it will apply to all power tools. Because of this, it’s worth looking into whether parts for the tool you’re buying are readily available and aren’t hard to find. Ask a few questions before buying, like if you have to order the parts, how fast can the dealer get them for you?

Then there is the great debate between 2-cycle and 4-cycle engines. “Two strokes typically have fewer maintenance issues, which means lower down time for the user,” says Hood. “Two-strokes also rev higher, which can translate into a faster trimmer speed. They also have a wider angle of operation, so a contractor doesn’t have to worry as much about spilling oil.”

“However,” continues Hood, “It is harder to make it run cleaner. 4-stroke engines, by their nature, run cleaner.”

“Both are good engines,” says Hart. “But 4-cycle units typically cost more, weigh more, and have more moving engine parts, which equates to more things being able to break.”

If you are looking to add or replace blowers to your lineup, comfort should be a big factor in your considerations. Wearing such a piece of equipment on the back is a welcome mat to potential injuries. “Look at the harness, shoulder straps, and lumbar areas for thick comfortable padding,” advises Hart.

Blowers are notorious not only for their leaf blowing efficiency, but the noise they bellow. Look for a quiet unit: the lower the decibels the better.

Contractors can usually tell the quieter units from the louder ones by the size of the muffler. The larger it is, the less noisy it will be. Go for the bigger ones; you will spare yourself hearing loss from the blower and headaches from the complaining of irate neighbors.

Power on a blower is usually measured by air velocity and air volume. However, the industry has no strict guidelines for making these measurements. “Ask the dealer if you can demonstrate the machine and see if it works in the conditions that you anticipate to use it in,” Hart recommends.

With hedge trimmers, one should look into how fast the blades cycle and understand what kind of branch thickness it can handle. “In terms of quality, a contractor is going to want to look for double reciprocating blades. Most of the professionals that we have spoken to say these blades provide a better quality cut,” says Marcinowski. “Contractors are also better off looking for hedge trimmers, along with other power tools that use bearings instead of bushings. Bushings usually wear out quicker and don’t provide the same kind of blade speed.”

Hart also recommends that professionals pay attention to the range of the trimmer’s head adjustment. “An operator wants the unit in a proper position for as many different jobs as possible; if not all of them.”

What contractors need to look for in pole saws are similar to hedge trimmers, except weight is an even bigger factor. If the unit is heavy, fatigue will set in pretty quick, and it will be harder to use for any extended amount of time. Make sure that the unit provides good visibility so you can see exactly where you’re cutting.

A tool that will likely not see as much use by a landscape contractor as the other power tools is the chainsaw. Nonetheless, the day you don’t have it in your truck will probably be the day you need it more than anything.

Power to weight ratio is another important factor to look at for chainsaws. Because of their potential to cause severe injury, safety features become an all-important consideration. “Look for inertia chains brakes and guide bar safety tips,” says Hart. “Both of these will help prevent kickback injuries.”

The chain tension adjustment should also be easily accessible. A chainsaw’s durability and overall toughness is also heavily dependant on the integrity of its components. Look for forged connecting rods and caged rod bearings.

But there are some other power tools that are a little less well known, despite their surprisingly long existence. Wes Breecher, vice president of Borit Manufacturing based in Phoenix, Arizona, claims this tool has been around since the 1950’s. It is a hand held boring system.

If a contractor needs to install irrigation pipe underneath a section of driveway or sidewalk, this tool will make the job considerably easier. “The tool basically works off a garden hose and a drill with a half inch chuck. The water softens the soil and cools the bit while it bores the soil,” says Breecher. “We’ve had people drill up to 70 feet or more. It’s pretty easy and it’s almost impossible for the tool to stop working. It sure beats using PVC and a hammer and banging away forever.”

Another tool that is gaining in popularity for landscape contractors is the mini-tiller. This tool breaks up compacted soil and comes in either a 2-cycle or 4-cycle engine. The set-up weighs about 20 pounds. “More commercial operators are getting hooked on using this tiller,” said Marcinowski.

Even though purchasing power tools don’t carry the same kind of financial weight as, say, buying a car, the research that should be done before purchasing either are comparable. Reliability, horsepower, comfort, and warranty are important to consider when purchasing machines that tackle everyday work. A few minutes of research before buying can add up to many years of efficient and outstanding operation, which is naturally what running your business is all about.

 
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