When it comes to taking down or trimming trees, there are plenty of alternatives to consider. Should we use a bucket or lift? Bring in a crane? Get out the climbing gear? Answering these questions requires analyzing the fundamentals of each given project.
“There’s a lot of factors that go into it,” says Tim Edmonds with Edmonds Tree Service in Indiana. “Sometimes people call us wanting to get estimates over the phone, but there’s no way we could possibly do that because there’s so many factors that go into taking just one tree down. It sounds simple enough to take one tree down, but there’s a million things we need to look at.”
Access to the tree or trees usually is the first factor to consider, Edmonds says. His equipment inventory includes a 45-foot Mini-Arborist, a 60-foot Hi-Ranger and a 75-foot Altec (both rear-mount, because they’re lighter and provide a little extra reach by backing up to trees, he notes), as well as a 140-foot, 40-ton crane.
“If we can get a big crane in, we usually will go that route,” he explains. “With a crane, there’s no need to block down big pieces. Or, if the tree is in a tight area where there’s no way to do the rigging to get it down, a crane is definitely going to be the way to go.”
Arbormax Tree Service in North Carolina also relies on its two cranes – one 30-ton model and a 60-ton model – as well as a number of bucket trucks with lifts ranging from 55 and 65 feet.
“If we have the access, our number one choice above everything else is to use a crane,” says Arbormax owner Tim Robbins. “It’s quicker, and it’s better for the client’s yard because it’s lower impact. And I can honestly do the job cheaper for the client, and it’s easier on my guys.”
If the job calls for the removal of a couple of crepe myrtles or a few other small trees, Arbormax will use more traditional methods, “but anything over about 12 inches in diameter that’s within 110 feet of the street, or where the crane can sit, we’ll definitely use the crane,” says Robbins. “The crane makes us so much more efficient.”
Even on some bigger pruning jobs, where larger limbs need to be removed, Arbormax will use one of its cranes, in conjunction with a climber. “Sometimes we’ll use two climbers, one to hook and one to cut,” he adds.
Getting a crane through the streets to a property usually isn’t difficult, Robbins says, at least up to 60 tons; for larger cranes, North Carolina requires special permits. Even 120-ton cranes can get through most streets just fine, notes Robbins. “They’ve got all-wheel-steer and they turn better than a little Prius.”
But once on a site there can be limitations as to where the crane can be set up. It is important to note how much room there is to work once the equipment is in place, says Edmonds.
“Usually, climbing is going to be our last option,” he explains, but there are cases where climbing is faster and more efficient than trying to use a bucket. For example, climbing might be preferable if there’s not much open space around the base of the tree and a bucket truck would take up all of the available space for doing ground work. “If equipment is going to really cramp up the area and slow down the process of getting debris out, then we’ll climb, just to give us that little bit of extra room that the truck would be taking up,” he notes.
While a crane might be more efficient, some clients don’t want a large piece of equipment so close to their home. Or they may be concerned about their property.
“That’s another factor by itself: What is the customer going to allow? They might have a septic system they’re worried about, and we’ve had customers (who) don’t want a single piece of equipment on their property,” says Edmonds.
This is a situation where talking through the options with the property owner can help, as they can influence the approach taken. Edmonds recounted a recent job where this became important. “It was a job where we could have used a truck boom, but we had to use our lighter, backyard Mini-Arborist lift,” he says. “In fact, one of the reasons the homeowner hired us is that we’re one of the few companies in the area with a lighter lift like that. He had a bridge as a driveway that was built in the 1960s, and he didn’t want any bigger trucks crossing it, so that was a determining factor in the approach we used. We just had to do a little extra rigging with the smaller unit, whereas with the bigger unit we could have gotten right to the top of the tree.”
Of course, cost can come into play, and the customer’s budget is another factor. Providing clients with costs for the range of realistic, safe options can help determine the best way to proceed.
“Our main goal is the client,” Robbins says. “We don’t go in and say, ‘What’s the easiest way for us?’ We say, ‘What’s the best way for the client?'”
He notes that, when taking that approach, it’s important to factor the client’s preference into the bidding for the job. But many clients, when given the option, prefer to have the crane used, largely because it’s quick and there’s little disruption to their property.
“With a crane, you just pick the tree up – you don’t have to walk it through the yard with twigs and branches breaking off of it…. The only thing we need to do at the end is a little raking and a little blowing,” says Robbins. “People love it because they can’t tell we were even there, other than the tree is gone.”
Mark O’Dell with Arborist Services in Hawaii uses a combination of cranes, aerial lifts and climbing.
“It just depends on the trees…. You’ve got to use the right tool for the job,” he says. “Efficiency is one of the first things I look at. If we’re working on a 180-foot-tall tree that’s over a power line or somebody’s house, and I have access to get a crane in, it’s definitely more efficient to use the crane.”
A tree care company that doesn’t have a crane might try to rope and rig a tree like that out, “but they’ll be there a couple of months,” he adds. “For us to run payroll for two months on a $20,000 tree is not efficient. When you can get that crane in there and take that same tree down in three days, that’s going to make a big difference to our bottom line.”
If there’s a site that he can’t access with his crane, then the cost to the client goes up because his efficiency goes down. “Whether they’re a developer or mom and pop’s backyard, there’s always a budget. That has to be factored in,” says O’Dell.
All other factors being equal, Robbins says his general order of preference is crane, boom truck, bucket truck, and then climbing. There are some instances where Arbormax will use a spider lift instead of climbing, which he says sacrifices efficiency but increases safety.
“There are some trees where there is just nothing safe to tie off to, and there is no access for any heavy equipment, but the spider can get right back there. They are just so slow, though,” so, for sake of speed, Robbins says he would prefer to climb otherwise inaccessible trees.
Edmonds agrees that, even if it’s determined that climbing is the most efficient way to approach a particular tree, you have to then determine whether it can be done safely.
“Sometimes even in back yards there are dead trees that we wouldn’t send a climber into,” he says. “That’s when we start looking into other ways of getting the tree down, whether that means tying off to another tree if we can, or, if there’s not another tree around, sometimes we’ll set up a huge crane in the front and tie off to the crane and then piece it down.”
One additional factor, says Edmonds, is which approach is best for the tree. That’s obviously not a concern on take-downs, but may impact other tree work. On most pruning and dead-wooding jobs, for example, Edmonds prefers to climb: “I would say that 75 percent of the time, even if we can get the bucket to the tree, it’s more beneficial to climb just because we don’t have to cut our way into the tree to get your boom into a certain limb.”
It might be more efficient to use a bucket, but the quality of the work can suffer.
“We don’t want to have to cut a lot of unnecessary limbs just to get to a certain part of a tree,” he explains.
Avoiding damage to the client’s property is obviously another important consideration. “The landscape and the driveway play big parts in that,” says Robbins. “A crane is heavy. But we did a lot of research before we bought our cranes. Our 60-ton unit actually has less potential to break driveways than our 30-ton crane, just because of the weight distribution and the pounds per square inch. That’s a big factor in determining what we do on a job site.”
A combination of strategies sometimes works best, says O’Dell. For example, “If we can get the crane in and get the lift in, then the rigging can happen even faster,” he explains. “We can be more efficient and surgically take that tree apart faster and safer.” Sometimes it might take a climber to get the rigging done.
To make all of these decisions and narrow the options to the best approach, O’Dell says, he follows a simple but critically important list of priorities: “Safe, efficient, production – in that order.”