Equipment Options: Hedge trimmers

The hedge trimmer-it seems like such a simple tool. Yet, choosing the proper hedge trimmer shouldn't be a quick decision. Putting just a little forethought into the selection of one of these units can result in numerous positive benefits, such as reducing trimming time, operator exertion, accident rates and repair costs. With so many types of hedge trimmers on the market, you are bound to find one that is suitable for your job.

Blade options Cutting bars on most commercial hedge trimmers range from 18 to 40 inches. Manufacturers design them with larger gaps between blades than home shears to provide them with greater durability for daily use. The wider opening also tackles jobs on shrubs and hedges with larger stems.

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Manufacturers offer both single- and double-sided blades. Safety is a big selling point for single-sided blades. After all, holding the cutting edge away from your limbs and torso is easier with a single-sided bar.

Efficiency is the major attraction of double-sided blades. You can cut large hedges in sweeping, horizontal or vertical motions while standing in one position. With a single-sided blade, you must shift positions to accommodate the blade's direction.

Choosing blades that match a job's requirements also depends on whether you will use one hedge trimmer for all types of trimming. For normal commercial use with one trimmer, a 30-inch bar with either single- or doubled-sided blades is usually your best choice.

However, if 3- or 4-foot shrubs are the only plants you typically trim, then a shorter blade will be more effective. Shorter blades are easier to handle, particularly for sculpting small shrubs. Your personal preference will determine whether a single- or double-sided blade works best for this particular job.

When trimming 10- or 15-foot hedges or shrubs, use a longer blade than a typical 30-incher. A double-sided blade also will increase productivity for jobs of this size.

If you have really tall shrubs, consider one of the telescoping or long-reach trimmers now available. Some have 90-degree rotating heads at the end of the cutting bar for easy angling and contouring.

After using hedge trimmers that have been too short in the past, Betty Miner, the landscape director at Berkeley Hills Country Club near Atlanta, says she wants her next hedge trimmer to telescope. Cutting the 10-foot hedges on her golf course with long-reach shears will be a lot safer, faster and less physically demanding, she says, than standing on the back of a golf cart with a short-bladed trimmer-a less-than-safe practice.

Consider weight and balance Most professional hedge clippers weigh from 11 to 12 pounds depending on the manufacturer. Some weigh as little as 10 pounds, and others reach nearly 15 pounds.

The weight-and how it's distributed from handle to tip-is important because it directly affects productivity. Lighter, balanced equipment will decrease operator fatigue and increase productivity. A well-balanced tool also can make trimming easier, especially when you need a flat, even cut.

If you aren't the person who performs the trimming at your site or for your firm, bring along the operator who does when it's time to purchase a trimmer. The operator can handle the equipment and review operating procedures, special features and safety issues with the dealer, thus choosing a unit that's the most efficient for your operation.

Maintenance aspects are key The No. 1 recommendation of hedge-trimmer manufacturers and retailers is to read the owner's manual before operating the equipment. Don't wait until you experience a problem. Read the manual first to prevent downtime and save money for unnecessary repairs from improper use and poor maintenance practices.

Gas shears are fairly simple and inexpensive to maintain: * Keep the air filter clean. Check it before each use. Clean it with soap and water and let it dry before using. * Use a proper fuel mix. Also, use fresh fuel that you've mixed within the past 3 months. Older mixes permanently separate and will gum up or burn out engines. * Use high-octane fuel. Many grounds managers who pay attention to the octane level say that, though it may cost a little more, high-octane fuel burns better, so the extra cost is worth it. If your trimmer's owner's manual doesn't specify whether to use-or at what level-high-octane fuel, call its customer-service line to inquire. * Make sure the fuel/oil mix is clean. * Lubricate the gear box regularly. * Keep the blades sharp. An equipment dealer or landscape mechanic can grind them in about 30 minutes. * Check the muffler screen before each use. If it's clogged, wipe it off or take it to the dealer for an inexpensive replacement.

Some of the most common problems with hedge trimmers result from improper use, storage and handling. Blades rust when exposed to excessive moisture. If the cutting-bar bolts are too loose or too tight, the blades will not operate properly.

In gas engines, fouled plugs and clogged mufflers result from the wrong oil-to-gas ratio. If you find dirt in the gas can, you'll find dirt in the equipment.

As with all power equipment, use your trimmer for the job it was intended to perform. For instance, don't cut ground cover with a hedge trimmer. Doing so will get dirt in the equipment that can cause damage to the engine.

Cost and warranty choices The longer the blade, the higher the cost is the general rule of thumb in pricing hedge trimmers. Retail prices at outdoor-power-equipment dealers run from about $300 for shorter-blade trimmers to around $600 for telescoping shears.

Most manufacturers offer a 1-year warranty for commercial-use products. Remember that service providers can detect damage from improper use. When they do, the manufacturer's policy won't cover the repair costs.

Safety features and accident prevention A variety of safety features are available on commercial-use hedge trimmers. The front and rear handles are the primary focus of most of these, and they are different depending on the manufacturer and blade type. Other features include hand guards, throttle triggers, anti-vibration systems, blade locks and stop buttons. * Hand guards. Often made of plastic, these shields generally are available on both the front and rear handles. They are designed to prevent your hands from slipping and making contact with the blades. * Throttle-lock switch. When this switch is on, you can't engage the throttle. * Anti-vibration systems. Some handles and engine mounts include these features. Their insulating buffers secure the operator's control of the equipment and reduce fatigue. * Blade locks. This option is available on a few models. Levers are typically located on the rear handle and keep the blades from moving while the engine is idling. * Stop buttons. Stop buttons are basically a kill switch. Most commercial-trimmer manufacturers don't offer this feature because of the additional cost it adds to the units. But if you feel it's an important feature that you want your trimmer to incorporate, keep looking until you find one that does.

While all of these features are designed to protect you, your best safety insurance is knowledge, common sense and preparation: * Get familiar with the equipment at the dealer. * Read the operator's manual. * Learn from experienced operators on the job. * Maintain the equipment for its highest efficiency and safety. * Choose the appropriate trimmer for the job. * Use a telescoping or long-reach clipper rather than a ladder. * Wear heavy, tight-fitting gloves and eye and ear protection. * Avoid loose-fitting clothing. * Wear heavy pants and sturdy boots. * Allow ample time to complete the job.

Remember that hedge trimmers are extraordinarily sharp and dangerous, even when the blades are not moving and the engine is off. Review safety features and procedures periodically to avoid getting overconfident, rushed or careless while using the equipment.

When you're ready to buy The best way to guarantee your satisfaction with a commercial hedge trimmer is to know the specifications of the jobs it will be tackling. Then, find a reputable dealer who sells several brands. Ask the dealer questions about the dependability and durability of all the models to determine which one is best-suited to your needs.

Ask the dealer for a demonstration of the model you plan to buy. Find out how quickly the dealer can handle repairs and warranty work. Review the owner's manual before you take the shears on the job, and maintain and store the equipment properly.

Complete these simple steps, and you should get many years of dependable service from your hedge trimmers.

Jane C. Autler is the owner of Autler Communications (Lawrenceville, Ga.). She is a freelance writer who specializes in grounds-maintenance topics.

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