This may seem downright un-American to say, but more horsepower isn’t always better. At least when it comes to chippers.
That’s not Al Gore talking; that’s what some chipper manufacturers advise. “A lot of people get hung up on horsepower. And, oftentimes, people don’t need the highest horsepower machine they can get their hands on,” says J.R. Bowling, vice president of Rayco Manufacturing. “Big engines can be nice, but often they’re more of a luxury than a necessity.”
For example, Bowling says that Rayco offers one chipper model with two different engine options and, until recently, sold far fewer units with the lower power option. “If I set the two machines together and put the same size piece of wood through both of them, there would be very little difference in performance,” he explains, crediting in part the use of automatic feeders on today’s chippers for leveling the playing field as far as horsepower is concerned.
If two engines are at least close in terms of horsepower, a smaller engine not only performs about the same, but can offer several other advantages, Bowling points out. “Smaller engines generally cost less, and they generally burn less fuel. So you can save yourself some money when buying that chipper, and also save yourself some money over time in lower fuel costs,” he explains. Plus, he adds, if a higher horsepower engine uses a turbocharger to produce that added power, there can be more maintenance involved.
“You don’t always need more horsepower,” agrees Jason Morey, sales manager with Bandit Industries. “You can use lower horsepower engines on our machines because our drums are efficient and turn slower and are larger in diameter, so you don’t need extra horsepower. You can be productive with less horsepower and burn less fuel.”
When drums are designed to turn slower, they gain torque and don’t need the higher horsepower, Morey expounds. “Torque is really where you gain production,” he states.
Just as some customers have a tendency to purchase an engine that’s larger than necessary, it’s also possible to buy a machine that’s bigger than what is needed. “I’ve seen some tree care contractors buy a machine based on the biggest jobs they do in a year,” observes Todd Roorda, tree care sales manager with Vermeer. “What I recommend is to buy a machine to cover 90 percent of your jobs. A lot of times that allows you to downsize your chipper, so your initial acquisition costs aren’t as high, and you’re probably burning less fuel because you’re running an engine that has less horsepower.”
For the one or two jobs a year where a larger chipper might be needed, contractors can do a little more chain saw work or perhaps haul the wood away without chipping it, Roorda adds. “Those one or two jobs really aren’t paying for themselves if you’re buying a larger chipper just for those,” he notes.
Morey advises those looking at chippers to consider what material they will need to chip on a consistent basis. “Sometimes they look at, say, a 12-inch chipper and think it will do 12-inch material plus all the limbs, but that’s not true,” he explains, noting that chipper sizes represent a maximum capability. Running up against that max capacity is OK if it happens occasionally, but not on a regular basis. A 12-inch chipper is good for when you’re doing 7-inch material (plus all the limbs) consistently. “If you’re consistently chipping bigger material, then you really should go up to the next size,” Morey states.
Even within a given class size, there can be big differences in the overall weight and build quality of chippers, says Bowling. Chippers don’t live an easy life, and going for the lighter-duty unit “can often come back and bite you,” he cautions. “I always encourage people when they’re buying a chipper to think about what they do with it, where they take it, and what kind of wood they put through it. Take the time to crawl underneath the chipper and have a look, because sometimes you can’t spot important differences from just the outside appearance of the chipper.”
He recommends looking at the way the chassis and frame of the trailer are built. For example, even within the same size class, different chippers might use different size box tubing, or not use box tubing at all. “You need to consider the trade-off between a lightweight chipper and a very ruggedly built chipper,” Bowling says. “People often think about putting wood through it, but they don’t consider that chippers live their lives behind a truck, bouncing down the road every day from one job to the next.”
“Sometimes customers tend to overlook the value of certain features on a chipper,” observes Bowling. “If you’re comparing two chippers, there may be some important features on one that are not on another.” He cites hydraulic lift-and-crush features to raise and lower the feed wheel, as one example. He also says to consider the width of a chipper’s throat, which can vary between different models and manufacturers.
Bowling encourages buyers to check whether different options can be added to the chipper they’re considering purchasing. “Someone may decide after they get the machine that they really need a certain option, like a hydraulic winch, or they may change tow vehicles and need an extended tongue,” he explains. Choosing a “modular” chipper where options can easily be added to the base unit can pay off in the long run, Bowling states.
When adding features, though, watch the weight. Large chippers can top the 10,000-pound mark even without options. While state regulations vary, that weight will likely require the driver of the tow vehicle to have a CDL license. While some manufacturers offer 18-inch models that purposely come in just below that weight, adding a few options can push the weight over the 10,000-pound threshold. “If you add popular options, like a hydraulic winch or a loading device or even a spare tire, the next thing you know you can be overweight on the scales,” says Bowling.
Costs over time
Roorda says that shopping for a chipper based only on price is a mistake that’s sometimes made, and usually regretted. “At the end of the day, you’re going to get what you pay for,” he states.
One area where price should be a consideration is life cycle costs. Roorda says, “For example, how much is a clutch going to cost [to replace] versus a machine that may not have a clutch? That may offset some initial acquisition costs.” He recommends also looking at service intervals — what needs to be serviced and how often — in order to calculate how much a particular chipper will cost to operate during its life.
“Even looking at things like grease zerk accessibility can be important,” Roorda adds. “If you send a machine out there with a crew, any grease zerk that’s hard to find is probably a grease zerk that’s going to be missed. And if a grease zerk isn’t receiving grease, that’s probably going to come back and cost you in the long run.”
Roorda also advises buyers to look for built-in features that can help prolong the life of a chipper. He cites features that adjust the way the chipper runs to match the material being chipped. “If you’re chipping real large hardwood, it may not allow the RPMs to drop as far, versus a softwood, where it may drop the RPMs a little lower,” he explains. This helps increase the longevity of the machine by taking unnecessary strain off the entire machine, from the engine to the driveline to the cutting mechanism.
Dealing with a dealer
“You want to look for a dealer,” stresses Roorda. “Anytime you can get dealer representation, versus buying factory direct or something like that, you know you’re going to have support close by.”
Even for those tree care companies who have the mechanical resources to service the machine largely on their own, having access to information and parts from a dealer can make a big difference in avoiding complications and downtime, he points out. “Or, if you have some sort of warranty claim, having someone to deal with face-to-face, who can go out and look at the machine, is very valuable. You’re going to get answers quicker and you’re going to get service quicker,” he adds.
“We like to have our dealers out there letting customers run the machine before they buy it. That gives them a better idea of whether they’re going to like it or not,” says Morey. “Don’t just buy based on price. This is a big investment and you should be trying the machine before you purchase it.”