Equipment Options: Backpack sprayers

With proper use, backpack sprayers can save you a lot of money on customer callbacks and satisfaction.

The days of "one-size-fits-all" lawn and landscape care are behind us. Today, your focus should be on providing customized treatments while controlling labor, materials and fuel costs. It's no longer acceptable to treat every square foot of landscape with weed-, insect- or disease-control when problems are isolated to small areas. Although current fuel prices may be at their lowest level in several years, it is still very expensive to drive a $20,000 rig, equipped with two 50-gallon spray tanks, back to an account simply to treat minor weed, insect or disease problems. Nevertheless, failure to address such problems can lead to customer cancellations. Therefore, most well-organized lawn-care companies employ a trained specialist who, with a backpack sprayer and 5 minutes, can solve many of these problems during scheduled visits.

Backpack sprayers provide you with the ability to custom fill and treat turf and ornamental problems as you encounter them. Backpacks are particularly well-suited for post-emergence weed control and treatment of insect and disease problems on woody ornamentals. When combined with post-treatment irrigation, you also can use backpacks to apply pre-emergence weed or insect control. It probably costs between $25 and $40 to make an unpaid visit to a property, so preventing three or four callbacks easily can pay for the cost of a backpack unit.

Are your people properly equipped and trained? Chances are high that your staff members are not using their backpack sprayers properly. It's likely that they are overdosing turf and measuring materials by the "glug" method unless you have provided them with training, specific fill instructions and measuring devices. As a result, you may be damaging turf and ornamental plants and not getting the control you expect. If you don't believe this is the case with your staff, try this test:

* Lay out a 40- by 25-foot area on a paved parking lot.

* Ask your best technician to treat the area with water as if he or she was spraying for weeds.

* Measure the amount of water in the backpack before he or she starts.

When he or she has finished, watch the sprayed pavement as it dries. If your technician treats the area by waving the wand back and forth while walking, you will see uneven, arch-shaped patterns as the pavement dries. If he or she overlaps too much or not enough, you'll see wet and dry strips.

Check how much material is left in the backpack when the technician is finished. The volume used is equal to the spray volume per 1,000 square feet. If you really want an eye-opening experience, ask a second technician to do the same exercise with his or her backpack and compare results to the first experiment.

Another good exercise is to test a group of technicians by asking them how much herbicide to add to the backpack sprayer for weed control. After reviewing their answers, ask to see the measuring devices they use.

If you see a lot of variation between the applications made by employees, look for the cause. Are they pumping the sprayer to its highest pressure? Are they using the same nozzle? If they use adjustable nozzles, is it even possible to get the same rate from two different employees?

Standardize and simplify If you found problems, it's time to standardize your backpack sprayers and conduct a simple training program. Ultimately, you want to choose and use only one model of backpack for your operation. However, if you already have two or three different makes of backpack on hand, start by standardizing nozzles. I recommend a flat-fan nozzle with an 80-degree fan. Choose and purchase only one nozzle size for all your backpacks. Then collect and dispose of all other nozzles currently in use. This step alone will drastically improve the precision of your applications.

Next, standardize your pumping pressure. This can be difficult if you have several different makes of backpacks. The simplest method is to train your applicators to fully pressurize the sprayer while treating. Some backpacks have high and low pressure settings. Be sure you set them all the same. You also can purchase a spray-management valve. When installed in the wand, this valve maintains a preset pressure range. Whichever method you choose, test your backpack sprayers' uniformity by measuring how long it takes each sprayer to fill a pint jar.

Finally, go back to the same 25- by 40-foot area in the parking lot where you tested your employees previously. Demonstrate the proper spray technique to all your employees. Flat-fan nozzles are designed to be used on a spray boom. Therefore, you must use the spray wand as if it were a one-nozzle boom. Hold the wand so the nozzle tip is at knee height aimed at the ground. At this height, the nozzle sprays a swath about 3 feet wide. Begin treating the test area by laying down a 3-foot-wide band of spray along one edge. Walk at a comfortable pace and keep the sprayer pumped to the desired pressure. When you reach the end of the treated area, turn and make your next pass overlapping the previous band by about 8 to 10 inches. Continue making overlapping passes until you've treated the whole area.

Again, watch the pavement as it dries. You should see a marked improvement in uniformity. Measure how much water you used. Then let each technician practice the process.

A technician rarely treats a whole lawn with a backpack sprayer but instead spot-treats specific problem areas. Even when performing spot treatments, however, continue to use the above principles. Just remember to maintain a walking pace, keep the nozzle at knee height, spray as you pass over the problem spot, and overlap by 8 to 10 inches when spraying larger patches. Stopping to douse a single weed can damage the turf and burn the top of the weed quickly but still allow it to re-grow from its root system.

Now that you have standardized your spray volume you can create written fill instructions for each material you use in the backpack. Provide each technician with a card listing the chemical product name and use-rate per gallon for each product you use and for the weeds, insects or disease it will control. For convenience and safety, consider laminating some luggage-tag-sized cards with your company name, the product name and fill instructions to attach to the backpack. Such a card might read:

Great Landscapes Co. Contains dilute: Trimec Classic Fill at 1.5 fluid ounces/gallon

You can use the same flat-fan nozzle setup for treating ornamental plants that we just described for turf. Instead of treating a specific volume per 1,000 square feet, technicians should apply material until it starts to run off the leaves. Take care to treat the underside of leaves, too, because insects prefer these sheltered surfaces.

In today's service environment where customers want the job performed correctly the first time, a trained specialist with a backpack sprayer adds value to your services. He or she may take a few extra minutes at each stop to complete a job, but the costs of callbacks and replacing canceled customers have never been higher.

Dr. Barry C. Troutman is East Coast technical manager for Environmental Care/U.S. Lawns (Calabasas, Calif.).

Consider the following when purchasing a new backpack sprayer:

* Comfort. A full backpack weighs 30 to 45 pounds. Check that weight is distributed comfortably on shoulders and hips.

* The pump type. A variety of pumps are available, each with its own advantages and disadvantages. For example, piston pumps develop higher pressure, and diaphragm pumps handle wettable powders better. Better-quality units allow either left- or right-handed pumping.

* Valve and wand. The wand should have a rebuildable valve and a durable or flexible wand. A strainer system in the handle or at the nozzle tip is a useful feature.

* Nozzles. Most sprayers come with plastic or adjustable nozzles. These nozzles wear out quickly, are easily damaged in normal use and are almost impossible to calibrate. Invest in brass or stainless-steel nozzles. Flat-fan, 80-degree nozzles are ideal.

Extra features. Pressure-regulating valves that fix maximum pressure are good features. Spray-management valves that regulate both maximum and minimum pressures are excellent features.

Interchangeable 2.5-gallon jugs that allow switching from one product to another without emptying the sprayer are expensive options, but they add versatility.

Availability of repair parts. Sprayers need routine maintenance and repair. Waiting 3 weeks for parts means lost productivity. Therefore, make sure your distributor offers the parts you need on a routine basis.

Instruct your employees to routinely follow safe backpack-sprayer use, including these five steps:

1.Read and follow label directions for personal-protective equipment. Usually this means wearing long pants, a long-sleeved shirt, chemical-resistant rubber gloves and boots, and eye protection.

2. Secure the spreader under lock and key during transport. A spreader that falls from your truck onto the highway is like a missile ready to douse dilute pesticide on anything it hits.

3. Repair all leaks to prevent material from dripping onto your clothing or skin.

4. Never use the unit without the lid on the tank.

5. Protect against plant damage by:

6. Using a backpack sprayer dedicated exclusively to non-selective herbicide products. * Using separate backpacks for broadleaf weed control and ornamental spraying. * Labeling each backpack with the name of the product it contains.

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© 2020 Penton Media Inc.

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