Airing it out

Aerating used to be back-breaking work. Now, manufacturers are trying to keep the stress at bay.

Photos courtesy of Billy Goat

Jonathan Guarneri remembers a time when operating aerators was so brutal, it was often a dealbreaker.

“You couldn’t find a guy who would do a day’s worth of aeration before they’d quit,” he says, joking that employees used to draw straws to see who would have to go out and aerate their clients’ lawns.

Now, Guarneri speculates people are drawing straws to see who gets to operate the new aerator units. The product manager at Exmark Manufacturing believes the machines — whether they’re stand-ons or reciprocating aerators — take much less of a toll than the aerators of two decades ago. Brandon King, now a product manager at Billy Goat Industries, says the same thing: When he jumped into the green industry as a contractor in 1996, aerating lawns was grueling.

“Back when I started, if you wanted to go aerate somebody’s yard, your only option was a drum-style aerator that just beat you to death,” King says.

Experts who have dealt with aerators for several years acknowledge the machines have come a long way since they were first introduced to the market.

Service while shorthanded.

George Kinkead, the president at Turfco, believes the improved aerators are essential in helping navigate the well-documented labor shortage. Making it easier on employees in any ways possible helps keep them on board for the long haul.

“I think all the LCOs need to look at the equipment they have because now, more than ever before, if you don’t have the equipment to meet their fatigue expectations, they’ll quit the next day,” Kinkead says.

Kinkead says he likes the ride-on aerators because they’re easy to implement — and easy to teach — because the controls are somewhat familiar to most employees. He even taught his son to ride the unit while he was in high school, and Kinkead says his kid figured it out within a day.

“The biggest trend in equipment right now is matching your equipment to your employee base.” George Kinkead, president of Turfco

This simplicity helps employees ease their way into aeration work, which is crucial for employee retention. Kinkead says he’s heard companies say their employees have quit if using the equipment becomes too complex.

“(The ride-on) acts more like a mower. As long as they understand the critical nature…it’s really easy to train and it’s something familiar enough that it’s not confusing enough to operate,” he says. “The biggest trend in equipment right now is matching your equipment to your employee base.”

King agrees, even saying that stand-on aerators are easier on the employee’s joints than ride-on aerators. He believes when the machines take it easier on the body, then using them becomes more like a hobby than a job.

“If your labor leaves because the job is too hard to do, that’s not going to be good for you,” King says. “We (as manufacturers) have a lot of connections with local landscapers, so we get their pain points. We ask, ‘What sucks? What’s terrible about this piece of equipment?’”

A point of preference.

While King prefers the stand-on aerators rather a ride-on, it all comes down to personal preference. First thing he recommends before buying any machine: rent one and try it out in the field.

“If you’re unsure…try it before you buy it,” he says. “A rental fee is a drop in the bucket compared to buying a machine.”

King believes it can come down to client perception: Employees look more approachable on a stand-on rather than a ride-on aerator. It’s easier for them to hop off and address clients if they have questions, and it looks like they’re working hard even though the stand-on might be more comfortable than the ride-on.

Picking a type of aerator can also come down to the type of properties a company services most. Stand-on machines might be best for bigger properties, but in smaller residential spots, King recommends a walk-behind reciprocating machine.

He says selecting a reciprocating or drum aerator also comes down to hole density. King says a drum aerator can disturb 2% of the soil, but a reciprocating machine can create 4-5% disruption in a single pass.

Of course, there’s also environmental concerns. Ryan Turf’s Ron Scheffler, a senior product manager, says similar advancements with other equipment like mowers might continue to be the trend in aerators as well. “Green products and battery-powered aeration products could certainly be the future of this product category,” he says.

Considering the condition.

Guarneri says there haven’t been many major advancements in the manufacturing of aerators in recent years, but it’s been all about making refinements.

“These stand-on aerators, when they first started to hit the market, the productivity was absolutely insane,” he says. “People were willing to put up with the maintenance nuances because the machines were so productive.”

Now, Guarneri says they’ve focused a lot of efforts on eliminating grease points and cutting down on the number of chains used in the machines. Some companies, he says, have moved away from using chains entirely.

Time is money, particularly in aeration, where in most regions of the country, landscapers have a narrow window in which aerating is effective. But Guarneri says aeration is a highly profitable service to offer, and it can be incredibly healthy for turf that gets a lot of foot traffic.

“(New aerators) are so productive, but you have such a short period of time you need to use them,” he says. “Your window of aeration is dependent on the region, so customers should be aware of that. Aeration is a great service for landscapers to offer, and it’s a very profitable service for them to offer.”

Scheffler says machines that don’t require lifting tines to turn help save manual labor on the operators, and machines that emphasize easy steering are often preferred.

Kinkead says most companies only aerate in a six- to eight-week span, so some companies have also implemented the ability to drop seed at the same time they aerate, making it easier on landscapers to get the work done without making multiple passes.

“The reality of the operator: He’s running this thing every day, he’s got a very focused season,” Kinkead says. “You can’t aerify in the heat of the summer. Then there’s a time limit on how late that can be. Up north, leaves start to fall. It translates into it’s absolutely critical that the machine functions well.”

Though the focus in manufacturing has been on making it easier to maintenance, Guarneri reminds contractors that, just like any machine, there’s still maintenance to be done. The machine is designed to disturb soil, which can contain rocks or other damaging elements. He says at the very least, landscapers should be checking their tines frequently to ensure there’s no structural damage.

“Mowers have evolved so much over the last 20 years that (landscapers) just need to fill it up with gas and check the oil. Some customers assume the aerator is just like that,” he says. “Unfortunately, at this point, it really isn’t. These pieces of equipment are ground-engaging. It’s going to require a little bit more maintenance and a closer eye to stuff.”

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