Let's face it, most of us give the portable backpack sprayer little thought. A staple of the lawn, landscape and pest control markets, this product has long been riding the backs of industry professionals, but strangely has seen few advancements during its decades of use. Aside from expected wear and tear, you would be hard pressed to tell the difference between a unit introduced 20 years ago and one available on the market today. Both would include simple shoulder straps, an application wand and a manual hand-pump to serve as the power source. Though rather basic, manual backpack sprayers filled a need and users could find little reason to complain. Even if they could, there wasn't anything else on the market from which to choose. And with millions sold annually in Europe and the United States, most manufacturers could find little reason to change either.
But recently a new trend has developed. With advancements in portable electric technology, manufacturers are seeing an opportunity to increase the capabilities of the common backpack sprayer, making it not so “common” after all. Promising a higher performing sprayer that has greater capabilities and is easier and more comfortable to use, some manufacturers are spurring a veritable quantum leap in backpack sprayer technology. And the business owners and users that typically gave little thought to this commodity are starting to take notice.
For a more complete list of sprayers, see “Focus On” on page 64.
OLD IDEA, NEW EXECUTION
It should first be mentioned that the electric-powered backpack sprayer is not exactly a “new” idea. Roughly five years ago, the technology entered the scene touting some of the same benefits that are being promoted today. Of course, the most obvious benefit of an electric-powered unit is the elimination of the constant hand pumping associated with manual backpack sprayers. Users seemingly spend more time and energy “pumping up” a manual sprayer rather than spraying. On the other hand, an electric sprayer would naturally require less effort and be able to efficiently handle larger, more demanding applications. But as with many new technologies, the idea was good, the execution wasn't.
First and foremost, electric sprayers were expensive. At the time of their initial introduction, a good quality manual sprayer was priced between $120 to $130 per unit, whereas the new electric models were each priced between $300 to $400. Costing nearly three times that of a manual unit, the premium price was not a rational trade-off for the added benefits of electric power. Additionally, the pumps and batteries that went into these units were not specifically designed to be portable. They were large, bulky and heavy. Combined with the fact that many manufacturers based their electric backpacks on designs similar to manual units, these initial products placed little emphasis on operator comfort. Therefore, the customer was faced with a decision between a proven, no frills product at an acceptable price or a new, untested piece of equipment that cost too much, weighed too much and lacked human engineering. It was of little surprise that this technology didn't exactly fly off the shelves.
These initial products fell short of expectations, but this is not uncommon with new equipment ideas. As long as the concept is rooted in good sense, it is only a matter of time before other factors fall into place. Materials improve and become more readily available, manufacturers learn from previous mistakes and prices drop substantially. It happened with VCRs and DVD players, it will eventually happen with overly expensive plasma TVs — and it's currently happening with electric-powered backpack sprayers.
A “CLEAN-SHEET” DESIGN
The recent successful introduction of electric-powered backpack sprayers is based on a “clean-sheet” design approach. Simply stated, some manufacturers have begun to design electric sprayers from scratch. Instead of taking a manually powered sprayer and converting it to electric, they are building new units from the ground up — designing a sprayer that is more efficient, powerful and comfortable to use. Best of all, these new units are now priced between $149 and $200 — a rational premium compared with the $130 manual sprayer.
CONSISTENCY IS KEY
One of the problems associated with manual sprayers is maintaining spray consistency. If you're a pest control contractor spraying the perimeter of a building with a manual sprayer, you would have to continue to hand pump the unit as you traveled about the premises. Pumping the sprayer more increases the pressure, delivering a higher chemical flow; but as the pressure drops, so too would the flow rate. Even with the steadiest hand, it would be nearly impossible to maintain the same amount of air pressure during the entire application. The result is an uneven flow providing too much spray at times and too little at others. Compounded over several applications, this lack of precision results in wasted time and materials.
New electric-powered sprayers have answered this problem with the combination of better-designed pumps and microprocessor control technology. Pumps are, for the first time, being specifically designed and manufactured for use in electric backpack sprayers. They are more durable, efficient and offer better performance. But it's the microprocessor control technology that's making consistent spray patterns a reality.
Microprocessor control consists of a PC board that directly interacts with the pump and the battery. Regardless of battery charge or flow setting, the microprocessor ensures that the spray pattern and flow is consistent. There is no need for the operator to constantly manipulate the sprayer. As long as he or she can operate the spray wand, a consistent flow rate is always achievable, enabling the operator to work faster and more efficiently.
Additionally, the microprocessor control helps to maintain battery life. With a sealed lead-acid battery, if the power is depleted to a certain level, the overall life of the battery can be greatly reduced. To prevent this, the microprocessor monitors the battery and indicates when levels are getting low. In the event that potentially damaging power levels are reached, the unit automatically shuts down. Also, to save energy between applications, the microprocessor powers down the sprayer if it is left unused for more than 10 minutes.
The microprocessor ensures consistent operation, but it's the new high performance pumps that allow electric sprayers to achieve a much greater reach and distribution rate over previously available products.
Again, considering the manually powered unit, spray rate and distance relies solely on the person pumping it up. The more you pump, the greater the flow rate and spray distance. But there are limits to how much pressure you can provide and how much patience you have to do so.
On the other hand, the new electric units require little effort and can spray up to two to three times farther than a fully pressurized manual sprayer. Additionally, the pumps are efficient, allowing up to 120 gallons to be sprayed on a single charge. With this reach and flow rate, the new electric backpack sprayers can be used for applications that would typically send others searching for a larger, truck-mounted pump and sprayer.
A SPRAYER FOR ALL OCCASIONS
The high-performance pump makes the new electric sprayers suited for more demanding applications, but what about situations that call for a lower flow rate, such as watering flowers in a nursery or simple spot spraying? This is where microprocessor technology again comes into play.
In addition to controlling spray consistency, microprocessor controls allow the user to dial-up or dial-down the spray power to better address varying applications. Combined with different spray-wand nozzles, the unit can be used to generate a fine mist one moment and a strong, direct stream the next. This is a user benefit, allowing for several different applications to be addressed with one unit, but it also benefits the manufacturer by being able to produce one product that caters to several different markets.
This versatility found with recently developed electric sprayers highlights another benefit. Typically, pump-up sprayer manufacturers must offer several different units that vary in pressure levels and performance. Therefore, one unit may be ideal for smaller jobs whereas another would be more proficient for larger applications. Chemical resistance is another feature that separates one manual sprayer from the next. Some pump-up sprayers are less chemically resistant than others, making them unusable for certain applications. Conversely, electric sprayers are now entering the market standard-built with the most chemically resistant materials.
Consistency, power and versatility. These are all buzzwords that light up the eyes of any potential equipment buyer, but operator comfort is one term that may fall on deaf ears during a sales pitch. Sadly, ergonomics have yet to hit all service industries with the same force. Since the person buying a backpack sprayer is many times not the one who actually has to use it, comfort is of lesser concern. However, given the ever growing liabilities of workplace safety and injury compensation, ergonomics will soon become a bigger issue in the lawn, landscape and pest control industries — and many equipment manufacturers are already noticing the writing on the wall.
Electric sprayer manufacturers are addressing this issue by making their products more ergonomically friendly. Providing thicker back and shoulder padding and using 3-D modeling software to design the sprayer to better fit the contours of the operator's body, manufacturers understand that a more comfortable worker is also a more productive worker.
Though new electric sprayers are much lighter than earlier attempts, they are still roughly four to five pounds heavier than comparable pump-up units. Even so, manufacturers are positioning the pump and battery closer to where the sprayer will rest against the operator's body. This provides a better distribution of weight and virtually eliminates any noticeable difference between manual and electric options.
A HANDS-FREE FUTURE?
As electric-powered backpack sprayers continue to gain more attention and prices continue to drop, it's unlikely that this product category will remain stagnant. As with all electronic technology, components will continue to be modified, eventually allowing for even longer performance and more defined control. Additionally, as ergonomic concerns increase, electric sprayers will continue to follow the popular trend of lighter, smaller — better.
Future developments aside, the new electric sprayer options currently entering the market are already impressive … and leagues beyond anything else available in terms of performance. Though manually powered options will continue to hold their place in the industry, the time of looking at backpack sprayers as an afterthought is nearly over.
Chris Shapanus is director of marketing, Industrial Products, for SHURflo Pump Manufacturing Co. (Cypress, Calif.)
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