Part II: Increasing profitability--Specialized equipment brings in the dollars

Not too long ago, grounds managers had no skid-steer loaders, spin trimmers, bed edgers, intermediate walk-behind mowers or backpack blowers to perform their jobs. So what did those maintenance crews of the past do without this equipment? They worked harder and longer. Today, however, specialized equipment-such as the skid-steer loaders, spin trimmers and bed edgers previously mentioned-is a regular part of a grounds-care manager's arsenal. Today, you have plenty of tools from which to choose. Some of the newer time-savers include dozens of backhoe and loader accessories, water-injection aerators, stump grinders, directional-boring machines and compact utility loaders.

When Grounds Maintenance asked some of its readers which pieces of recently purchased equipment they've found to be real time- or labor-savers, their answers varied. In fact, judging from the variety of their responses, the definition of what constitutes "specialized equipment" depends on the unique (and laborious) tasks faced by grounds-maintenance managers.

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Saving time on the golf course When the grounds crews at The New Course at Albany, N.Y., aerate greens, they use a core harvester. This machine has helped mechanize a job that previously required a lot of hand labor, says Scott Gallup, superintendent and president of the Northeastern Golf Course Superintendents Association (Latham, N.Y.). The core-harvester attachment pulls behind a utility vehicle and incorporates a V-scoop and conveyor-belt system. Gallup says this unit allows an operator to clean a green in 15 minutes. "Even though we might only aerify greens once or twice a year, when we [previously] did it [without the machine], it was a three-or-four man job using snow shovels to get all of the plugs off the greens," Gallup explains. Once you've used a core-harvester unit, Gallup says, "You'll never be without one."

The core harvester isn't the only piece of equipment that has impressed Gallup. Because The New Course at Albany comprises more than 300 acres, Gallup also relies heavily on foam-spray markers and an electric boom lift for the course's rear-mounted spray units-which he considers important cost- and time-saving features. Gallup likes having an electric boom lift on the spray unit because it allows the operator to raise the boom without having to stop the unit, put on neoprene gloves and raise the sprayer manually. This feature makes transporting the spray unit easier, especially on narrow roadways. Foam markers, which generate a blob of foam every 5 to 8 feet during spray applications, help demarcate sprayed areas, so operators don't waste time and chemicals over- or underspraying. But Gallup says the foam markers save money in other ways. His crews use the markers in lieu of adding blue dyes to the chemical spray tanks. "In the long run, [foam markers] are less expensive," he says. "In the short term, it [costs] about $1,000 to $1,200 [to purchase] the foam marker. But, over a period of a couple years, you might spend that much in dye."

Top labor-savers What works for Scott Pardi, general manager at L&L Landscape Services Inc. (Campbell, Calif.)? "All equipment is bought to save labor," he says. "That's why we [recently] bought bigger tractors." His landscape-maintenance workers also like the firm's new 52-inch mower with stand-on platform, as well as the unique handle grips on some recently purchased 36-inch walk-behinds. These intermediate-sized mowers feature hand-controlled brakes with up-and-down grips fitted directly in front of the operator, rather than on the outside of the handles. Pardi says he believes this feature saves operators from straining their wrists.

A walk-behind stump grinder has also proven to be serviceable to L&L Landscape Services' crews-but not necessarily for its original purpose. "We don't use it much to grind tree stumps," Pardi explains. Instead, "It's small enough that we use it to plane down surface roots. That has worked well for us." Pardi also mentions a spin trimmer that accepts a hedge-trimming attachment, which has proven its worth, he says. Pardi says he originally purchased this unit, which swivels to change trimming angles, to trim high hedges. But he's also discovered that it trims groundcovers, such as ivy, nicely.

Gene Fuller, section manager for roads and grounds at Abbott Laboratories (Abbott Park, Ill.), has a similar admiration for an edger attachment to a spin trimmer. Crew members carry the edger attachments along with the spin trimmers on their trucks. "So when they are finished line trimming, they can take the head off and put the edger on. They can then do some edging around tree and shrub beds," he explains. Fuller says that using these edgers also has increased the quality of the beds and tree rings his crews maintain. Previously, when the crews used spin trimmers to trim around beds, they left a rounded edge. But the edger attachment leaves a crisp, straight edge. Moreover, Fuller is hoping that cleanup edging in the spring may be reduced with the new units, too.

The planting beds at Abbott Laboratories have benefited from the use of a 2-cycle, 12-inch rotary tiller, which crews use to "freshen" mulch. Fuller says that crews previously used rakes or three- or four-tined cultivators to turn mulch. This small rotary tiller is light enough, however, that Fuller says it doesn't dig down too deeply, it moves quickly, and it can reach in between plants. Crews also use it to cultivate perennial beds.

Standing mowers and tractor-mounted blowers The one item Fuller believes has drastically increased productivity at Abbott Laboratories-like L&L's Pardi-is a riding platform attached to a 48-inch belt-driven walk-behind mower. "We are always conscious of productivity," Fuller explains. "We originally used reel-type mowers to cut our high-priority areas because of their good-quality cut. But the mowing was so slow. We switched to a rotary walk-behind, which reduced our mowing time by about 75 percent. When we attached the platform, we probably cut that in half again. The operator can mow in a higher gear. It has been a good move for us." Though the sulkies might not work for all sites, Fuller finds them especially useful because of the numerous flat turf areas on his corporate campus.

On the campus of Princeton University (Princeton, N.J.), leaf litter is a landscape concern for the Grounds and Buildings Maintenance Department. "We have a lot of leaves here at Princeton," says Mark Pecaric, grounds foreman. Tractor-mounted blowers-attached to the tractors' front ends-allow grounds-maintenance crews to blow leaves into windrows, Pecaric says. Having the leaves contained in windrows makes it easy for crews to then follow up with leaf-and-litter vacuums. Other pieces of equipment Pecaric favors include an aerator with a head that rotates from side to side and various types of walk-behind, self-powered, rotary tillers, which are good for several jobs including seed-bed preparation and slit seeding.

Multiple-use equipment The trencher/bed edgers with multiple heads (including a stump-grinding tooth) are "convenient," according to Paul Swartz, campus arborist in the grounds-maintenance department at Michigan State University (East Lansing, Mich.). He also mentions a dedicated grass-clipping-bagging unit with a rigid dumping body as a notable time-saver. Mounted on a 48-inch-deck riding mower, he says this unit has made collecting clippings in the university's horticultural gardens much easier. The grass catcher has eliminated the need for power blowing walkways, too, he says.

"We're also using extension power pruners for cutting tree limbs. These are chainsaw units that extend up to 17 feet," Swartz says. In fact, his department recently bought several more of these telescoping power pruners, he says, because the first units have proven to be so functional. In addition, Swartz points out that his crews use leaf blowers of all sorts-backpack, walk-behind and mounted-all over campus.

"We are always looking for multiple-use equipment-things we can use throughout the year, not just in one season," Swartz explains. This is one reason he touts the attributes of his department's new 4-wheel-drive articulated tractor. It accepts a snow blower, hydraulic power washer, 14-foot front mower, snowplow and brush cutter, among other attachments.

The industry relies heavily on tractors and their multitude of attachments precisely because of this versatility. In Grounds Maintenance's February 1998 article, "Today's Swiss-Army Tractors," in fact, one manufacturer says its tractor accepts more than 50 different attachments.

A tractor that features a glide-shift transmission has impressed Kent Lemme, CGCS, golf-course superintendent at Taconic Golf Club (Williamstown, Mass.). This unit has made a noticeable difference in the speed and ease with which attachments operate, he says. With the glide-shift transmission, "You can shift gear speeds on the fly with the RPMs of the tractor staying at the revolutions needed to run the attachments....You can keep the engine RPMs up at 540 at the PTO, and you can shift in between gears without ever pushing the clutch in or slowing down the RPMs."

Lemme also believes articulating mowers "do a phenomenal job" mowing roughs. "We used to mow with gang units-a lot of courses used to use reel mowers. For us, going to the rotaries has made a huge difference," he explains.

In the end, it's your crew members who will determine which piece of specialized equipment proves to be the wisest investment. "You don't know [if a new, highly publicized piece of equipment] is another one of those things to come along like the Pocket Fisherman-one of those things someone is just trying to sell," Abbott Laboratories' Fuller says with a laugh. "The best way to know is to show [the equipment to] your people. They will tell you what it has done for them. We purchase these things, but we don't know if they will work until they are field-tested. When [crews] come back with rave reviews, you know you have done the right thing."

Michelle Byrne Walsh is a free-lance writer from Island Lake, Ill., specializing in turf and landscape topics.

When landscape contractors are looking to add a new service to their list of offerings, seeding services is evidently of interest to many. Grounds Maintenance asked its readers what new services they have added in the last several years to increase their profitability. Thirty-six percent of respondents said they were adding seeding services. The next most-popular recently added services were aerating/dethatching and ponds/pools/water-feature installations. Others mentioned new services such as shrub/tree installation, irrigation installation, sod installation, edging installation, retainer-wall installation, pressure washing and holiday decorating.

New equipment purchases included aerators, mini excavators, chainsaws and stump grinders, trenchers and loaders. Most respondents said they expect a return on investment (ROI) of 2 to 3 years, while a few mentioned 5 or more years. One responded on receiving an immediate ROI.

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© 2014 Penton Media Inc.

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