When putting down lawn treatments, inconsistencies can result in uneven applications, wasted product and added costs for a lawn care business. The key to minimizing these problems lies in controlling as many variables as possible – and it all starts with equipment calibration.
Whether using a sprayer or a spreader to treat a jobsite, calibrating that equipment is the foundation to build employee training upon. At Arizona Weed King, basic calibration training involves spraying into a gallon bucket with a pressure meter attached to the end of the hose. Crews measure how much product is coming out and measure the RPM to get the settings and flow rates correct, said COO Lance Robinson.
“The hard part about calibration is not running the motor at a consistent RPM,” he says. “That’s a challenge I’ve tried to address by just taking that out of the equation. When you use pumps that are belt-driven rather than direct-drive pumps, you have a variance in speed because the faster they spin, the more product flow you are getting. I want to get to a point where I can run full-throttle motors and know that that’s where the sweet spot is. When you run it wide open, you know that that’s as much flow as I’m going to get out of that pump, and then I can measure it from that point.”
The maintenance factor.
One way to help reduce application inconsistencies is to stay on top of equipment maintenance. Lawn treatments involve harsh chemicals and herbicides that can deteriorate metal over time, causing clogs and reducing equipment performance. Robinson’s team cleans and recalibrates their equipment at least once a month to minimize this factor.
“You can get it to the point where old enough equipment could have a quarter of the size of the opening, so it can get really low and you have to stay on top of cleaning and replace the wearable parts as often as you can. It’s not hard to calibrate your equipment if you stay on top of it,” Robinson says.
The human factor.
Even if spray equipment is perfectly calibrated and maintained, an untrained employee could stand there and spray a yard for far too long. This is when monitoring rates and mix levels become crucial tools in training new applicators.
“Calibration is where it starts, but it also goes into watching your numbers and honing a guy in to make sure they are spraying the right amount,” Robinson says.
Robinson typically uses a 50-gallon-per-acre rate for his applications. Each property is measured in advance and then recorded for future service visits so that applicators know about how much mixed material they should be going through to get the job done. He trains his employees to monitor the square footage they’ve walked compared to what’s left in the tanks as they go.
“You have to stay on top of your employees’ numbers and make sure you are reviewing them on a weekly basis with every applicator that you have,” Robinson says.
Nozzle pressure is another criterion for employee self-monitoring. Depending on the type of spray tips being used, a certain psi should equate to X amount of flow. By using this data, applicators can estimate to then get an idea of how long a job should take them, Robinson says.
“It’s not exact, but everything gets bottlenecked down to the end of the hose line and I know that if I can maintain that pressure out of my pump, I am getting X gallons per minute of flow,” he says.
“You have to stay on top of your employees’ numbers and make sure you are reviewing them on a weekly basis.” Lance Robinson, COO, Arizona Weed King
The training factor.
At Curbside Lawn Care & Decorative Curb in Powder Springs, Georgia, hitting the right numbers comes down to effective employee training. They start new employees off by learning the basics right out in the parking lot. Trainees go out to a pre-measured area and either use water or inexpensive material like lime to practice using various sprayer and spreader equipment, says CEO Travis Beaulieu.
“We start off really simple so they can feel the pressure, and then we time them and see how fast they are walking. When you’re spraying, the speed of walking is a pretty big deal. On a push spreader, if you’re walking too fast, it can throw too much or too little. That takes time for people to get because it’s not necessarily natural to pace yourself all the time. By us doing the mapped out area, we can time it and say, ‘You need to slow it down or speed it up,’” he says.
Nine times out of 10, new employees tend to spray heavily because they want to make sure they are putting down enough material. To combat this, pair a new employee with an experienced applicator who can correct them as they walk a jobsite for several weeks or months. The new employee should get a feel for the equipment, the pace they should be walking, and a sense of what to look for on a property, Beaulieu says.
“One of our most difficult things is to train someone to look for something that we just naturally look for because we have been doing this for 20 years, and not getting frustrated because they have only been doing this a year. Consistency in training is key because those little training differences can become a bigger problem someday if people start changing it to their own ways. You have to set in stone the way that it should be done,” he says.
You can also monitor the new employee’s numbers from the office by viewing digital records for red flags. Those records should include everything from oil and coolant levels in the trucks to property notes to the levels of mixed material in the tanks.
If feedback from those supervision efforts doesn’t correct the employee quickly enough, LCOs might try switching out spray nozzle tips to instantly reduce the amount of material they put out, Robinson says.
“As they learn the system and how to spray, their efficiency goes up and we can get them into using the regular size tips and nozzles,” he says.
The environmental factor.
While it might seem better to have too much than not enough, it is still important to regulate chemical use for both the material costs as well as environmental costs, Robinson says.
“Even though I have a lot of fail-safes, I want to make sure I’m not wasting product because there’s also environmental factors that go into it. I stay within a range where if I go 25 percent in either direction, I’m still within the product label and I can then work with the applicator to get them to where I want them to be,” he says.
“We are going to be environmentally responsible as a weed control company, which means we stay within the law and within the label and whatever we are approved to spray is what we are going to spray.”
The author is a freelance writer based in Kentucky.