Mission control

Multitasking machines can mitigate erosion.

Most contractors suggest purchasing skid-steers or mini excavators if you plan to use them a handful of times per year.

The last thing Tom Horn wants when installing a new landscape or renovating a property is for excess water to roll on to neighboring properties, bringing a swath of silty soil along with it. In fact, where he operates in Jefferson City, Mo., there’s a requirement to protect nearby properties if the ground is being disturbed.

“We have to make sure there is no erosion — and nowadays with concerns of leaching fertilizers and herbicides, you want to also minimize that type of runoff on to other properties,” says Horn, sales and business development, All-n-One Outdoor Solutions.

Erosion control accompanies other design/build projects All-n-One takes on — it’s not a stand-alone offering, and about 80% of it is residential. Much of it is new construction with jobs sold as package deals to grade and manage erosion while installing a new lawn and landscape.

Horn can deploy the same equipment he uses for other outdoor projects on erosion control jobs: mini excavators and trenchers. The company’s fleet includes three of each.

“For silt fence installation, we will rent an attachment that goes on a three-point hitch of a tractor,” he says, explaining how the implement helps unroll and stake in the barrier he frequently uses to comply with the state’s requirements.

Southwest of Horn and close to the Arkansas border, Jeffrey Patterson says topography calls for erosion control on many projects. “We have to deal with hills, valleys and major water drainage issues because when it does rain here, it rains hard,” says the owner of 2 J’s & Sons, which he started in 2015. A mini excavator and skid-steer are must-haves for Patterson, and currently he’s renting.

For Jeffrey Linton, 60% of his business is erosion-related work, including laying straw blankets with hydroseed. From residential drain fields to installing berms, he also relies on a trusty skid-steer and excavator to do the work. Because erosion control jobs generally call for operating these machines, Linton loves the work. “I’ve always liked running equipment,” he says

As reclaimed irrigation becomes more popular, erosion control work will rise as well.
Photo courtesy of 2 J’s & sons

Cut Out for Cross-Overs.

Multitasking machines like skid-steer loaders, mini excavators and trenchers can share time on erosion control jobs and other construction projects. So, when erosion control is paired with design/build services, a contractor can justify the investment in purchasing equipment because it will stay busy regardless of whether erosion control is included in the scope.

“We use our mini excavators for multiple purposes, and we’ll hang on to the equipment for seven to 10 years, depending on how many hours we put on it,” Horn says.

Because All-n-One uses these machines on its installation jobs, some customers such as general contractors will ask about handling the drainage/erosion control aspects of a job, too.

“It seems like we are getting more general contractors and they like to get a package price, and now that we do everything from hardscape to landscape and irrigation, (erosion control) is a nice fit for us,” Horn says. “It’s natural because the equipment can be utilized for different projects, so it makes it cost effective for us to do it for them versus them renting the equipment or bringing in another company.”

Sometimes, drainage work involves installing permeable pavers, and Patterson puts equipment to work leveling ground and digging out a drainage basin. So even within an erosion project, there are multiple tasks that keep skid-steers and mini excavators busy.

As for trenchers, landscapers that offer irrigation services can work both angles with this machine: digging to install irrigation lines or drainage pipe. In fact, irrigation and erosion projects go hand in hand, and Horn expects to see more water-reclamation work down the pike.

“Especially as we move forward, that is a very critical component of erosion control — trying to keep the water on the property to maybe reuse it for irrigation,” he says. “It seems like that could be the next big thing where you can control run-off and capture it for reclaimed irrigation use.”

Erosion Control Toolchest.

The Rent or Buy Decision.

Horn owns his skid-steers and mini excavators — though he considered leasing one of them. “It seemed like we were better off to go ahead and make the purchase,” he says.

Based on the frequency of use and depreciation schedule, he determined that purchasing the machines made good business sense. On the other hand, he does see how leasing mowing equipment can be financially viable. “Because you can lease that equipment and turn it back in and not have repair costs,” he says.

He adds leasing might be an option for this reason based on equipment use and budgeting preferences. As for renting, Horn’s crews use the skid-steers and mini excavators far too often to consider it. He acquired two skid-steers from contractors with the purchase of their businesses. He bought the other two pieces brand new.

Linton figures if he will use a piece of equipment more than a few times per year, purchasing is a serious consideration. “I haven’t rented erosion control equipment,” he says, adding that his business has always maintained machines on the fleet.

Patterson agrees that usage dictates the decision to rent or own. But there are other factors that can tip the scale. For example, when he retired a tractor because of its poor service record, he was not yet prepared to purchase while investing in building a facility for his business. For now, he’s renting skid-steers or mini excavators as needed.

“Generally, if you are renting a piece of equipment at least once a month, you’re probably paying your equipment ‘payment’ to the rental company, so at that point you’re better off buying,” he says.

Erosion control projects typically coincide with design/build work so some machines can pull double duty.
Photo courtesy of 2 J’s & sons

Beyond multitasking skid-steers and heavy machinery, erosion control jobs require tools like a laser level to identify the grade. “And, of course, there are drainage components like pipe and inlet boxes,” Horn says.

He orders pipe as needed rather than keeping it in stock because it requires too much storage space. “But because the materials fluctuate in pricing, you’d probably be wise to purchase and keep it in stock,” he relates.

Linton uses erosion control blankets alone with tackifier to improve seed contact. Berming and rocks are also essential materials. Patterson also goes through plenty of these supplies when building open drainage systems that include 2- to 4-inch, fist-sized limestone. “We use pics, shovels and with retaining walls we use geo-grid, a layer that goes between courses to hold dirt,” he says.

Part of an equipment investment is training to assure crewmembers’ safety — and project quality. Horn has tapped into supplier training opportunities, including a drainage/erosion control course. “It was very beneficial and gave us a great deal of knowledge on how to properly size drainage components, and what types of drainage components are best to utilize,” he says.

Troubleshooting is also a big part of successfully executing erosion control projects and the equipment required to complete them. Patterson reflects on a cul-de-sac property where water draining off the street flooded a client’s garage regularly.

Patterson’s task: Create a plan and assign the right equipment for the job to get it done. “The drain wasn’t deep or steep enough to handle the water, so we cut out the bottom drain, made it deeper and steeper, and connected it to an open channel drain,” he says.

The versatility of equipment like skid-steers and mini excavators allows contractors to problem-solve with the flexibility of using attachments to multitask. And in erosion control, digging to the root of the problem is literally what’s required.

The author is a contributing editor based in Ohio.

April 2022
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