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String Trimming Basics

A down-and-dirty refresher on selecting and using trimmers
By Ron Hall



Safety first. It's always wise to wear long pants, work shoes and hearing protection when string trimming.
PHOTO COURTESY OF STIHL.

Several years ago, Jim McCutcheon, CEO of HighGrove Partners, Atlanta, Ga., shared a revealing video of one of his company's employees string trimming around a small obstacle. More than 50 landscape company owners and managers saw the video at a "lean management" event hosted by outdoor power equipment manufacturer The Ariens Company at its headquarters in Brillion, Wis., and led by industry consultant Jim Paluch.

The short video showed the young landscape worker carefully (almost painstakingly) working his trimmer around the obstacle. Maybe he was aware he was on camera; maybe he wasn't. Regardless, it was obvious that he was attempting to do the best job that he possibly could.

While the audience of experienced landscape pros viewed the young worker's efforts to do "the perfect" trimming job in a positive light, it also agreed that he was spending way too much time on a relatively small task. In the fiercely competitive landscape maintenance arena, getting jobs done to customers' satisfaction is vital, of course, but getting them done efficiently is just as important. Maintenance jobs are estimated and bid based on labor hours. Labor is the biggest expense in performing these services. And, of course, maintenance contracts are won or lost on price. This is even more true, now, after the housing and commercial construction bust of several years ago.

In this instance, the landscape pros saw the worker's on-site trimming efforts as a training issue. He either hadn't been taught the most-efficient way to use the string trimmer, or he (his field foreman, too?) had fallen into time-wasting habits. Now that the problem had been identified, it became easily correctable, the pros agreed.

String trimming and edging, two common tasks generally linked with mowing in almost every maintenance account, are not difficult tasks. But there are a lot of ways trimming can be made less efficient - from abusing the units, making them more prone to breakdowns and failure, to not carrying common repair and replacement parts.

Before their guys even get onto properties, landscape company owners have to figure out which products work best for their operations and the properties they maintain. They're faced with a lot of choices in selecting professional-quality trimmers and edgers. For example, split-shaft machines can take attachments. Is that important to the jobs they do? Do two-cycle or four-cycle units work best for their jobs? Today's gas-powered, hand-held units are quieter and more fuel-efficient than models of even a few years ago. For truly quiet operation, users can now find portable and relatively powerful electric trimmers.


Edging along walkways, driveways and other hardscapes gives landscapes a finished appearance.
PHOTO COURTESY OF LITTLE WONDER.

For trimmers, the choice ultimately depends upon the size of the properties they maintain and what they'll be trimming. Mostly grass? Tough weeds? Equipment users should have some say in the product selection, as well. Field personnel may find some units more comfortable, more reliable or easier to service than others. Workers will perform better with equipment that they find easiest to use. Trimmers are available with boom shafts, straight shafts, curved shafts and shafts with handlebars and shoulder harnesses. To that end, each design has unique performance characteristics, those with handlebars and shoulder harnesses are designed to reduce strain on workers' backs.

The differences among trimmers don't stop there. Trimmers come with different head types, too - refillable spool and fixed-line being the most common. In some models you can replace the line with a metal cutting blade for really overgrown areas.

Taking a little extra time to find the best models for your particular needs is time well spent. Test out the models at your dealer's shop. The unit's weight should feel evenly distributed or a bit heavier toward the top handle. Are the control buttons in a handy place? Do you need a model with a protective sleeve around the shaft? It's a good idea if your guys are going to be cutting a lot of weeds or tall grass.


The difference between good and bad

In walking a large grassy commercial site with a knowledgeable landscape company owner in West Lafayette, Ind., several years ago, I saw the difference between poor trimming and edging and good trimming and edging. The owner had just acquired the property because the manager of the site was unhappy with the previous contractor's performance. Areas that had been trimmed by the previous contractor were uneven and the grass along a curb had been trimmed down to areas of bare earth in a few instances. Until you walk and actually see examples of good and bad on the same property it's difficult to envision the difference in appearance.

Most workers experienced in using a trimmer hold the trigger about waist level and just a little ways in front of them. They learn (sometimes painfully) how to position the equipment to reduce the risk of lower back injury. Many users find that handlebars and shoulder harnesses help lessen fatigue. Properly instructed and getting helpful supervision on the job, they soon enough learn how to hover the cutting head at the desired cutting height.

One of the discussions often surrounding trimmer use is whether or not to remove the trimmer guard. Many contractors do so because they feel they can work faster and more efficiently with it off. That may be so in certain situations, but they're taking a risk.


Using a string trimmer is the most efficient way to knock down the grass growing onto these rocks. A better solution, long term, would be to remove the grass around the rocks and apply mulch there.
PHOTO COURTESY OF STIHL.

No manufacturers of hand-held equipment advise removing the guards from any of their equipment. They advise just the opposite, to leave the guards on the equipment. They say that the safety features on their units were engineered and put on their units to reduce the likelihood of injury, either from contact with the cutting unit or from thrown or dislodged debris. Beyond that, warranty issues could arise with units that have been "re-engineered" by users.

Safety is a huge issue when using any power equipment and professional trimmers are no exception. String trimmers can kick up dust and debris. Users should protect their eyes with safety glasses or goggles. It's a good idea to wear boots and long pants, too. While the newest models of gasoline-powered string trimmers are considerably quieter than older models, workers should still wear ear protection.

Ron Hall is editor-in-chief of Turf magazine. He has been reporting on service industries, including the landscape/lawn service industry, for the past 27 years. Contact him at rhall@mooserivermedia.com.