The right tools

Get your hand tools ready for a successful start to the season.

According to our 2016 expenditure survey, 65% of landscapers expect to spend more on handhelds in 2016 versus 2015.
© i-Stockr | Thinkstock

When crews from Big Lakes Lawncare in San Antonio, Texas, go out in the morning, they have a standard set of hand tools to work with, says Chester Buczynski, president. Every truck carries two string trimmers, two edgers and two backpack blowers.

“We have a very simple model. From day to day, the mowing crew is going to be mowing. They know what they need and we’ve done research to determine what truck needs what,” he says. “Once the season’s running, there’s not a lot of change every day.”

That setup allows for a spare in case of a breakdown on site. Prior to taking on a job, Buczynski, whose company serves 85 percent residential customers, works with the client to choose the right services and tools so he can plan for any extra necessary equipment. His operations assistant has the responsibility of making sure those tools are on the trucks in the morning before the crews head out into the field.

Stay organized.

Having a baseline set of tools to work with helps keep jobs running smoothly and cuts down on having to run back to the garage for the right equipment or to grab a spare when a tool breaks down. At Ameriscape Services in Thonotosassa, Florida, John Amarosa’s teams use a similar number of string trimmers, edgers and backpack blowers.

“That’s standard stock on every trailer,” says Amarosa, director of operations.

His crews, which serve 98 percent commercial customers, have a set of equipment assigned to them with a dot painted on each machine color-coded to a particular team, so there’s no confusion about which string trimmer should be on which truck.

“We do it so we have an easy visual,” he says.

Though the blue crew might borrow from the green crew if a tool needs to be repaired, at the end of the day, the fleet manager knows where that tool should end up.

On top of the color-coding, the tools are inventoried by the last four digits of the serial number. When a crew returns after finishing a route, they complete an inventory on the back of the daily time sheet listing the equipment by that serial number code. By doing that as part of the daily routine, it’s easier to track equipment that needs to be repaired or replaced.

The go-to hand tool for Robert Hansen at Robert Hansen Landscaping in Shelton, Connecticut, is the backpack blower, with two usually on each truck to handle cleanup. Each is marked for his crews, like all the other tools on the truck, he says.

“Things like gas shears and electric shears, or hedge trimmers, they’re all numbered and categorized,” says Hansen, who services 60 percent commercial customers. “The same groups take the same machines every day.”

At Lawnsmith Lawn & Landscape, trimmers are kept on a rack in the trailer that’s locked before and after each job, as well during lunch and other breaks.
Photo courtesy of Lawnsmith Lawn & Landscape

Procedures like color-coding or inventory can help cut down on lost and misplaced tools, but it can’t stop thieves. Andrew Gettig, owner of Lawnsmith Lawn & Landscape in Dallas, lost a brand-new backpack blower from the back of his crew’s truck.

“It was in operation for three days,” says Gettig, who services 80 percent residential customers. “The crew came out (from break) and it was gone. Everything is under lock and key, but accidents happen.”

On his trucks, trimmers are kept on a rack that’s locked before and after each service. Blowers are usually kept in a locked equipment box in the front or just in the trailer itself, he says.

“It’s ideal to lock (the tools) up during service too when the machines are in operation,” he says. “But at the same time, they want to get in and out. There are some points where it’s nice to just keep it unlocked on the property. But during lunch time, break times, between service – it’s always locked.”

Fine-tuning tools.

Once a week, Amarosa’s crews clean hand tools, checking air and fuel filters. They wash, then lube and grease them to keep them running smoothly, he says. If the tool has any blades, those are also sharpened once each week.

But the most reliable way to keep equipment running is just to make sure it gets regular use.

“That’s the thing about two-cycle equipment: The best thing you can do is run it every day,” Buczynski says.

“Most people, they use their chainsaw every week or the weed whip once a month, and the carburetor gums up and things get sticky and gooey inside, and then you’re having issues with a seemingly brand-new chainsaw because you’ve only used it three times.

“A weed whip, if you run it 10 hours a day, five days a week, it can be a tank. It can last forever with just about no maintenance.”

Though he doesn’t specifically trade out equipment so it sees daily action, he does rotate it regularly through his crew so it’s used as much as possible.

At the beginning of the season, Frank Capone at Capone Landscape in Wakefield, Massachusetts, makes it a point to have all handheld tools inspected.

Taking stock of the tools gives him an idea of how many he’ll need to replace later in the season.

“Every winter, we do air filters, oil filters, spark plugs and fuel filters. We go over nuts and bolts and springs,” says Capone, whose service mix is 70 percent residential. “We have a set number we need and we’ll replace them as we go if necessary.”

It’s in the budget.

For tools like handheld trimmers and edgers, Amarosa considers the “useful life” to be about a year. Crews will continue to use the hand tools long after that point, but as they require maintenance, he starts weighing the cost against the benefits of a repair.

“If it’s a $300 piece of equipment and it has one $12 repair, sure, we’ll do that,” he says. “But if it has a repair for $75, and it’s two-and-a-half years old, we’re going to think about it.”

“If it’s a $300 piece of equipment and it has one $12 repair, sure, we’ll do that. But if it has a repair for $75, and it’s two-and-a-half years old, we’re going to think about it. We can keep the rest of the pieces for parts.” John Amarosa, Ameriscape Services

As Capone replaces equipment, he keeps the older units around as spares or to be used for parts. If the repair costs closer to half the value of the tool, or they can’t do the maintenance in-house, “it’ll come back in a body bag. We keep it around for parts,” he says.

As Hansen’s crew gets new tools, they stencil the year of purchase onto the machine so it’s easy to tell at a glance how old it is.

“They’ll tell me that a tool broke, and I’ll say, ‘No, we just bought that,’” he says. “Then we’ll look, and it’s been five years already. Sometimes time flies like that.”

Though it isn’t a policy set in stone, Amarosa replaces about 30 percent of his handhelds every year, he says. There’s money budgeted every month to replace and repair tools if problems arise.

“But right before we hit the start of the season, we’ll budget more and get a bunch of new equipment and refresh our crew,” he says. “Then, each month after that … if we don’t use it, that money just rolls to the bottom line. But we do have it budgeted there.” Gettig works without a timeframe for total fleet replacement, but he’ll look for deals with distributors to get the most out of his investment.

“Every once in a while, a distributor will run a special where everything’s 15 percent off,” he says. “At that point, if we need to buy multiple units, that’s when we would pull the trigger on that.

“For the older machines, we usually sell them. We might keep them for parts or backups if we have to. But for the most part, anything that’s taking up space is costing storage money.”

But keeping a backup can make a difference in a pinch instead of waiting for repairs.

“Every day, the guys need to get in the truck to make money. If that truck doesn’t start, you need to have another truck ready to go,” Capone says.

“It’s like that all the way down to the string trimmer. Every morning at 7 a.m. for five days, those guys are ready to go. But they could need a spare trailer, a spare weed whacker, spare blowers. It doesn’t matter what it is, there’s a spare. It’s got to be reliable.”

When replacing equipment, Amarosa tries to stick to the same brands and models to reduce the amount of parts required to keep on inventory, he says. Going from brand to brand, especially through a sale, could cost less up front, but will cost more in the long run, he says.

“We found a brand and model we like for each key piece, and we try very hard not to go in any other direction,” he says.

The author is a freelance writer based in Ohio.

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