The Right Stuff

I used to change the oil in my own car. I also did some of the “light maintenance” stuff like changing spark plugs, oil filters, air filters, etc. It saved some money but it was always a hassle and usually ended up with some skinned knuckles and a frayed temper. Mainly because I never had quite the right tools!

Nowadays, with the right tools, landscape contractors and grounds care professionals can expand their business volume by offering extra services to both residential and commercial customers. Special implements and attachments are available to get landscape and lawn care projects done more efficiently. The benefits include saving you time and a more professional-looking result for quality-conscious customers.

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Manufacturers are answering the demand for specialized equipment with upgraded and refined designs of walk-behind implements, as well as attachments that expand the capabilities of existing equipment, generally riding mowers and lawn tractors. Owning all the tools is not the only option, either. For specialized projects, rental equipment can be a feasible alternative.

No more off-seasons

“With all the available attachments, a lawn care operator can maintain customers' yards and landscapes virtually year-round,” says Ruthanne Stucky, marketing director for the Grasshopper Company. “The professional contractor can dethatch and aerate customer lawns in the spring, cut turf and collect clippings all summer, pick up leaves and debris in the fall, aerate again, then clear snow from walks and drives in the winter — all with one power unit and the versatile attachments available. Plus, the contractor can shape beds for plant materials and apply liquid fertilizer or controls with [a] sprayer attachment.”

Stucky says one of the main advantages for contractors is the convenience of transporting the needed implements along with the front-mount mower, all in one trailer, to job locations. “It's easy to switch from mowing to another task right at the job site with [an] attachment system. It saves the contractor having to go back to the shop for single-use equipment, or needing extra trailer space to haul it around in the first place.”

Walker Manufacturing, also a maker of front-mount mowers, offers a number of attachments and accessories for its zero-turn mowers. “The professional lawn care person can add things like a dethatcher, boom sprayer or coulter-blade edger by mounting it right on the mower deck or tractor,” says Bob Walker, president of the company. “By removing the deck, the operator can slide on [an] aerator, a chipper-shredder or a … snow thrower. All of these units use the same basic mounting geometry …

“The other option is adding a power lift hitch in place of the mower deck so that the owner can attach a rotary broom, dozer blade, loose material loader bucket, debris blower or a … two-stage snow thrower,” says Walker. He adds that attachments aren't just for new mowers. So if you're interested in outfitting your 10-year-old mower with an aerator, for example, all you have to do is hook it up.

In demand

Stucky says the demand for specialized implements is a growing aspect of the commercial landscape maintenance business. “We estimate about 20 percent of Grasshopper customers purchase at least one extra attachment, besides the mower deck and vacuum collector, when they buy a mower. Clippings collection and snow removal are the most popular implements, but aeration attachments are increasingly popular.”

Walker says approximately one-third of Walker mower buyers buy at least one extra attachment. “Grass handling and snow equipment are the mainstays, but special attachments like bed shapers, aerators and chipper-shredders are becoming more popular. The availability of special attachments is an important selling proposition, even if the buyer doesn't buy an attachment right away.”

Jim Svendsen, a sales representative for Lincoln Turf & Tractor, a John Deere power equipment dealer in Lincoln, Neb., says that close to 50 percent of his commercial buyers add at least one attachment when they buy a mower. “They often add a pull-type aerator or broadcast spreader, besides a bagger or snow-thrower,” he says. “If their unit has a 3-point hitch and a rear PTO, they might add a tiller or plow.”

Bob Kautzman turned three of his older riding mowers into dedicated fertilizer and sprayer units, and focuses on applying herbicides and fertilizer for many of his residential customers. Kautzman owns Lawnco, Inc., in Brooklyn Heights, Ohio, a Cleveland suburb. He started Lawnco in 1971 and does mowing and turf maintenance for nearly 1,000 residential customers, plus 60 or so commercial customers.

“We run five … riding mowers all week,” he says, “but lawn mowing is so competitive, so we have expanded our business by focusing on fertilizing and weed control for many residential customers. We replaced the mower decks on three of our older [mowers] with sprayer/fertilizer attachments, and that's all those machines do.”

For more information on mower attachments, see “Making the Most of Your Mower” on page 18.

Dedicated equipment

In addition to adding attachments to make your mower more versatile, there are obviously times when it pays to have a piece of equipment that is dedicated to doing one job. If you have many clients, you may need to be mowing on one property while doing a design/build job on another. In the fall, you may need to be using mowers for debris collection on one site while aerating lawns for your residential customers. So while adding mower attachments to increase versatility is especially efficient during seasons when you wouldn't otherwise be mowing, sometimes you need to have all the mowers in your fleet dedicated to doing just that — mowing — while part of your crew is working on jobs that don't involve mowing. Also, if you find yourself leaving, for example, your loader bucket attachment on your mower all season to do design/build jobs, it's time to look into purchasing a machine dedicated to doing just that.

A good way to help decide if you need to purchase dedicated equipment is to try renting it first. Not only will it indicate the cost-effectiveness, it's a good way to try out different makes of equipment to decide the brand and model you would like to purchase.

How to make rental equipment pay

Renting special equipment can be a smart way to get more jobs done, but you need to approach it smartly, just like you would if you were buying equipment. “Remember, your rental costs are only part of your expense,” says Bob Brophy, product manager for Turfco Direct. “Besides the per-day or per-hour rental rate, you have the cost of transportation to get the equipment, and the time (yours or your employee's) to go pick it up.”

For example, say you're going to rent an aerator for the day at a rate of $75 for the whole day. You send your truck or pickup and trailer to load up the aerator — an hour there and another hour to take it back. That's two hours at $25 per hour. Then, your time or your employee's to go there and back is worth at least another $12 per hour, so that's another $24. So, your “real” cost for the aerator for the day is closer to $150. You need to figure that into your cost of doing business and your pricing formulas.

Brophy offers these tips for smart power equipment rental:

  • If you're adding a new service to your landscape maintenance business, such as aeration, consider renting your equipment for the first season. Try different brands of machine to see what works best for your employees and your business. Build up your customer base before you put out the money for brand new equipment.

  • Before you need to rent equipment, visit several rental stores in the area. Get acquainted with the managers. Find out whether they have the equipment you need, and how good a job they do keeping it in top condition. Find out if they have “contractor rates” for power equipment.

  • Establish a relationship ahead of time with the rental outlets that have the equipment and the service you need. That includes setting up some type of credit agreement, so that you or your employee doesn't have to show up with cash or a credit card to pick up equipment.

  • It's a good idea to set up a working relationship with more than one rental outlet, so you've got a “backup” if the first one doesn't have the equipment on hand or it's dead-lined for service.

  • Schedule your work to make best use of rental equipment. Line up a day's worth of aerating jobs, for example, then reserve the aerator(s) for that day at the rental outlet.

“Renting equipment can be an efficient way to build your business and add to it, especially when you're starting out,” Brophy says. “Even many of the bigger landscape companies use rental equipment as a ‘fill-in’ for seasonal job needs or specific projects. The key is to make the rental machines profitable for you.”

Be versatile

Whether you decide to purchase or rent a piece of equipment, or simply add attachments to make the equipment you already own more versatile, the most important thing to remember is weighing your decision against the services you are willing or able to offer your clients. Having a full fleet of nice equipment will get you nowhere if you don't really need it or if it's more cost-effective to rent it when you need it.

Gary Burchfield is a freelance writer who resides in Lincoln, Neb.

Renting Helps Determine If and What You Should Buy

Jason Holy is a full-time civil engineer and works for a major land development company. In his spare time, Holy runs Jason's Landscaping in Downers Grove, Ill. Although he mowed lawns as a youngster, he decided landscape design and construction was more to his liking and would lend itself to an “after-hours” business.

Holy started Jason's Landscaping seven years ago, renting equipment as needed for jobs. As the business has grown, he's opted to purchase equipment that his three-man crew uses on a regular basis.

For example, he rented sod cutters for the first few years. Now, however, he owns his own sod cutter. “Rental rates kept going up until we were paying $100 a day for a sod cutter,” Holy says. “That, plus the cost to pick it up and take it back; and if our job ran overtime, it might cost another day's rental.”

Last season, he bought a Turfco KisCutter sod cutter, after inspecting one at a Chicago trade show. “… It's easy for two guys to load and transport to the job site. And, because most of our work is evenings and weekends, time is of the essence. As much as we use a sod cutter now, it's turned out to be more efficient than renting.”

Jason's Landscaping has acquired other items of equipment, as the company's projects have grown in size. “We're still pretty much installing plant beds and putting in patios, pavers and retaining walls, but our jobs keep getting bigger.” Last year, Holy bought a New Holland skid steer loader, and the company owns a dump trailer and a 20-hp tractor with front-end loader.

“We still do rent equipment when we need to, such as hydraulic tillers for working up plant beds, etc.,” Holy says. “It's handy to have rental equipment available when you do need it.”

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© 2014 Penton Media Inc.

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