Focus on Equipment:
New landscape machinery works smarter, faster and cleaner too

There never has been a time when Canada’s yards and open spaces looked greener or more inviting to the landscape industry. Thanks to an almost insatiable demand for public beauty and well-kept natural surroundings, the business has blossomed across Canada, offering the industry a wealth of new challenges and opportunities.

     Although precise numbers are hard to come by, the best guess of those who follow the business is that the landscape, retail gardening and grounds management industry in Canada, a large umbrella that covers most areas, has become a $6 billion a year business employing close to 250,000 people. In Ontario alone, projections made by the University of Guelph point to a growing base of 12,000 businesses grossing revenues in excess of $4 billion a year, making it a significant new performer in Canada’s agricultural sector.

     Impressive numbers and a sure sign of a growing industry that is determined to keep pace with the public appetite for conservation and cultivation. Where once, a green lawn and smart tree setting was more than enough to satisfy a fussy client, today’s busy landscaper is plunging into ornamental pool construction, replanting mature tree up to 25 feet in height, cutting and laying heavy stonework and designing and placing complicated lighting and irrigation systems.

     Matching those job requirements takes a skilled operator who isn’t alarmed by the creative demands of the client and who knows his business is supported by the right kind of skills, creative ideas and, in particular, the right kind of machinery to make it happen. More and more these days, the operator finds his solution to getting it done requires a well organized inventory of equipment, much of which has been custom designed to meet his needs.

     Today’s busy professional landscaper in fact, can almost count on the right size, the right attachment and the right basic piece of equipment to get the job done. A typical medium sized landscape business may send five fully loaded trucks into the field each workday, armed with an inventory of over 100 separate pieces of equipment. That equipment inventory outnumbers manpower by a ratio of 10 to one, a clear indicator of its importance to the efficiency and productivity of the industry.

     The right kind of machinery, says Joan Johnston of Ottawa-based Peter Knippel Nursery Inc. and president of Landscape Ontario, is critical to meeting the demands of the modern, fast moving landscape business. “You never know what is coming up next these days. It can be the handling of mature trees or moving multi tonnes of decorative stone work. You need the right kind of machinery you can work with productively, efficiently and also safely.”

     The trick, she adds quickly, is not to treat machinery as a simple short cut to success in the workplace. Hydraulic power and sharp blades require careful operators, strict safety requirements and, increasingly within the landscape industry, an employee training program. Insurance and liability, she adds, is just as much of an issue to the busy landscape operator these days as the demands of the client. Consideration of one without the other can lead to serious problems.

     Vic Krahn of Lakeshore Tree Farms Limited in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, and president of the Canadian Nursery Landscape Association is in full agreement. “These days, there is a machine for almost every task. The operator’s responsibility is to think through his machinery issues with care, make sure he is investing in the right piece of equipment and also the right size to get the job done. You have to keep up with changes in sizes and efficiencies in this sector. Seven years ago, we did most of our lifting with tractors, forklifts and buckets. Today, we rely on a fleet of fast and versatile skid steer loaders that have more maneuverability and get in and out of tight corners quicker.”

     The increasingly complex equipment demands of the modern landscaper presents a real design test for the machinery sector, says Gary Zielke, manager of Commercial and Consumer Equipment for John Deere Canada. Adaptability, he insists, is a major key to success in the business. The Industry likes machinery that can handle a wide variety of tasks. They also like machines light enough to relieve fatigue in the field but tough enough to turn in a reliable day’s work. “One issue no operator will tolerate for too long is downtime. Today’s best performing equipment needs to be supported by the right kind of dealer and parts support.”

     John Deere’s growing interest in the land­scape sector is perhaps best displayed by its recent acquisition of the McGinnis Farms chain of landscaping and irrigation supply companies in the southeast United States. Immediately renamed John Deere Landscapes, the acquisition makes Deere a major player in the delivery of a full range of landscape services and supplies as well as specialized machinery and equipment, with 50 branches in 12 states.

     For the first time it also introduces the idea of a “one-stop-shop” concept distributing nursery stock, landscaping supplies, irrigation products and landscape lighting. In much the same way, as the equipment sector recently jumped into the retail rental sector, it now has its sights set on the landscape industry. Expansion into Canada for this latest Deere concept is not expected for a few years.

Clean air becomes an issue
Increasingly within the industry, there is also growing attention to the issues of noise and air pollution (see sidebar story). In recent years, most of that attention has focussed on automobiles and trucks. Starting in 2001, federal regulations imposed by Environment Canada and the Canadian Environmental Protection Act (CEPA) will also apply to the kind of two-stroke horsepower that fills a landscaper’s truck. The target is for decreased fuel emissions from a new generation of mowers, trimmers, saws and blowers now beginning to emerge on to the market.

     Why lawn mowers and chainsaws? Because, insists federal Minister of the Environment David Anderson, their contribution to air pollution in Canada’s cities is significant. “This kind of equipment accounts for approximately 20 per cent of the toxic emissions stemming from gasoline and diesel powered engines,” he says in his February 2001, update message on Clean Air for Canadians. For the first time, off-road and landscape equipment is included in federal clean air regulations, which will become law in 2004.

     Responding to these new requirements says Scott Darling of London, Ontario-based Echo Power Equipment (Canada) has meant a return to the drawing board for most manufacturers. “We have already moved to conform to memorandum’s of understanding signed with the Government of Canada and are beginning to introduce the first phase of equipment that conforms to new emission standards. The standards are essentially the same as those already enforced in the United States by the Environmental Protection Agency.” Echo is one of the few Canadian-based manufacturers that includes a clear compliance statement in its 2001 sales literature.

     Unnecessary noise has also crept up quickly onto the landscaper’s radar screen of new and pressing issues. Several municipalities across Canada are considering, or have already put in place, noise abatement bylaws that govern the decibel output of equipment such as chainsaws and the much favored leaf blowers landscapers use to apply that last flourish to a freshly manicured job site.

     Landscapers like Harold Deenen of Hank Deenen Landscaping in Scarborough, Ontario, believe much of the problem with equipment noise can be traced to careless use of the machinery. “When you start up a blower in a quiet street, people notice,” he says. “It is important the operator think about what he is doing in this kind of environment. Use a throttle setting only as high as you need, make sure you are not using this kind of equipment too early in the morning or late in the evening, and always ensure proper stone guards are in place to avoid damage to passing vehicles.”

     Fellow landscaper Gerald Boot of Boot’s Landscaping and Maintenance in west Toronto, believes the equipment industry will have to come up with still greater improvements in the future to meet the environmental imperative. “Fuel is becoming a big cost for the operator. I would like to see the industry turn to electrical backpacks to drive some of the equipment we use. We need to move away from this whole philosophy of driving everything with two-cycle gas motors. Electrical back packs would be rechargeable and still offer the kind of reliable power that an operator needs.”

Everyone likes equipment versatility
When it comes to meeting the challenge of the workplace, the landscape equipment sector has never been more competitive or full of design ideas that apply to a specific job application. Aware that the landscaper’s truck is already overflowing with equipment, the machinery focus has been on right sizing equipment and adding as many useful attachments as possible. In short, making one basic machine unit do a whole lot more.

     The ability to get in and out of tight corners has also become the focus of a great deal of new machinery engineering. Kubota Canada Ltd. was among the first in the mid 1980s to introduce mini excavators to the industry. That early family of minis has grown to a large family of a dozen variants, offering sizings that move from 1,800 lbs. to over 12,000 lbs. “There is something here for every task and every application,” says John Gilliland, Kubota’s national marketing manager.

     What’s next for this already crowded compact machinery sector? Gilliland notes with amusement seeing a German equipment display recently that offered a compact excavator designed into a helicopter — a ditch digger that literally drops into its next job site. It sounds crazy, but it is the kind of innovation that reflects the demands of a mar­ket­place that wants a machine design for every function and every job site.

     Steiner Turf Equipment puts a great deal of emphasis on simplicity and ease of operation. “People don’t want to waste time trying to understand a piece of equipment,” says Kurt Oehlrich, Steiner sales manager. “The operator wants performance and attachments that can be changed quickly and easily. If you can’t change an attachment in less than five minutes, that attachment is worthless.” Steiner promises one- to five-minute change times on its full range of attachments.

     A tractor that does 10 different jobs is worth every penny of its price tag, Oehlrich insists. “The buyer wants to be able to mow the lawn and then quickly attach a broom, brush or post hole digger. And that is the way it should be. Ease of operation, maximum job site versatility.” John Deere’s Gary Zielke points to the huge industry success of the zero-turn lawn mower as an example of the kind of versatility the modern landscape specialist requires to power his business. A mower that turns within its own radius, quickly gets in and out of the tightest corners, can mow around the perimeters of trees and flowerbeds and always with speed and efficiency. Small wonder that the zero-turn mower, along with the ubiquitous skid steer win the votes of most landscapers as the best new machines of the decade.

     Ed Zynomirski, director of marketing for Stihl Limited a specialist in a wide variety of hand held equipment including saws, trimmers, blowers and edgers, adds operator convenience to the long list of absolute musts that need to be designed into every new machine or attachment. “Operators want a machine that is durable, versatile and safe to use. They also want to use machines that are lighter and more flexible. Remember, a landscaper operator is using the machine from early in the morning until late in the evening,” says Zynomirski.

Picking the right machine for the job
How best to approach your next major machine purchase? Both the landscape sector and the machinery sector have plenty of good advice. Knowing, for example, you need a mowing system opens a whole draft of basic questions. What kind of acreages do you intend to cut? What about the terrain? Is your typical work site large and open or tight and complicated by obstacles? Do you require your machine to do a lot more than just mowing? What about snow blowing in the winter, brooming open tarmac surfaces, augering new holes for that broken fence?

     Gerry Lindsay, government sales manager with John Deere, advises the buyer think and spec clearly what he needs in a new machine, and to seek the advice of the equipment distributor on difficult issues. “Your dealer will know how long it will take each machine to handle an acreage and the best machine for the job.”

     Tom Benjamin of Woods Equipment Company feels that the reliability and durability of a product becomes a factor in making an important buying decision. “The operator wants to be able to buy a product right off the showroom floor with no long wait. He also wants to know the product is fully supported by the dealer and will provide long term service with no problems.” Krahn, with Lakeshore Tree Farms in Saskatoon believes compactness has its place but recommends the largest machine in any machinery sector to allow for long-term reliability and durability and to handle the occasional really big jobs that would be outside the limits of a truly compact machine.

     Stihl’s Ed Zynomirski recommends a buyer keep a close eye on the versatility of the machine and the kind of attachments available to make it work harder. “You should choose the right tool for the application and know that it is fully supported by a dealer who is nearby,” he says.

     Steiner’s Kurt Oehlrich feels that a job site demonstration is the best way to show the machine is right for the job. “I like to go where the guy is working and to show him how the machine will work. If the machine is not right for his needs, he should go elsewhere.”

     And Echo’s Scott Darling insists that, like it or not, fuel emissions and noise levels of working machinery are substantial issues to be considered in any new machinery purchase. “Thinking smart and keeping the noise down is an issue to be considered.”

Chris Dennett lives in London, Ontario, where he operates his own communications consulting agency. He specializes in machinery and equipment issues.

Related sidebar articles on this topic:
An equipment portfolio: a tool for every purpose
The right truck and plow make snow clearance more efficient
Clean air laws target landscaper's equipment