Start a Spray Business with a Small Investment

What does it mean when someone tells you that a one-person crew with a full day’s schedule of tree spraying can generate as much income as a four-person crew and a chipper? It means there’s an opportunity to establish a new income stream that’s steady, expandable and repeatable. It means that you can spray your way to profitability.

“The major benefit of adding spray to the tree care portfolio is that it is a continuous revenue generator everywhere in the tree care industry,” says Caleb Boullion, market manager for Altec Spray Equipment. “A tree take-down is a one-time event. You can take down a tree only once, but you can spray it, care for it, many times each year. In many cases, it can be more profitable to keep a tree alive than to take it down.”

Plant health care, or PHC, is a large and growing segment of the tree care industry today. A broad PHC program will include a variety of pest and disease controls as well as fertilizers and amendments for soil and plant health. Equipment for spray and soil applications constitutes a major part of most PHC programs, and this article looks at the investment required to get into this end of the PHC business, as well as the potential profits to be made.

The Altec Spray Equipment division consists largely of the former Minnesota Wanner Company, which delivered to Altec more than 45 years of experience in designing and building custom spray equipment when Altec bought Minnesota Wanner a couple of years ago. Altec Spray Equipment focuses on truck- and skid-mounted spray systems.

“Another thing to think about is the fact that a spraying operation can include applying root-fed growth regulators via a spray rig,” says Boullion. “Our trucks can be purchased with a root-feeder option.” Again, Boullion says this type of application involves tree care and typically is a planned, repeated event.

He maintains that, “The reason growth regulation is so popular is that trees in an urban/suburban landscape sometimes get too large for the space they inhabit, but with the inclusion of growth regulators, an owner can help ensure a tree does not grow too close to houses or power lines, and do so with less pruning of live growth.”

Translation: Less labor means higher profitability.

Typically, an Altec spray tank is separated into three compartments, which allows for custom on-site mixing, according to Altec’s Caleb Boullion. Photo courtesy of Altec.

Typically, Boullion says, an Altec spray tank (550, 720, 750 or 900 gallons) is separated into three compartments, which allows for custom on-site mixing. “Being able to mix on site is an added value because you can accommodate multiple and varied applications on one route,” Boullion says. Additionally, “Each work location may require more than one type of application. Furthermore, you may get to a site and discover the need for something unexpected such as the application of a fungicide. That’s the reason for multiple tanks – for flexibility.”

He adds that a setup that includes a large tank and smaller mixing tanks allows for those smaller add-on applications.

“Sometimes it makes sense to mix at the shop before going on the road, but typically one only has to fill the tanks with water. That’s the one thing you’re going to need in volume,” he maintains. “But it all depends on the route that day. At certain times of the year, spring for example, you will be applying fertilizer, so it makes sense to mix a large batch before heading out. With water on board, if you diagnose a special treatment need, you can mix in small batches and not have to return to the shop.

Altec’s premium trucks have large, stainless-steel tanks with an agitation mixing capability. Photo courtesy of Altec.

“In our premium trucks, we have large, stainless-steel tanks with an agitation mixing capability,” he explains. “When mixing liquid chemicals, water-jet agitation (shooting water under pressure into a tank containing the liquid) is the best mixing method. For mixing powders, mechanical agitation allows you to break up and suspend solid materials to get the correct, consistent mix,” Boullion adds.

“For spraying, we offer a DC electric pump that runs off the truck’s battery,” he continues. “This is intended for smaller trees and shrubs that do not require as much pressure to spray the average two gallons a minute. Larger truck sprayers run off either the truck’s PTO or a pony-engine option for higher-pressure needs,” he states. “For very high spray applications, it’s best to run a hydraulic pump off the truck’s engine.”

He concludes that Altec also offers a fiberglass tank, typically for lawns. The fiberglass design reduces weight, allowing units to get into a lower GVWR class. As an aside, Boullion says the company’s capabilities include large truck- and trailer-mounted systems that will require CDL drivers.

Tom Duffy is a 50-plus-year veteran of tree care and a manufacturer’s sales rep for Chemical Containers, Inc., which builds custom-designed spray equipment on a vehicle of the customer’s choosing. Duffy is pretty direct in his assessment of sprayer profitability.

“I can take one person and one piece of spray equipment, and he will generate more money than three or four workers with a bucket and a chipper in one day. There’s great profit potential in plant health care!” he stresses.

It hasn’t always been that way, Duffy says.

He says that in the 1960s and ’70s, “You’d just be able to go out and spray. But things changed in the ’70s and ’80s, especially where I was working in Massachusetts, which became very active with pesticide laws. Things got pretty strict and then got more so,” he says, referring to pesticide licensing and insurance. “So, given the costs, the little guys left spraying to the big guys. They could not compete.”

Now, Duffy says, “The spray business has swung again, this time toward landscapers, and people tell me they have a tree company and are losing money (to the landscapers). They say to me, ‘I should be in the spray business.’

A spray technician using an electric hose reel from Chemical Containers, Inc. Photo courtesy of Chemical Containers.

“Consider also how business has changed. The big guys grow by acquisition, and what helps them grow?” In Duffy’s opinion, “That would be companies strong in plant health care. A company gets successful and a larger company buys it. Or people in the business strike out on their own. I’ve seen it where an owner sold his spray company to a larger business, then went back into the business so successfully that the larger company bought them out again.” Duffy maintains that’s just an example of how profitability in the spray business is expanding.

“I am passionate about plant health care,” Duffy maintains, “so I do not want to sell to a person who has not done plant care and doesn’t have any equipment. Number one is to ensure that you have a license to do what you want to do.”

He also stresses training, experience and especially safety training. “Now you’re ready for tree health care,” he proclaims.

When it comes to equipment, Duffy’s experience is that his customers start with a 200-gallon spray rig in the back of a truck and, leveraging the profitability, beat it up until they are ready to move on to something else. “That could be a truck chassis and spray rig for up to $100,000. It’s something to strive for. And it’s a traveling billboard.”

But you do not need to spend that much to be in the spray business and be profitable, he maintains.

This spray rig from R & K Pump & Equipment fits into the bed of a pickup truck. But water is heavy, so make sure the truck can handle the weight of the full tanks as well as the equipment itself. Photo courtesy of R & K Pump & Equipment, Inc.

According to Duffy, “You can start with a 50- to 100-gallon setup for $3,000 to $4,000 or a 200-gallon rig for $5,000 to $6,000.”

One thing Duffy says he’s conscious of is the buyer who says, “Sell me a rig. I want into the spray business.”

“So I ask if they have clients. I do not want to see the equipment sitting.

“Next,” he says, “I ask what they plan to be doing – spraying for mosquitoes ahead of a party? Doing end-of-season winter protection spray?” He notes how important it is to have a handle on the spray-business’s business plan and to share that with one’s equipment supplier.

Duffy notes that most spray rigs can do double-duty and be utilized for soil injection. “The beauty about this is that, if it’s pouring rain one day and you cannot climb trees, there are not a lot of options for traditional tree work. However, this presents the ideal time for deep-root feeding. On the end of the same hose you use to shoot spray into the air for trees, you can turn the pressure down and put root chemicals into the ground by changing out the spray nozzle with a needle.”

“For bigger trucks, think about larger tanks, two pumps and two engines with two hoses, perhaps of different diameters, and reels to be able to apply to different products at the same location,” says R & K Pump & Equipment’s Ken Byrd.

A word of caution from Duffy. “If you want to buy a spray rig, fine, but do not put a 500-gallon tank on a Ford Ranger. That’s why I ask what truck the spray equipment will go on. If you figure that water weighs eight pounds a gallon, even a 250-gallon tank can max out the weight capacity, depending on the truck.

“A single-tank setup will get you started, and it’s the easiest, but think about dual- or multi-tank options,” he urges. “At a job site, you can do your fertilization and then if you see a dogwood with aphids, you can mix a small batch in another tank on board. That means more potential applications and income for one visit.”

When it comes to on-site mixing, Duffy says, “A lot will depend on the applicator. If he or she just got licensed last week, you may not want that person doing the on-site mixing. But you (an owner) can get to the job site for a visit just to do the mixing,” he maintains. “Someone with more experience knows what to do on each property.

“Everything we sell is ideas,” Duffy explains. “We need to help figure out what applications will be needed. How many gallons will you carry in a single or multi tank? What kind of spray height do you need? You can use a half-inch spray hose spraying at up to 20 gallons a minute with a maximum spray height of 40 to 50 feet. But if a customer’s job requires 65 to 80 feet, you will need a higher-capacity pump and a larger-diameter hose to ensure that not only does the material reach the desired height, but that the spray does not atomize en route and not make it all the way.”

Duffy addressed some safety issues not readily apparent. He favors using tanks that allow the operator to remain on the ground. “The operator can roll the doors up and fill while standing on the ground. Start the motor and pump, add or maybe transfer 30 pounds of fertilizer to the spray tank and shoot water into it. There is no climbing on the truck or handling of chemicals and no sloppy conditions on the truck,” he maintains.

“You have to look at what you intend to spray – hedges, trees or the whole thing including lawns,” concurs Ken Byrd, owner of R&K Pump & Equipment, Inc., in Pompano Beach, Florida.

He is of the opinion that how high or far you need to spray is the starting point. “Then we can figure out what equipment you need.”

But that solution is not as simple as it seems, and Byrd takes a forward-looking approach to his recommendations. “Customers should always go with equipment that sprays into trees at least 10 to 15 feet higher than they need at the moment.” Why is that? Because healthy trees you are caring for will grow. “And you do not want to have to replace your equipment next year,” he states.

Similarly, he says to think large with the tanks. “Let’s say you get a 200-gallon tank and find you’ve grown the business quickly and grown into a 400-gallon tank. One of the worst things to do is to have to stop what you’re doing to refill the tank two to three times a day,” referring to the payoff for planning ahead.

He points out that there are different spray guns for a reason, including those for getting a stream high into the trees, for care in getting at bushes and shrubs and for producing a fan shape for lawns.

Byrd advises there also are all kinds of equipment combinations. “For bigger trucks, think about larger tanks, two pumps and two engines with two hoses, perhaps of different diameters and reels to be able to apply two different products at the same location. Some customers get both sizes of hoses to spray big trees, then turn down the pressure and do root feeding around the tree. You may need a bigger pump to do all your tank mixing. Too small a pump will not achieve sufficient agitation and your chemicals likely will not completely mix, with some floating to the bottom of the tank.” 

Gary Maurer, president of Green Pro Solutions, agrees with the estimate that not only is the spray business strong and growing, but that it can easily represent between 20 and 50 percent of profits for a tree care company.

Furthermore, “I can get someone into this business for $10,000 to $15,000 or less,” he maintains.

“From backpack to a truck unit, I would be using all different tools,” Maurer adds. His company specializes in custom-tailored applications for truck- and skid-mount spray systems.

For example, he suggests a sprayer for about $2,000, “and you can do a lot of work with that. Next would be a backpack-style sprayer to do trunk work for less than $100. We have spray equipment that will do up to 50 feet in the air for $6,000 to $7,000, and do about 90 percent of the tree work,” he states.

“For some of our tree care companies, spraying accounts for more than half their income. And yes, I agree that one person with the right equipment can make about the same or more than a four-person crew per day at a fraction of the cost,” he concludes.

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