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Big Muscles, Small Packages

| Landscape

What are they? They're the versatile fleet of compact utility equipment available for today's green industry professionals. And their do-it-all attitude is what makes them indispensable for those who use them.

There are many reasons why residential landscape contractors are opting for smaller equipment, says Aaron Kleingartner, loader product specialist for the Bobcat Company. Over the years, residential lot sizes have gotten smaller. Homebuilders are maximizing land by placing larger homes on smaller lots and building homes closer together. Landscape contractors have less space in which to maneuver when completing tasks such as grading, sod and irrigation installation, and placing hardscape materials.

'Compact' equipment actually comes in many sizes. Some contractors need mini marvels that can squeeze their way through narrow garden gates and maneuver in the tightest alcoves. For them, the tools of choice may include mighty mites like Toro's Dingo compact utility loaders, Ditch Witch track-mounted mini skid steers, and Bobcat mini-track loaders. Others opt for more power when the smallest size isn't the top priority. For them, compact track loaders or skid steers may fit the bill.

Whether they opt for something truly small or a little bigger, contractors look to compact equipment for its ability to reduce labor, trim transportation hassle and expense, and provide extreme versatility in one machine.

Less Labor More Versatility = More Jobs

A reduction in labor is one of the major draws of compact equipment for most contractors. It's not uncommon to use one machine and one operator to do the same job it takes three to five laborers to do by hand.

Labor savings and versatility were the big incentives when Bill Gilbert, owner of Carolina Sprinkler Systems, Inc., in Charlotte, North Carolina, purchased his Dingo. Gilbert's company specializes in irrigation, landscape lighting, ponds and water features.

"The work we do involves a lot of trenching, digging, and grading," says Gilbert. "The equipment we were using had the ability to trench, but we needed different equipment to do the other jobs. With the Dingo, we can easily switch attachments so one man can do all of these operations with one machine. First, he can do the trenching. While the system is being installed, he can start backfilling. After the backfill and compaction is done, he can turn around and start dressing out the lawn."

In spite of its small size, Gilbert finds that his equipment has the power he needs to tackle the lifting jobs he encounters regularly in his pond work. "On one job we moved 18 tons of boulders, 12 tons of gravel and another 16 tons of intermediate stones. We excavated, brought in stones, and re-graded all with one piece of equipment."

Labor savings and maneuverability were also key considerations for MJB Services in Elkhorn, Wisconsin, when they purchased their Bobcat mini track loader. As a company that spends a lot of time working on lake homes with challenging terrain and tight spaces, they were looking for something to provide access to areas they couldn't reach with a larger skid steer.

"It's a huge labor saver for us," says Kathy Boyd, who with her husband, Mike, has owned and operated MJB Services for 16 years.

"It allows us to move things that we'd otherwise be hauling with a wheelbarrow. We did one job that involved removing a poured concrete patio on a lake home. The access to it was thirty steps down. If we hadn't had this machine, we would have had to remove the slabs and walk them out by hand. With this machine, we can keep our bids in line and take on jobs we wouldn't consider otherwise."

Of course, a mini isn't the same as a full-size skid steer, but as Boyd points out, "it's a lot of power in a small package. We've used it to haul sand down to the beach, and for pallets of bricks. We even used it to haul rocks onto an island across the ice during the winter. That way we could get the rocks in place before spring."

The ability to take on new jobs is echoed over and over by contractors who have grown to depend on compact utility equipment. "There were jobs we were turning down before that we didn't think we'd have the right equipment or the right amount of manpower to handle," says Dean Hofsommer, owner of Central Iowa Lawn and Landscape in Des Moines.

Hofsomer owns a compact track loader from John Deere. Though quite a bit larger than a mini, his machine is still compact enough to maneuver in residential settings and it provides the power he was looking for. "We can now take on lots of bigger landscaping projects, bigger retaining walls for instance. Before, we'd be hauling things by hand and there were a lot of sore backs. Now we do it several times faster with a lot less manpower and no back injuries. I haven't seen a job yet that we wouldn't be able to tackle."

The increased ability to handle new jobs comes in part from the labor savings, but also from the multiple attachments available for compact equipment. Many units offer dozens of attachments. Some of the more common ones include buckets for digging, grading, and hauling; trenchers for wiring and irrigation installation; and augers for planting and post holes. Pallet forks, sweepers, stump grinders, backhoes, and soil conditioners are also very popular. These attachments make it economically feasible to own a wide variety of specialized tools with one power unit.

"Diversity is the main driving force behind this equipment," says Greg Zupancic, product marketing manager for John Deere. "Think of this as something like a Dreml tool on a larger scale. With different attachments, one tool can be used to accomplish a tremendous number of jobs. With the fairly low acquisition cost of attachments, contractors can use this equipment to completely diversify their business. For example, landscapers who do most of their work in warm weather can now take that same piece of equipment and use it to remove snow in winter."

MJB Services definitely found this to be the case. "In addition to the loading bucket, we added a stump grinder, auger, landscape rake, pallet fork, and others," says Boyd. "We now take on jobs, like stump grinding, that we wouldn't have taken before. We're a much more versatile company now."

8_3.jpgChoosing wisely

The compact equipment industry is booming, and this means a plethora of options to choose from.

What are the most important considerations when making purchasing decisions?

One size doesn't fit all. One of your first considerations should involve the balance of size versus power. With a larger size, you of course get less maneuverability in the most confined spaces, but you also get more power. Think realistically about the space limitations you encounter in most of your jobs. Don't forget to consider the jobs you wanted but couldn't do because you didn't have the right sized equipment. Then look at machines that fit the requirements of your normal jobs (those you have and those you want). Remember, you can always rent equipment to deal with the rare exceptions to the norm.

Wheels or tracks? Another major consideration is whether to go with wheeled or tracked units. This again will depend on the conditions and situations you normally encounter. Instead of putting all their weight on four wheels, tracked units spread their weight. This means lower ground pressure, resulting in less soil disturbance and better performance in mud and sand. These are very attractive features for landscape contractors who frequently work on established lawns, or for those looking to extend their season. For this reason, both the mini-tracked units and the larger compact track loaders are rapidly gaining in popularity.

But wheeled units are far from obsolete in the landscape industry. Traditional wheeled skid steers are usually less expensive to purchase and maintain than compact track loaders. They work well on a variety of surfaces from dirt to concrete, and are especially well suited for lifting and loading tasks.

Do you want to ride or walk? Larger equipment like compact track loaders and skid steers are ride-on units that include cabs. The smaller compact utility equipment includes walk-behind models, those that offer a platform to stand on, and full ride-on options like those offered by Power Trac. Riding can reduce operator fatigue, but this isn't going to help if a larger size means that more manual labor will be required in the kinds of spaces you frequently encounter.

Some units offer a choice. "Bobcat mini-track loaders give the operator a choice, with an optional ride-on platform that connects to the frame with two pins," says Kleingartner. "When working in wet ground conditions, operators can easily attach the platform to the machine to avoid walking through the mud. In dry ground conditions, operators can detach the platform and walk behind the mini track loader."

So many attachments. With so many attachments available on all types of compact equipment, how do you choose which ones are essential? Which might profitably increase your service offerings?

"When first starting their business, landscape contractors should look to purchase attachments that can be used to complete as many jobs as possible," says Kleingartner. "If they are receiving requests for jobs they don't typically do, another option is to rent attachments to help them complete those jobs. This provides landscape contractors the option of exploring new services to determine whether they fit their business, with only a minor investment."

Ease of operation.

When testing equipment, contractors should make sure to think about it from all angles. Who will be operating it -- seasonal employees or seasoned professionals? How easy is it to learn? How easy is it to attach and detach tools?

"When testing different models, keep in mind your visibility in close quarters," says Hofsommer. "If employees are working in tight quarters, they need to know where they are at all times in relation to the house or other structures. I found a lot of variation in this from one machine to the next."

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Service, service, service. No matter what size or type of compact equipment you purchase, remember that you aren't only purchasing the equipment itself. You're also purchasing reliability and the service of the dealer you're working with. A dealer who becomes part of your team, and who has an obvious commitment to helping you succeed, is a critical component of your purchase.

This was a huge part of the equation for Bill Gilbert, who purchased his Dingo from STI Turf Care Equipment in Charlotte, North Carolina. "Service makes the world of difference," says Gilbert. "If you're on a job and you have a problem with your equipment, you can't spend your time going all over town to get it fixed. If I've had a problem, I've had them come and pick up my machine, take it in for repairs, and return it to me so that I didn't have downtime. If I need a part and they don't have it, they'll find out who does and how I can get it. They've been a real partner in my efforts."

For today's landscape professionals, multi-tasking is an everyday affair. Whether they're building a new backyard from scratch, installing lighting and other electronics, serving as irrigation experts, or moving snow, they now do it all. With today's compact utility equipment, multi-tasking is getting easier all the time.

 
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