Integrating a Grapple Crane into Your Operation

Purchasing a grapple crane is a big financial commitment. One way to help pay for it is by taking on storm cleanup. TCIA file photo courtesy of Bofinger’s Tree Service.

The owners of five tree care companies that employ grapple cranes in their operations offered advice on successfully integrating this specialized equipment during the Grapple Crane Panel Discussion at TCI EXPO in Indianapolis, Indiana, in November 2021. Joseph B. Pipitone, owner of Top Notch Tree Care, an eight-year TCIA member company based in Kingsley, Pennsylvania, had the idea for this panel discussion as a way to share experiences and offer wisdom about the process, much like his own business mentors have done for him.

The idea was to provide potential crane buyers/operators answers to questions about grapple-crane operations and integration that they may not even known to ask before, during and after the acquisition of this equipment.

The panelists included Pipitone; Jim Eaves, CTSP, production manager, Bofinger’s Tree Service, an accredited, 14-year TCIA member company based in Baton Rouge, Louisiana; Josh Guin, CTSP, QCL, owner of Oak Brothers Tree Care & Removal, LLC, an accredited, seven-year TCIA member company based in Bloomington, Illinois; Jake Carufel, operator, Canopy Climber Tree Care, Burtchville, Michigan; and Erick Navarro Palacios, CTSP, independent trainer based in Magalia, California, affiliated with NJ Crane Expert, a new TCIA corporate member company based in Flemington, New Jersey.

One company owner was hoping it would remove the human exposure to the risks of tree work. Staff file photo courtesy of Mayer Tree.

This article sums up the wisdom from some of the questions presented in the Q & A discussion. Questions were posed by the moderator. In the following, Pipitone summarizes the main points included in some of the responses from panelists.

Q: What initial thoughts or expectations did you have about the application of the unit? What were you hoping the crane would do for your organization?

A: One company owner was hoping it would remove the human exposure to the risks of tree work, such as the physical stresses of lifting and moving loads, as well as hazards such as struck-bys and falls. They never expected it to completely replace any employee, but knew the mechanization would supplement their existing organization. Also, many people talked about workers’ compensation insurance with the hopes that adding a grapple crane to their business would eliminate or reduce workers’ comp rates or claims. But the question was addressed right off the bat with the fact that the grapple crane itself will not reduce workers’ comp rates (Editor’s note: Since comp premiums are based on employee hours worked, reducing hours worked through mechanization could reduce overall premiums).

Another owner said they were hoping this new tool would help extend their workdays by reducing worker fatigue in the heat. Panelists said the machine working faster would likely shorten the length of time workers would be exposed to the elements on any one job.

Q: What did you do to financially prepare your company for such a huge purchase?

A: Prior to the purchase, it took at least a full year of working really hard to reduce surplus spending, decrease debt-to-income ratio and save up a large surplus of money for down payments. You will need to save up for the monthly insurance premiums, as well as get as much money as possible for the down payment. Discipline is key to positioning yourself for such an endeavor. Finance is more about discipline than numbers, and so far, most agreed, the effort has been well worth it.

People look at the price and think they can handle the payment. But don’t kid yourself – the weight of the financial burden is heavy. You must prepare your organization and have the mental acuity to carry yourself through what is a giant commitment. But if you can be organized and financially disciplined, it will pay dividends.

Q: What initial training did you receive?

A: The initial training with delivery typically consists of two days of in-service review with a company representative who demonstrates all the functions and features of the grapple crane. Even though it is an overwhelming amount of complex information, it is not nearly enough training to feel confident, or even comfortable, with such an intricate piece of machinery. Most owners are initially overwhelmed, and that’s when the gravity of the commitment starts to sink in.

Erick Navarro Palacios with his grapple crane. If you can be organized and financially disciplined, owning a grapple crane will pay dividends. Photo courtesy of Erick Navarro Palacios.

The big takeaways from this were to go into grapple-saw operations knowing it will take a significant learning curve up front. You did not learn how to cut trees and rig and be proficient using traditional methods in just one week. It took years to build your organizations to where they are, and integrating the grapple crane or shifting to mechanization will not happen in one day. Take advantage of current training opportunities already in the industry. Hands-on crane courses and simulators can help close the training gaps. Learn how the machine functions, then practice on small trees – and try not to break anything while doing it.

Learn how the machine functions, then practice on small trees – and try not to break anything while doing it. Photo courtesy of Top Notch Tree Care.

Q: What were some unexpected benefits to your organization from integrating a grapple crane into the company?

A: On the job site, the crane was able to avoid obstacles such as mud or slopes, which helped speed up the job. If you’re finishing projects earlier, you then have more time for crew members to perform other needed tasks such as maintenance. This added time also can be spent in sales and meeting with customers, and generally increasing business efficiencies.

Joseph Pipitone riding the rails. Photo courtesy of Top Notch Tree Care.

Q: What advice do you have for an owner looking to acquire a grapple crane?

A: Do lots of research. Spend a couple of days with a company that is running one and ask questions. Get your organization prepared to make this giant financial commitment. To do that, you will need grapple-crane jobs. Put a plan in place on how you will go about getting the jobs to keep it busy.

How to Get Grapple-Crane Jobs

  • Rebuild your website.
  • Work (or create) your social-media channels.
  • Merge the grapple crane into your sales process.
  • Create a buzz.
  • Establish referral rewards/incentives.

Experience another Grapple Crane Panel Discussion during TCI EXPO ’22, which will be held November 10 – 12 in Charlotte, North Carolina. A different set of panelists will consider new questions, and more time will be scheduled for attendees to ask their own questions of the panel. Keep an eye on expo.tcia.org for scheduling information.

Tchukki Andersen, BCMA, CTSP, is TCIA’s staff arborist and was the moderator for the Grapple Crane Panel Discussion at TCI EXPO ’21.

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