Turf Magazine - June, 2014

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Small Machines with Big Paybacks

Mechanizing with compacts slashes labor costs
By Giles Lambertson

Every machine is designed to work harder or smarter than a manual laborer, or to make a worker more productive than he would be on his own. That has been true from the beginning. The flint-headed chopping tool of antiquity (machine type: a wedge) made it easier for a man to splinter a log.

Mechanical and electronic machines of the modern era have the same purpose: to increase efficiency and productivity. And, of course, business owners know that more productively means a better P&L statement.

Compact and "mini" construction equipment makes simple work of formerly daunting lawn and landscaping tasks. Need to scoop out a hole for a tree? Bring in the skid steer with an auger attachment. Twenty bags of fertilizer need to be moved to the new planting area? The mini-skid steer can haul the whole pallet of bags in one trip.

Tough to figure

Yet figuring just many hours of manual labor (and dollars) are actually saved in a day or week by using compact machinery can be difficult to calculate. Yet it's always wise to figure the projected ROI on any piece of equipment before opening your checkbook. These are not big toys; they're machines to reduce payroll (a landscape firm's biggest expense, often running to 40 percent of costs) and, ultimately, make money.

"I ask them (contractors) how they do their work today and how they want to do it better tomorrow," says Mike Fitzgerald, a skid steer and wheel loader product specialist for Bobcat Equipment. "They say, 'If I had a piece of equipment that would do this or do that, it would cut down on my time or reduce my costs.'"



Even a relatively inexperienced operator can be productive in a short time with this Bobcat wheel loader.
Photo courtesy Bobcat.

Yet when a new Bobcat machine or attachment comes on the market, Fitzgerald stops short of saying that it will "save X amount of dollars and time." Many variables are involved, including operator efficiency, characteristics of a work site and variations in materials.

It sure would make life simpler for landscape professionals if labor savings were printed on a machine's label like horsepower ratings. Every successful landscaper knows that accurately estimating costs - labor, equipment and so on - is a business-side requirement every bit as essential as efficiently trimming the shrubs. The more accurately that cost numbers can be calculated, the more confidently a contract bid can be entered.

Just do it

For both new and established companies, seat time in a compact machine can be a helpful indicator of a machine's worth. Actually operating a piece of equipment can bring clarity about its value, because software engineers haven't yet come up with an algorithm that can predict human responses.

A case in point is a story that Fitzgerald tells of an Ohio landscaper and his son who happened upon a display of Bobcat track loaders. The business owner insisted they didn't need one of the machines. However, after his son drove the track loader, he urged his reluctant father to do the same. Until the father actually drove a track loader, he didn't appreciate the machine's floatation characteristics compared to those of a skid steer.

"He realized they could use a track loader and work on days they hadn't been working, when the ground is soft. They could add many days, if not weeks, to their work schedule," Fitzgerald says.

Extra working days per year translate into more landscaping jobs per year. Moral: Hands-on is a good way to get a feel for labor savings and cost-effectiveness.

Today's compact equipment is relatively simple to operate.

"A skid steer or a compact excavator is often the first piece of equipment that a laborer who hasn't been running equipment will be put in," says Sam Norwood, manager for John Deere commercial worksite products. "They are very easy to operate with a little bit of training and some practice. In the wide-open spaces of a front yard or a backyard a new operator can be productive in just a few minutes.

"Of course, there are operators, that if you asked them to open up a Diet Coke sitting on the ground, they could do it with a bucket," he adds.

Mini models

Compact equipment is generally defined as any unit under 50 hp. Included in this product category are units that many contractors refer to as "mini" units. Operators walk behind or stand on the rear of these machines as they work them.

This category took off in the 1990s soon after South Carolina Entrepreneur Roger Braswell introduced the Dingo line to the U.S. market. Subsequently, Toro acquired the Dingo line and now offers a lineup of Toro-red wheeled and tracked models with a multitude of work-saving attachments. These include augers, buckets, forks and blades to level turf and make shorter work of patio installations.

Other manufacturers are now in the mini market, as well.



"Mini" units are versatile because of the large number of attachments that can be used with them. This Toro Dingo with an auger is making short work of tree planting.
Photo courtesy Toro.

Boxer Equipment offers two "mini-skid steer" models (which actually are track loaders). The larger of the two isn't much longer than a man - a little over 6 feet - but its 32 hp Kubota diesel engine and 14.5 GPM variable flow hydraulics let it lift 1,000 pounds.

If the main job is through the gate and behind the house that's no problem either, because the Boxer 532DX, like similar units from other manufacturers, is less than 3 feet wide. And when more stability is needed on a slope, the tracks can be hydraulically pushed outward to a 43.5-inch footprint.

"People like how compact our mini-skids are and the power they have for their size make them ideal for hauling hardscape material, leveling ground, boring out tree holes and trenching irrigation lines," says Cory Reihl, a Boxer sales leader.

Boxer, part of Michigan-based Morbark, Inc., has actually calculated the comparative costs of the Boxer mini-skid steers and hand labor. The laborer comes with overhead, including workers' comp insurance and FICA and vacation time away from the job, none of which the compact or mini units require.

Boxer analysts conclude that, including maintenance and fuel costs, but excluding interest charges, the monthly and annual costs of their mini-skid steers are about half the cost of a laborer. Boxer's exact figures are proprietary, but the bottom line seems to be this: a mini-skid steer can be a cost-effective part of a landscape operation if it is fully utilized.



Track loaders, like this Deere 333E, have a gentle "footprint" and are small enough to do big work in smaller areas.
Photo courtesy John Deere.

Sizing down

Bobcat also builds mini-track loaders, but Fitzgerald says landscape pros often opt first for a medium-sized track loader. "A popular choice is the S570. It is light enough to get into some pretty tight areas and lift a fair amount of weight and utilize a wide variety of attachments. Then when the landscaper lands a job with tighter work areas, he will buy a smaller machine."

The smaller machine could be a mini-track loader or it might be the Bobcat S70, a fully functioning skid steer narrow enough to slip through a gate like the minis do. The S70 almost has the dimensions of a toy machine, but there is nothing playful about the way it works.

"Which size of machine they get all depends on what they are going to do with it," Fitzgerald says, which is a truism built on the reality that having too much machine or too little a machine for a task is not cost-effective. The good news is that getting a machine perfectly sized for a job is a lot easier now than it was 20 years ago.

Attachments multiply potential labor savings because they render a mobile power unit useful across so many applications. The mid-size S570 skid steer offers 50 or 60 applications. Which is the biggest landscape labor-saver?

"Boy, that's a tough one," Fitzgerald says. "We sell more buckets than machines ... when they're carrying lighter material, they want a bigger bucket. Pallet forks are kind of an automatic for sod and edging materials. We have a landscape rake, a plane, a soil conditioner - those are real labor savers, prepping lawns and minimizing manual labor. We have chippers and grapples and augers."

Then there are attachments for the companies that also move snow in the offseason. The attachments include buckets, blades, blowers and an angle-powered broom for removing a light dusting of snow. A machine's year-round utility increases labor savings by stretching them across more months.

One factor in determining a compact machine's ROI and value as a labor-saver is how many hours in a week or months in a year it will be operated.

"Some contractors will say a machine pays off when they put 400 hours a year on it and some will say a thousand hours are needed justify it," says Bobcat's Fitzgerald. This elusive character of payback leads many landscapers and contractors to rental yards for equipment instead of to showrooms.

"Sometimes when a contractor gets a new job and they want to automate it with piece of equipment but aren't sure if they will use it on the next job, they will rent it for a couple of days or a week. In those cases renting is a better option," says John Deere's Norwood.

Adds Bobcat's Fitzgerald, "but he might find he is spending more on rental each month than the cost of a monthly payment. That's when he should buy the machine and have utilization of it all day, every day."

David Nordgaard operated the first certified tree care firm in Minnesota until he opened Top Notch Equipment Company in Plymouth, Minnesota. He looks back at his own experience in the tree business and says he has no doubts about how much labor he saved using compact machinery.

"I knew it paid off," he says of his fleet of equipment. "I didn't calculate it to the month that it was going to pay off, but I knew I would pay a hell of a lot more for employees."

Top Notch Equipment offers Toro walk-behind units, Mustang skid and track loaders, Avant compact wheel loaders manufactured in Finland, and Gehl equipment. For turf work, Nordgaard is high on Gehl's articulated wheel loaders.

"There are probably a thousand skid steers out there for every articulated loader," he says, "but with articulated loaders, you aren't tearing up a lawn and needing to repair it. Repairs raise the cost of the job. The other reason I like the articulated loader is visibility. They have excellent visibility compared to a skid steer. The cab is wide open."

As for attachments, Nordgaard says "anything and everything" available for a skid steer can be attached to the front of the wheel loader: mower, grapple, mulch bucket and other attaching devices manufactured by Nordgaard's own company, Branch Manager Attachments.

Choosing the right-sized wheel loader can be as ticklish as sizing any other compact equipment, but Nordgaard says it is tough to go wrong. "The smaller ones will still work like two or three men."

Yes, but how many men must they work like to be certifiably labor saving? That's the question.

Giles Lambertson is an experienced researcher, editor and writer who loves to write about (and demo) labor-saving landscape and construction equipment. Comment on the article or reach Giles at gparkerel@gmail.com.