Getting a handle on smart buys

Features - Equipment

Comfort and the environment rank high among the new-product rollouts and improvements hitting the handheld market. Oh, and power is still important, too.

October 21, 2010
Heather Taylor

Improvements in handhelds will make performing jobs easier for landscapers. Photo: Lehr  Inc.As landscape contractors continue to tighten their belts to keep their businesses above water, they’re becoming more discerning shoppers when it comes to new purchases.

“What we’re finding is that people are buying smarter,” says Mark Dyos, general manager at Maruyama U.S.

So when Dyos and other outdoor power equipment makers introduce their latest and greatest products, they’re trying to woo potential users that are more interested than ever in getting the most for their money.

The manufacturers are taking the latest technologies and trying to use them in a way that’s going to be most appealing to the end users and their desire for a smart, lasting product. And from the various developments, it’s evident that there are several ways to achieve it. But while the ways manufacturers choose to improve their products vary, a few common themes reappear: power, comfort and the environment.

Power hungry.  One of the most important factors for contractors is whether a trimmer, blower or other powered tool can effectively get the job done. 

“We see an emphasis on product design to gain greater performance efficiencies,” says Bob Stanley, product manager, Echo/Shindaiwa, adding that a more efficiently designed fan and housing on some of the new Echo equipment has resulted in higher performance without increasing engine displacement. 

Stanley also mentions the Hybrid 4, the latest in engine innovation at Shindaiwa, as an example of what manufacturers are doing to beef up power in equipment without sacrificing in other areas, such as fuel costs.

“Higher quality components and close-tolerance engineering for long engine life are also keys to gaining efficiencies and improving existing products,” he says.

Power and better mileage with fuel are the goals of Maruyama’s forthcoming Venom series engines, Dyos says.

Take a load off
Landscape contractors are figuring out that in addition to having some force behind the equipment, they need an ever-fresh workforce to ensure the maximum level of productivity and, as a result, profit.

“From a company owner’s point of view,” Dyos says, “they’re looking at the employees and the equipment and saying, ‘What is the best bang for the buck?’ If an employee is worn down because of the work, that’s not going to benefit him.”

Manufacturers are answering with products that inflict less impact on the user. In recent years, much development and engineering focus has been placed upon improving the ease of use of power products, says Rock Reed, assistant vice president, Honda Power Equipment. Ergonomically designed handles allow the user to easily vary mowing speed, and engines that reduce vibration allow workers to perform longer with less fatigue, he says.

Maruyama aims to achieve greater user comfort by taking the weight of the engines on handheld equipment and placing it on the operator’s back. The company took a note from the service industry, where housekeeping workers battle fatigue by wearing vacuum cleaners on their backs instead of pushing the weight back and forth, Dyos says.

While this type of setup has been seen for years with leaf blowers, Maruyama’s backpack units have hookups to attach to many other pieces of what’s normally carried by hand, including pruners, edging heads, hedge trimmer heads and fertilizer spreaders.

Echo manufactures a backpack blower with a vented back pad that draws air in around the user for comfortable operation, Stanley says. If it’s cold outside, a vent cover can block this function.

And just having power behind handheld equipment makes the work easier, especially compared to the old way of doing things, Stanley adds.

“Flower bed and mulch bed edges erode over time and need to be redefined to maintain a fresh, welcome appearance,” he says. “The old way to redefine the edge was to use a shovel, but it’s tough, time-consuming work.”

Echo’s solution to the problem includes adding a 28.1 cc Power Boost Vortex engine-powered Bed Redefiner to help achieve a professional, manicured edge in less time than it would take to use a shovel. Also, unlike a shovel, an adjustable-height wheel accommodates variable depths and a 59-inch straight shaft is designed for easy use under trees or other obstacles.

The eco advantage
Other buzz words that usually pop up on the topic of equipment innovation include efficient, green or eco-friendly. The increasing focus on the environment is just as present with equipment manufacturers as anywhere.

“Large corporations now are exceedingly requiring service providers to meet their codes as far as what their green standards are,” says Bernardo Herzer, owner and CEO of Lehr. “We’re seeing more of that happening. They want certain vendors to meet certain green requirements. I think you’ll be seeing more and more of that.”

Stricter laws are also a driving force behind going green. Emissions standards continue to get tighter in some states.

Manufacturers are working to make sure their engines comply with the EPA’s latest regulations.

Stanley adds that an engine such as Shindaiwa’s Hybrid 4 is an option for green-conscious landscapers because they’re designed to decrease emissions, increase fuel economy and provide high torque and a low tone.

Other equipment makers are thinking and developing in a slightly different direction. For example, Lehr’s line of landscaping products includes the Lehr Eco Trimmer, a propane-powered handheld trimmer.  Propane as a source of fuel has many benefits, but the main plus is what it’s not, Herzer says.

“The real win comes in just not using gasoline,” Herzer says, explaining that evaporative emissions and spilled fuel going into the soil and groundwater are a couple of the risks that come with fueling equipment with gasoline.

Propane eliminates a lot of the malfunctions that other fuel can cause in small handheld equipment, Herzer says. Disposable, one-pound propane cylinders are available at most stores and often are more cost effective than gasoline, Herzer says, adding that the propane usually delivers 1½ to two hours of operation.

While Lehr offers its alternative fuel-powered options, other manufacturers offer alternatives to fuel with new handheld equipment they’re introducing. Maruyama is rolling out battery-powered equipment in the next few months. It typically runs for 25 to 40 minutes on one charged ion-lithium battery.

The company is entertaining a battery-operated chainsaw, as well as a pruner and hedge trimmer.

Other companies say they’re working on the technology for new or updated handheld products for introduction in the near future, but they’re being more tight-lipped about it. Reed did offer some clue of what it might look like.
“We believe more products with improved fuel efficiency and reduced emissions will come to market in the future,” he says.

The author is a freelance writer based in Lakewood, Ohio.