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Keep Your Nose to the Grinder

REBECCA PETERSON | Landscape

When Kevin Grady made the decision to leave his well-paying corporate job, it was a dangerous move: at the time, he had three kids in college. While he knew he’d be happier leaving, he had no idea how he was going to support his family. In other words, he was stumped.

Then, a tornado hit. Aside from ripping homes in half, it damaged more than 115,000 trees, and Grady found his calling. Although he had never even driven a pickup truck before, he bought a stump grinder, learned how to use it, and discovered a huge profit center he never knew existed.

“I have six to seven jobs a day,” he says. “I’ve done more than 5,100 jobs, and I’ve only been in business for eight years.” While the tornado helped him get started in the business, he doesn’t need natural disasters to sustain him now. “There’s so much growth in building and development,” he says, “that a lot of land needs to be cleared to make way. The more land cleared, the more stumps need to be removed.”

It’s not just new developments. As the economy improves, people find themselves with more money to spend improving and changing their landscapes. Often, that means removing trees, and the unsightly stumps they leave behind.

John Emery, of Emery’s Tree Service, Delano, Minnesota, has been removing stumps for several decades. He owns two stump grinders, and says that not a day goes by where at least one or the other doesn’t go out for work. He’s found stump grinding to be ongoing work, in demand every day.

You could leave all that work to subcontractors, or dedicated tree firms, but why should you have to give all those potential profits away to other companies? Why couldn’t you be the guy competing landscape firms call when they need their stumps removed? Investing in a stump grinder can open a whole new world of opportunities for you. For example, word-of-mouth is one of the best ways to bring in new business. If one of your customers has a friend that needs a stump removed, or even some small clearing job in his backyard, he’ll give your name to his friend. Not only can you remove that stump, but you can offer the friend your other services as well.

Having a stump grinder on hand also means that you can complete a job faster. You don’t have to wait for a subcontractor to come in and remove the stump for you—you can just keep right on working. The time you gain can be spent getting more work done, and the more you get done, the more money you earn.

Grinding options
When buying a stump grinder, there are two main routes you can take: you can either buy an attachment, or a dedicated machine. If you already own a skid steer loader, an attachment can be a great idea.

Photo courtesy: E-Z Trench

You’re probably already familiar with the advantages of a skid steer—it’s highly maneuverable in tight spaces, and the breadth of attachments available makes it a very versatile machine. With a stump grinding attachment, you can quickly and easily go from removing a stump to cleaning up the chips to grading to trenching, all with the same basic piece of equipment—your skid steer.

How quickly you can grind a stump depends on the hydraulic system and engine horsepower of your skid steer—the more hydraulic power you have behind you, the more powerful you can expect your stump grinder to be.

If you think you’ll be grinding large stumps—somewhere in the range of 30 inches or more—or a large number of stumps, a better investment might be a dedicated machine. Some of these are small enough to look a bit like a walk-behind lawn mower; others are self-powered and able to get themselves from the trailer to the jobsite with minimal effort from you.

Smaller machines with less horsepower won’t be able to grind a stump as fast as their larger, more powerful counterparts, but do have their advantages. A stump grinder with a 6.5 horsepower engine is easily maneuvered into a tight space where a larger machine won’t fit. If you’re working near a building or fence, it’s clear what an asset a smaller machine can be.

On the other hand, larger, self-powered units are not only faster, but many come with special features to make them more maneuverable. Emery has a unit with tracks, and “with the push of a button, the machine will draw its tracks in and shrink to a width of about 36 inches to fit through narrow gates. Then, just as easily, it can widen back to its full width of 40 or so inches.”

Emery likes this unit a lot. He has an even larger stump grinder that needs to be towed behind a truck. He bought this self-powered machine so it could fit on his trailer with the rest of his equipment. It not only saves him the hassle of bringing an extra truck to every stump removal job, it also saves fuel.

If you’re concerned about the weight of a machine tearing up turf, don’t be. Manufacturers know that stump grinders need to move over sensitive, easily-damaged landscapes, and have designed them accordingly.

In fact, that’s one reason Emery bought a machine with tracks instead of wheels. He’s found his stump grinder so good on turf that he’s even driven it across wet grass and soft soil and had no problem. Tracks can also help keep you more stable on slopes and inclines.

Grady, however, has opted for a machine with wheels. “I feel that tracks require more maintenance than wheels,” he says. He uses landscape tires on his stump grinder to protect turf.

Maintenance and safety
Stump grinders do require some maintenance. “They take a beating due to the nature of the work they’re performing,” says Gerad Himebaugh of Bandit Industries, Inc., Remus, Michigan. However, none of this maintenance is particularly difficult. “I’ve found my stump grinder to be easy to maintain, even for a non-mechanical person like myself,” Grady says.

You just need to keep on top of things. Teeth will need to be replaced or refurbished, and you need to be careful to keep the right tension on the main drive belts. Some stump grinders, however, have eliminated this bit of maintenance. “Our stump grinder’s best feature is its ‘wet clutch’ drive/ transmission,” says Scotty Porter, president of E-Z Trench Manufacturing, Loris, South Carolina. “It eliminates the need for belts and gives contractors one less thing to maintain.”

Other machines strive to make maintenance as easy as possible. Removable or swing-out panels can provide full access to electrical and hydraulic components; the hydraulic oil tank itself actually swings out on some models for access to all major components. Safety is also an important consideration with stump grinders. They can look pretty intimidating as they roar to life and start flinging chips of wood in every direction. However, many manufacturers provide training to contractors; some even offer safety materials in print, on video, or on DVD. Reading the operator’s manual can make you a stump grinding expert.

Photo courtesy: US Praxis, Inc.

A great feature that’s being added to an increasing number of models is the radio remote control or tether remote control option. This allows you to operate the grinding functions of the machine standing at a distance from the dust, flying debris, and noise. You’ll also have much better visibility. The remote option can also come in handy for tight spaces—there may not be room for you to stand right next to the machine.

Many models have a debris containment system such as a rubber curtain to control flying debris. As long as the curtain’s kept in good condition, you have nothing to fear from your stump grinder. After more than 5,100 jobs, Grady hasn’t had a single injury.

Choosing a stump grinder
If you’re not sure you’ll have enough stump removal work to justify the investment, try renting a stump grinder for a few days. You may even choose to rent several different brands and sizes so you can find the one best suited to your business.

If renting comes to buying, “Don’t sell yourself short by buying only on price,” advises Himebaugh. “Take a look at the work you intend to perform, call to schedule a product demonstration of some of the models you’re interested in, and talk with company representatives about the features and options you’ll need to maximize the efficiency of your operation.”

Investigate several different dealers and manufacturers, and don’t be afraid to ask questions. As with any piece of equipment, every stump grinder you come across will have slightly different features, some of which you may find useful, and some of which you may not.

For example, while most stump grinders have a vertically-oriented cutting blade, a few offer a horizontal cutting blade. Manufacturers say this makes cutting easier, because you’re cutting against the grain of the wood. Additionally, because you’re cutting from the side and not the top, there are no size limitations on the stump you’re trying to remove.

Other manufacturers offer an optional chip blade to eliminate the need for manual shoveling during jobsite cleanup. The blade is lifted hydraulically from the operator’s station and moves chips into the hole made after the stump was removed. It can also be used to aid in collection of hauling chips offsite.

Manufacturers have noted that low and high speed options are another popular feature. This can allow you to get to and from the stumps faster.

However big or small your company is, there’s sure to be room somewhere for a stump grinder, whether an attachment or dedicated machine. Despite their compact size, their profitability will amaze you—Grady says that on a slow day, he earns $300 to $400 removing stumps. On a good day, he claims to make upwards of $1,000. Why not try to grind yourself a piece of that pie?

 
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