The ins and outs of renting equipment

Even the most committed “tool guy” can’t own every piece of equipment he’ll ever need on the job. There are too many unique items out there that might be absolutely essential for a particular job, but not necessary at all for your business afterwards. Renting can help put that type of equipment in your hands when you need it, and take it off your hands when you’re done.

Peter Drew with The Rental Company (www.therentalcompany.net) in Alexandria, La., says that many lawn and landscape contractors rent specific tools for specific jobs, when they don’t need it often enough to warrant buying. “They usually come in to rent really unique tools. They understand that it’s not worth owning it when they’re only going to use the tool once every two years.”

Establishing credit with a rental company can make the process of renting equipment quick and easy.

This is particularly true for smaller companies, which might handle fewer jobs and have a harder time justifying the upfront expense of purchasing tools and equipment that will be seldom used, says Drew. At The Rental Company, which rents everything from hand tools to trackhoes, “We find that we mainly work with smaller lawn and landscape companies with a few employees, rather than larger companies with 30 or 40 employees,” he explains.

The company began in the equipment rental business and recently began selling commercial zero-turn lawn equipment from Hustler, Scag, Gravely and Walker. The mowers are not available for rental, Drew explains, simply because the likelihood of damage being done to the expensive units is too great, but the relationships developed when selling equipment to contractors has given The Rental Company the knowledge to serve the unique needs of lawn/landscape professionals during rentals. “Whether it’s sales or rental, we understand that our commercial customers need the equipment to make a living, so we really work to take care of them as quickly as possible and get them back out on the job,” Drew explains.

Renting provides smaller landscape construction companies access to a wide array of equipment.

For those new to equipment rental, there may be a benefit to using a small, local rental firm versus a larger, chain rental store. “If you’re never rented before, we really try to explain the process up front,” says Drew. “We’re a small company, so our customers are dealing with a real person, and we take a lot of pride in knowing a lot about the equipment we’re renting. We’ll take you from being a novice at renting to fully understanding how it works as quickly as possible.”

For larger lawn/landscape businesses, or those that rent larger volumes of equipment, some rental companies offer special incentives or programs. Ellen Steck, vice president of e-business and marketing with RSC Equipment Rental (www.rscrental.com), explains, “For commercial accounts renting more than $1 million per year, RSC’s Total Control software allows the customer to get everything they need through a completely trackable and auditable Web-based management system. RSC’s Total Control allows 24/7, real-time access to all fleet activities, including equipment owned, as well as rented, by the customer.”

No matter the size of your business or the frequency with which you rent equipment, Steck says there are some basic guidelines to follow before signing a rental agreement. “First, be sure you understand all of the terms of the rental and question any areas that are unclear. Remember, you are signing a legal contract, so don’t do it without being comfortable with the mutual expectations of both parties,” she explains. This can help you protect yourself against an unscrupulous rental company.

In particular, Steck recommends asking four specific questions to clarify the terms of the rental:

When does the equipment need to be returned?

How much will I pay if I return it later than planned?

Is there a refueling fee?

What happens if equipment is damaged?

Before renting, be sure to determine which party will be responsible for maintaining the equipment.

“Most business owners realize that a fair transaction is the only way to encourage repeat business,” she says. “If you do experience problems, consider contacting your Better Business Bureau.”

It may make sense to consider setting up a credit account with a rental company. This can help make payment more convenient. For example, RSC requires cash customers to pay for the rental up front, something not required of customers that set up a credit account with the company. On the other hand, there may be requirements for a credit line that are difficult for smaller contractors to meet.

“A lot of the smaller contractors don’t want to go through the process of setting up credit accounts with us, so we make sure that we’re pretty user-friendly for them through the use of credit cards,” explains Alan Beales, regional manager with Cresco Equipment Rentals (www.crescorent.com). “When they come in to rent from Cresco, all we’re asking for is a driver’s license and a credit card.” He adds that, at Cresco, the normal policy is to require a deposit of three times the estimated cost of the rental.

One of the most important things to discuss before renting is which party will be responsible for maintaining the item. “If the equipment is going out for two weeks, we certainly expect you to check the oil on it during that time,” Peter Drew explains of The Rental Company’s policy. “If it’s going out just for a day, you can expect that we’ve got it all ready for you when it goes out and we’ll take care of the maintenance when it comes back in, but every piece of equipment is unique, and it’s best to talk through its use and maintenance during the rental process.”

Generally, once the customer has possession of the equipment, it is his responsibility to maintain it, explains RSC’s Ellen Steck. “That being said, RSC will send field service mechanics out to change oil and filters on longer-term rentals with an agreement with the customer. Obviously, not all types of service are applicable to all types of equipment, but the length of the rental does not alter the level of service that RSC provides to the customer.”

For lawn and landscape contractors, the dependability of the equipment they rent can have a serious impact on the ability to complete jobs on time, so it’s especially critical to be sure the rental company you work with has the expertise to maintain the equipment it rents. Ask about what types of maintenance schedules the company follows, the skills of its service professionals and the availability of service in the field at the job site (something that RSC offers, for example) to keep the equipment running for the duration of the rental term.

Cresco’s Alan Beales explains that, “Generally, on a short-term rental, the equipment is going to come back to us before it needs maintenance, but while you have it, it’s your responsibility to fuel it and, if it’s something that needs lubrication, to lube it. We’ll show you how to do it. On long-term rentals, we like to get a call from renters telling us that they’ve been running the equipment for awhile and it’s probably ready to be serviced, and then we’ll come out and service it.”

Like many rental companies, Cresco Rental offers delivery and pickup services. “That includes everything from something that goes in the back of a pickup truck all the way up to an 18-wheeler transport,” explains Beales. That type of service can help contractors schedule delivery and pickup directly at the job site and avoid the need to leave the project and personally transport the equipment. “There is a cost, so it’s wise to determine whether it’s more cost-effective to pay the pickup charge or pay for another half-day of rental and just return it yourself at the end of the day. With a chain saw rental, for example, it probably makes sense to do that, and there’s a chance we won’t even charge you for the extra half-day. With a bigger piece of equipment, it probably makes sense to get it picked up as soon as possible rather than sitting around.”

Beales makes the point that most good rental companies will be willing to work to meet the specific needs of contractors. While Cresco doesn’t have any official programs for frequent renters, “if someone starts renting in some volume from us, we’ve been known to work out a deal for them,” he says. “Most rental companies, in order to keep your business, will work with you on things like allowing you to keep the equipment for a day-and-a-half instead of a day. It can be flexible.”

Beales adds, “If there’s equipment you need and we don’t carry it, don’t be afraid to ask us why and suggest that we begin offering it. We’ve picked up a lot of niche items that we never used to carry because customers told us, ‘Hey, there’s a real need and a market for that.’” That way, the next time you need the equipment, you’ll have the option of renting rather than buying.

Patrick White is a freelance writer and editor.