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Chippers Off the Old Block

ROBIN WESTMILLER | Landscape Maintenance
What if you could easily and relatively inexpensively expand your business without incurring increased operating costs? And what if you could accomplish this by adding only one piece of equipment to your inventory that would not only help you grow your business, but provide you with an additional source of revenue and promote an eco-friendly environment as well?

No other piece of equipment is more effective to accomplish all this, and more, than the mighty little brush chipper.

It wasn’t that long ago when some landscape companies only did design/build; they would not do any maintenance. But times have changed. Landscape contractors are always looking for ways to increase their bottom line, and sometimes increasing their bottom line means adding services to offer their clients. Mowing turf and pruning shrubs are now part of many design/build contractors’ list of services, in pursuit of higher earnings from existing clients. Some have now also taken to trimming trees, as a way to attract new clientele.

In the past, these jobs were commonly sub-contracted out to tree care companies. But today, many landscape business owners are opting to take training and certification courses in order to provide these services in-house and keep all of the revenue in their own pockets.

Adding pruning and trimming services may mean increased revenue, but it can also mean increased problems, especially when it comes to disposing of the debris. Piling branches, twigs and limbs onto trucks and hauling them away to a dumpsite can be labor intensive and a costly endeavor. In addition, new environmental landfill restrictions and rising disposal fees can quickly eat into your profits. Include skyrocketing fuel costs and additional man-hours, and you may have to increase your rates across the board just to break even. While adding services may bring you increased business, if those services are going to end up costing you more to operate, will it be worthwhile?

“Landscape contractors have come to realize that a chipper is an essential item for any professional who is in the pruning and tree trimming business,” says Jason

Morey of Bandit Industries, Remus, Michigan. “Chippers reduce the volume of material that needs to be hauled from the jobsite, saving time and increasing productivity.”

Gary McCunn, arbor manager at Four Peaks Landscape Management, Tempe, Arizona, experienced this first-hand. Before he started working for the company, crews were loading all the debris by hand into huge trailers, and then driving the trailer-trucks to the dumpsite. “When I was first hired, the men were carrying half-ton loads to the dumpsite three or four times a day. After we purchased the chipper, we were able to cut down the trips to no more than once a day, with each carrying as much as four to five tons of debris per load,” McCunn said.

Darrin Campbell of Green Thumb Lawn & Landscape, in Wichita, Kansas, cites increased efficiency as the number-one benefit of using a chipper. “It definitely cuts down on manpower,” he says. “Instead of making five trips to the d u m p , y o u c a n make one. With today’s gas prices, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that manpower is not the only savings.”

While pruning and tree trimming services are a natural fit for a landscape contractor, if you’re going to add another piece of heavy equipment to your inventory, choosing the right one for the job is essential. The first determination you’ll need to make is the size of your clients’ properties, and the size of the limbs and branches you’ll be placing into the chipper.

When it comes to purchasing chippers, bigger isn’t necessarily better. In fact, purchasing a chipper that’s larger than you need not only costs more, it also weighs more—a fact that may become painfully clear after your crew tows one from jobsite to jobsite. On the other hand, going with a model that’s too small can limit production and man-hour efficiency, and can also result in more service bills and maintenance downtime.

“For residential use, a chipper that will handle wood six to nine inches in diameter with a 65hp engine would probably be sufficient,” says Mark Rau of Morbark, Winn, Michigan. “If the majority of your landscape work will be pruning shrubs and trimming smaller ornamental trees, a light-duty chipper will work well.”

The reason landscape contractors might prefer a larger-size capacity chipper is if operators want the branches, including forked material, to be able to fit into the opening without having to cut them up first. “If the contractor is going to be using the chipper for any type of volume, he wants to get through the jobs as quickly as possible, so if your debris is about six inches in diameter, then probably a 12-inch rated capacity chipper would be suitable, because the crew can put in multiple stems rather than one at a time. The goal is to get the job done as efficiently as possible,” Rau says.

In addition to increasing your menu of services, owning a chipper can also expand your company’s options in other areas as well, especially in severe weather locations. In some parts of the country, a tornado can spring up in a matter of minutes. In other areas, a tropical storm can easily grow to a Level-5 hurricane. Once the storms pass and the sunshine returns, your clients’ once beautiful landscapes can be covered with piles of unwanted refuse.

In an industry that is controlled by whichever way the wind is blowing, when that wind blows hard enough to topple trees, bring down limbs and uproot shrubs, adding debris cleanup to the services you offer is an excellent way to turn these disasters into opportunities.

“We find that chippers are great for storm cleanup,” says Campbell. “You can get the stuff out of the way quickly on one property and then go on to service the next door neighbor’s lawn without first having to drive miles to unload the dump truck.”

Increased efficiency and new business opportunities aren’t the only reasons you might want to invest in a chipper. There are few tools of the trade that can convert trash into cash like a chipper. While tree limbs may go into one end of the chipper, what comes out the other can be converted into another source of revenue. However, know that a typical chipper isn’t designed to make mulch or compost. For that you would need to run the chips through a grinder.

“When you’re finished with the job, you might have a place nearby that will buy the chips from you, taking care of the recycling process,” says J.R.

Bowling, vice president of Rayco Manufacturing, Wooster, Ohio. “You can also reuse or sell the chips for playgrounds, flowerbeds or pathways.”

Morey points out that chippers can be equipped with a variable-speed adjustment that will allow you to get a finer chip, but he also cautions that when you do that you also sacrifice speed and increase the wear on the knives. “One of the real advantages of buying a chipper is that you can reduce the material down to a profitable product,” he says.

Todd Roorda, environmental solutions specialist for Vermeer, Pella, Iowa, claims the company’s HG200 model is a compact horizontal grinder that turns wood chips, construction debris and green waste into a range of useable end products, including ground cover, landscape mulch, animal bedding and compost.

For additional fun and profit, Bandit offers the Color Critter II coloring attachment. “Natural wood chips come in one or two basic colors, usually brown. By adding a bit of color, this opens up an entirely new avenue of revenue for color-coordinated landscape designs,” Morey says.

When it comes to chippers, the phrase “safety first” isn’t just a trite expression, it can mean the difference between life and death to an inexperienced, or even an experienced, careless operator. With all the sharp knives, heavy iron and massive power these machines command, one “oops” can literally cost you an arm and a leg.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries, there were more than 2,000 injuries and 31 landscape employee deaths from chipper accidents from 1992 to 2002. Of these fatalities, the vast majority resulted from being pulled through the chipper knives at approximately two feet per second. Who can forget the infamous Fargo wood chipper scene?

“The most critical thing about safety is operator training,” says Rau. “We can put hundreds of safety devices on our chippers, but if the crew isn’t trained properly, or is careless in some way, accidents are bound to happen.”

Everett Warren, owner of Green Man Enviroscaping LLC, Allentown, Pennsylvania, couldn’t agree more. His entire crew goes through the International Society of Arboriculture’s video training program before they’re allowed near a chipper. “We review safety issues in detailed sessions every morning before the crews go out to a job. It’s not safety first, it’s safety always. There is no safety last.”

Chipper manufacturers have long made safety the focal point of their product development initiatives and new safety features are always being added. Morbark recently installed safety pull cables that hang down inside the infeeder. If someone inadvertently falls towards the opening, they can grab the cable and, with one pull, the system will go into reverse. “Also, our safety bars are designed with ergonometric standards. We calculated the average height of an operator to be around 5'9" and made the safety bar so an operator of that size can reach it easily without having to lean over, or taking a chance on losing his balance,” says Rau. “Morbark’s engine kill switch, located on the chipper door access pin, prevents the engine from running if the chipper is not properly closed.”

Bandit’s chippers now have a footpedal device that will allow activation of the feed system only if pressure is applied, like a sewing machine.

“Safety advances have been significant,” Roorda points out. “First of all, it’s a combination of safety features that most chipper manufacturers offer, such as ‘safe distance guarding,’ which helps keep the operator away from the infeed rollers and knives on hand-fed chippers. Vermeer’s bottom-feed stop bar allows the operator to stop the feed in an emergency situation simply by pressing his leg to a bar located at the end of the feed table.”

Rayco publishes a number of manuals and videos which are included with every chipper, along with a helmet, safety shields and ear protection. “Over the past few years, we’ve started to see new elements like safety interlocks, so that on a number of models you can’t start the engine with the cutter disc engaged, or with the feed rollers engaged. Everything has to be in neutral. You can’t open the disc housing without tools, so there is time for the drum to stop,” says Bowling.

From pruning to debris cleanup, and from wood chip ground cover to eco-friendly mulch and compost, the opportunities to increase your business are endless. If you take time to pre-define the work you’re going after, choose the right equipment, and make sure your operators run it safely, you’ll be shouting “Chip- Chip-Hurray” all the way to the bank.

 
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