Planning for a successful summer

Photos Courtesy of Tony Treselt Unless Otherwise Noted.

As warmer weather approaches, many arborists prepare for increased business and the return of seasonal work. Spring is a good time to inspect, replace or tune-up equipment, procedures and skills for the coming year. This article will look at a few ideas and tasks that can help prepare your company for warmer weather, new challenges and old concerns of a fast-approaching busy season.

Photo Courtesy of Andrew Beierie/Stock.Xchng.Vi

Equipment

Winter can be hard on wood chippers. Snow and ice can dull cutting surfaces. Cold temperatures stress engines. Many companies increase their removal rates in winter due to better access, less obstacles (i.e. perennials, lawn furniture or yard ornaments) and dry or frozen ground. As a result, chippers take heavier use on generally larger material in many regions.

Wood chippers are the bread and butter of many tree care companies. Most of the suggestions for chipper inspection listed below will also apply to other types of large equipment. Alter the suggestions as necessary to meet the specific needs of your equipment.

Engine: Engines should be maintained and inspected regularly. First, remove any engine covers and clean out all debris. A hot engine can ignite this debris. It also inhibits the engine’s ability to cool. Next, inspect fuel and hydraulic lines for leaks or excessive wear. These can also lead to an engine fire, as well as a breakdown. Look for broken or missing mounts, brackets or casings. A chipper, even when sharp, can vibrate a great deal, especially when processing larger material. These vibrations lead to cracks, and cracks lead to malfunction and breakdowns.

Make sure all gauges are operational and accurate. Engines need to operate within certain parameters. Malfunctioning or broken gauges do not allow an operator to detect when these parameters are being exceeded, leading to premature breakdown.

If you switched to a lighter grade oil for the winter, switch back. Oil that is too thin will not maintain the proper viscosity to protect the engine at higher running temperatures caused by higher air temperatures. Also, establish a regular interval for lubrication and oil changes. Somewhere between 100 and 125 engine hours works well for most equipment operating in a high-dust environment, but be sure to follow the manufacturer’s recommendations. Don’t forget to check and top off other engine fluids.

A simple spreadsheet can be used to track accidents and mishaps for later review.

Clean and replace air filters regularly. Consider installing a separator on your air intake if you do not have one. Relatively inexpensive, a good separator can increase the life and effectiveness of the air filter. Also, clean and inspect the radiator. Like an air filter, it too must be clean to function properly.

Body and Chassis: After the engine is inspected, move on to the body of the chipper. Look for loose or missing bolts, cracks and broken welds. Make sure all safety equipment, guards and devices are functioning properly. Check to see if the safety decals are properly positioned and legible. These serve as valuable reminders. Check tire wear and pressure. Winter potholes are rough on the suspension. Uneven or abnormal tire wear can indicate a bent axle or broken spring. Remember to check the spare tire if present. If it is not functional, then it is not a spare.

Inspect the trailer hitch and electrical connections and lights. You want to get the chipper to the job site safely without causing an accident or losing it off the back of the truck. Inspect and use the safety chains and any other safety device that may be present.

Knives and Cutting Surfaces: Check the knives and replace as necessary. Consult the manufacturer’s specifications for knife size and retirement. As chipper knives are sharpened, they get shorter. The shorter the knife, the larger the gap between it and the anvil. The larger this gap, the more vibration a machine will experience. A loss of efficiency may also become apparent. Chipper knives may develop hairline cracks. Inspect knives closely and retire any knife that looks suspicious. Also inspect the anvil. It should have a clean, even edge. Generally the knives wear quicker, but the anvil also needs periodic adjustment and replacement. As with all equipment, refer to the owner’s manual and/or manufacturer’s recommendations for more detailed information.

Safety procedures

Spring is a good time to refresh old safety practices or establish new ones. To review safety practices, start by taking a look at the accidents, near accidents, equipment breakage and minor injuries over the past year. Are there any consistencies? Do certain types of work seem more prone to injury or equipment breakdowns?

For instance, if your records show a number of sprained ankles and related injuries on rainy days, there are a few courses of action you can consider. First, you may need to look at the walking surfaces on the equipment and job site. Can traction tape be applied to equipment? Can mats or plywood be used more frequently on wet days? Informing your crews of safety hazards and developing ways to minimize injuries will increase productivity.

Inspect trailer hookups for function and safety.
 
Safety decals serve as a reminder to operators; make sure they are in place and legible.

Business procedures

The only sure thing about 2009 is that it won’t be business as usual. What worked well last year may not work this year. What were your priorities last year? What were your goals? Did you manage to reach your goals? If not, how can you? If so, how can your business change to be more efficient, effective and profitable?

There are many sources of information in print and online to help guide business owners. Business consultant John Spence’s Web site currently features a video on business success in 2009. It can be found at http://www.johnspence.com/blog/?p=92. Another source of information is Arbor Business Consulting (www.arborbusinessconsulting.com). With a focus on the green industry, it offers solutions developed and proven for tree care businesses.

Training and skills

What production challenges does the new season offer? What jobs last season offered the greatest difficulty? These questions will help guide you toward training and skills improvement you need. If last year showed a consistent tendency for large removals to exceed job time, then perhaps removal skills need to be brushed up on and added to, or maybe the bidding process needs to be looked at.

Will your company be adding any new equipment? If so, develop and implement a plan to learn how to use it safely and effectively. Buying a new bucket truck may move your service to the next level, but too many companies focus on the purchase and fail to invest in learning how to use and maintain new equipment. Time invested in maintenance and safe use will pay dividends when you need it most.

Finally, are there any new services to offer this season? Expansion of services is an excellent way to make a business profitable, but expanding without a plan to learn and excel at new services could drain profits instead of increasing them.

By adjusting your approaches, maintaining equipment, investing time and effort in training, safety and improved business practices, your time will be well spent. Every new year offers change and challenges. The companies that are best prepared to meet those challenges will benefit.

Tony Tresselt, a writer, ISA certified arborist, TCIA certified tree care safety professional and instructor for North American Training Solutions, works for Arborist Enterprises in Lancaster, Pa.