An Equipment Evolution for Mechanical ROW Management

Fecon’s new Blackhawk knife-tool mulching head is designed to shred standing vegetation as well as process materials already on the ground, creating a more aesthetically appealing end product. Photo courtesy of Fecon.

Less than a generation ago, climbers working with bucket trucks and chippers ruled when it came to the clearing and maintenance of rights of way (ROWs). Today, a combination of purpose-built cutters, grinders and mower/mulchers can clear up to two miles a day. Overhanging issues contributing to this evolution include labor shortages, safety concerns and new regulations and contract requirements, not to mention the demand for profitability. In addition, ROW work is no longer limited to large surface pathways for transmission power lines. There are pipelines needing sub-surface work and railways and distribution lines in or near residential and commercial areas. Regardless the size of your company, there is equipment that could help your company get a piece – or a larger piece – of the ROW pie.

Specialization for ROW work has been a focus for companies such as Fecon. Matt Warfel, Fecon division sales manager, cites three recent and varied products as examples. For light use, routine maintenance and especially for someone starting out in ROW work, he says, “We announced the standard-flow (hydraulic) mulcher last year, which is now available. This RK5025 mulcher is intended for those with a standard-flow skid steer for lighter clearing projects. Because it runs off standard-flow hydraulics, it represents an entry-level piece of equipment, since virtually all tree care businesses own and use a skid steer.”

Warfel states, “We did a soft release on our new remote mulcher in March that we expect to have fully available in the fall.” This mulcher, with an anticipated 62-hp engine, is designed for areas where people rarely go – challenging, remote and dangerous locations. “This is designed specifically for steeper terrains where you do not want to send a climber or are concerned for a machine and operator in the event of a tip-over,” Warfel explains. “It is all radio remote, capable of handling 3- to 4-inch material (depending on species) at a range of up to 500 feet from the operator. It is especially useful on rights of way that are sloped or on uneven terrain.”

Tentative nomenclature for this mulcher is the FRC70. No price has been set yet, Warfel says.

The third example is Fecon’s new Blackhawk mulcher, designed to shred standing and felled materials. “The Blackhawk runs differently than our traditional mulcher heads, using a smaller-diameter drum to increase rotor speed to make more cuts. Faster rotor speed results in more and quicker cuts at the tree,” he explains.

Warfel adds that the Blackhawk’s cutting surfaces are knives, not what the company calls “tools” found in its other heads, which essentially beat the material to pieces. “Carbide tools are more durable in rocky terrain. The knives cut fibrous material better,” Warfel explains. “So selection depends largely on which works better in your business.” He notes that the knife unit is gaining popularity in some areas, especially the South with palmetto and other stringy-type woods to clear.

Conversely, Warfel explains, the beater tools can mix dirt in with the chipper material to aid in creating a soil-erosion matrix, versus a bucket and chipper setup in which material is often removed from the site. What’s left with the beater tools is “a better product on the right of way,” Warfel maintains.

Jeff Bradley, product manager for recycling and forestry products at Vermeer, says his company offers a range of equipment for ROW work, from stump cutters to the FT300 forestry tractor for large jobs, “but not residential,” he stresses, “because of where they can go and the amount of material they can process.

Vermeer’s FT300 forestry tractor has a patent-pending, self-positioning thrown-object deflector that helps direct thrown material at a consistent discharge angle, regardless of head position, creating a safer work environment. Photo courtesy of Vermeer.

“Many times, an area will be logged (for initial clearing). One of the first steps may be to go through with the FT300 or smaller FT100, which is very popular among tree care companies, to take down the undergrowth, especially if the owner wants to sell trees to be cut. After the trees are cut, logs can be taken out and, depending on the types of trees and how far off the road they are, remnants can be mulched right on the ground with the FT300,” Bradley reports.

“Depending on what kind of ROW job it is, the FT300 can go in with the stumper head and remove large stumps in a hurry,” he adds.

He says if logs are not being claimed, “At that point you can get in with our whole-tree chipper, the WC2300XL trailered unit, or the WC2TX propelled tracked unit. The TX tracked machine can get into pretty remote and challenging areas,” he says. “So job site and location will dictate what machine you need. In the Plains States, there are not enough hills to justify a tracked unit, so operators perhaps go with the rubber-tired version. In hill country, tracked is the best way to go.”

Bradley adds, “Another way to get rid of canopy waste is the HG6800TX horizontal grinder, a tracked unit designed for land clearing. It has low sidewalls to better load and feed branchy or crotch pieces, which can be a major challenge in a big job. This design requires less pre-cutting because the infeed is good at taking in that kind of material. This saves time and the number of people needed for the job.”

A side benefit, he notes, is that the byproduct can be hauled away for other uses, such as biomass. “That’s another revenue source,” he maintains.

“Also available, depending on size and location, is the TG7000 tub grinder.” While this is another machine not usually connected with ROW work, Bradley explains, “When you have an underground pipeline and stumps have to be completely removed, stumps with up to an 11-foot root ball can be put in a tub grinder, yielding mulch as the end product.”

Referring back to the FT300 and FT100, Bradley says these can be used efficiently in follow-up maintenance, not just clearing. “When you have to manage the site with no haul-off of material, you can use one or two of these machines, which will clear as they go, driving through and cutting brush just like a big lawn mower. In one pass, you create a mulch barrier to regrowth and add humus and organic matter to the soil.”

Bradley concludes by stressing safety. “What machine is right for you and your ROW work? Don’t ask about horsepower or how heavy the machine is first. Ask about safety features, which support crew uptime and limit liability.”

Citing one example, he states, “On our forestry tractors, the FT100 and FT300, the cutter-head design features a deflector that rotates with the head, limiting how far material is thrown to help keep it off roadways and other workers.”

Jarraff Industries also offers specialty equipment, with a two-machine solution for ROW clearing and maintenance. It pairs the LineBacker brush cutter and the Jarraff tree trimmer.

A Jarraff trimmer with a quad-track undercarriage demonstrates the value of its versatility on diverse ROW terrain. Photo courtesy of Jarraff.

Kenny Jones, Jarraff national sales manager, worked many years on ROW crews and notes that LineBacker brush cutters (a rebranded version of the GeoBoy tractor mulchers) come in four-wheel-drive and tracked configurations. The LineBacker is a 25,000-pound, 260-hp brush cutter capable of handling 12- to 14-inch material. “We build the carrier and feature the Fecon head. Just about any cutter head can be installed, but for us, Fecon is the bread-and-butter cutter.”

The familiar Jarraff trimmer is the modern way to trim, he argues. “In the old days, right-of-way clearing would involve a bucket truck, a climber and maybe a chipper. The Jarraff trimmer is about safety and production, a piece of specialty equipment I see as the fastest way to get from point A to point B, and capable of trimming up to 75 feet.” That reach, he says, is sufficient to handle most ROW contracts that call for ground-to-sky clearing.

He supports this argument, noting the trimmer is on a drivable chassis and cab fitted with a boom-mounted saw blade. “There are no outriggers. The operator sits in a ROPS and FOPS (Roll-Over Protection Structure and Falling Object Protective Structure) -certified cab with heat and AC. The operator can continuously drive the right of way, working as high as 75 feet and moving far faster than the old bucket-truck method, where you had to stop, put out the outriggers, put up the bucket and make your cuts by hand, then come down, pull in the outriggers and reposition the machine for the next cut.

“Whether the right of way is 50 or 100 feet wide, we can cut and mow at the same time with a crew of two,” says Jones. With the aerial trimmer cutting and the mulcher not only cleaning up branches but mowing the right of way as well, “We can do up to two miles of right of way a day. With a bucket, I’d be surprised if we could do a mile a week.”

Granted, the setup is aimed at established, large-scale ROW businesses, given the approximately half-million-dollar investment for both machines. But, Jones says, “The cost savings and productivity are huge for utility line-clearing companies, for everything right down to sidewalk-level ROW work, not just the high-voltage stuff .”

Jones also mentions the Mini-Jarraff with remote control, designed for special applications such as tight areas. “This you can load onto a trailer. The other has to be hauled by a semi. They’re favored by DOT crews, because they can knock out one spot with bad conditions and quickly redeploy to another site. You can do storm cleanup along power lines near houses and in backyards where you can’t get a truck or full-sized Jarraff in.”

According to Andy Price, Altec’s tree care market manager, “One of the core products in any right-of-way fleet is the traditional bucket truck.”

Price cites the company’s LR7 series of insulated, over-center aerial lifts as, “the work horse for most ROW work,” Adding that these lifts have a working height that ranges from 61 to 75 feet.

Altec’s equipment offerings are indicative of the ever-evolving demands and needs of tree care customers, says Price.

Altec’s model TDA58 tracked, insulated aerial device. “Dealing with a shortage of labor requires new methods and technology to complete the same work tasks,” says Altec’s Andy Price. Photo courtesy of Altec.

“For example, Altec’s TDA58 is a tracked and insulated aerial device that can go through a 36-inch gate, as its out-riggers retract to a width of 35 inches. Properly deployed, the aerial device delivers 63 feet of working height,” Price maintains in explaining the machine’s efficiency for ROW work in and around homes and tight spaces.

In keeping with the evolutionary theme of ROW equipment, Price points to the company’s newest offering for tree care, Altec’s Heartland product line. The Heartland is a traditional truck chassis outfitted with an Effer Knuckle Boom crane and Gierkink grapple saw. “The device allows an operator to remotely cut and control tree limbs and then lower them to the ground, the truck bed or a chipper, whether for a single take-down or major ROW project,” says Price.

“We see remote-control-operated tree care work as the absolute safest way to remove tree limbs. While it is a big plus for productivity, the most significant benefit is safety. The operator never leaves the ground and can stay out of the danger zone while working,” Price says.

“I would say the biggest issue facing our customers is an available workforce,” says Price. “Dealing with a shortage of labor requires new methods and technology to complete the same work tasks. Before bucket trucks revolutionized right-of-way work, we had ladders and people climbing trees. This was very slow work. The bucket truck was the first innovation to make projects like clearing rights of way easier and faster with fewer people. The Heartland promotes a new level of safety and productivity.”

Price sees devices like Altec’s TDA58 as complementary to the bucket truck, “because it is a tracked aerial device that allows tree care professionals to get into places where a traditional bucket truck cannot. The TDA58 delivers productivity similar to that of a bucket truck working off-road.”

Custom Truck’s Hi-Ranger TL80/112, one of Terex’s newest line of transmission aerial devices, has a working height of 112 feet and a two-man bucket with a platform capacity of up to 700 pounds, and is equipped with a material handler with a 2,000-pound lifting capacity. Photo courtesy of Mountain F. Enterprises, Inc., a nine-year TCIA member company based in Folsom, California, and Custom Truck One Source.

Rights of way come in all forms, from power-line and pipeline paths to street and residential utility clearing and even to railways. Bob Dray, vice president of sales and marketing for Custom Truck One Source, says, “Any right-of-way equipment that can be put on a truck we can put on rails. We can fit any rail gear with anything from a rotating dump body to bucket lifts, such as a Terex lift, to cranes, and we build our own brand of cranes and boom trucks for the industry.”

According to Dray, “Because our customers have to clear-trim line-of-sight to sky, a typical 75-foot lift is often not tall enough, so we sell 110-footers for ROW work. We also build so-called ‘trailer-able,’ insulated backyard units that can get to power-distribution lines through a standard 36-inch gate with 53-, 61- and 64-foot reaches. These are Category Crated, insulated units designed mainly for harder-to-reach areas where power lines cannot be accessed by a truck.”

Dray says Custom Truck’s equipment evolution has paralleled that of the industry. “There are only two ways to trim trees, remotely or in the air with a bucket. The industry more and more wants to go remotely,” he maintains, “but that cannot completely replace an operator in a bucket.”

The other evolution, Dray reports, is that, “The main focus across the board for the past five to 10 years has been safety, making machines and operators safer.” He cites an offering from an industry partner, Terex – a PAL (positive attachment lanyard) device that uses an audio alarm in its XT Pro line of tree-trimmer lifts to notify the operator if he or she is not clipped in with fall protection.

In addition to putting anything on railroad tracks, Dray says Custom Truck also has its own tracked-equipment division that can put anything on a tracked land vehicle. “Our heavy carriers allow you to get into very marshy areas and traverse challenging terrain where larger bucket or all-terrain vehicles cannot go.”

Similarly, he says, “The demand for four-wheel drive is exploding, especially as right-of-way terrain gets more difficult. Whereas we used to have to get climbers into remote areas, driving equipment to the site is becoming more prevalent.”

Dray points out that, for customers who do not need to purchase equipment, Custom Truck has a rental program with some 6,000 units available and 26 nationwide service centers.

At Bandit Industries, known for making a host of chippers, grinders and wood-processing equipment, Pete Jennings, marketing manager, says much of the company’s variety of equipment is quite applicable and popular for right-of-way use, such as the 12-inch-capacity chipper. “We offer both drum and disk style,” Jennings notes. “They are not the smallest nor the biggest. Because of that, they are easier to tow up and down hills and into tight spots, but do major work.”

Bandit’s newest track carrier, its model BTC-150 introduced in 2018, is designed to carry Bandit’s 72-inch forestry mulcher. Its ROPS/FOPS/OPS-certified cab doesn’t skimp on comfort, and its CAT 308 steel, rubber or segmented undercarriage provides a wide track stance for improved turnability. Photo courtesy of Bandit.

Jennings points to several models, highlighting the 12-inch Model 200, “a versatile, middle-of-the-road machine.” Jennings states that the Model 200 is especially popular for utility projects because it can be put to hard use. “It’s lightweight for maneuverability, yet performs well.”

Regarding the debate between disc and drum styles, Jennings explains that operators usually favor the disc-style machine because it will discharge and disperse chips farther throughout the right of way. As Jennings sees it, “The physics of the Model 200 disc-type machine are that the cutting surfaces attack the incoming wood at a 45-degree angle, gripping the material and using rotational momentum to fling processed wood a greater distance, leaving the area cleaner at the end of the day. Today, contracts call for a much cleaner job than in the past, and with the disc machine, you do not need extra labor to achieve that.”

However, there is a place in ROW work for the drum-type chipper, Jennings maintains. “We’ve developed a 12-inch drum chipper that addresses different ROW needs. For example, if you are feeding large poles, pines and long limbs, you may want the disc chipper,” he explains, “but if you have brushy trees or viney, stringy material, the drum machine will be able to compress and fold the material and, once flattened, can better chip and fling off material. The trade-off is that the drum machine will not throw material farther, but it will get that kind of troublesome work done efficiently.”

Jennings sees this as classic evolution and having a variety of equipment based on need. “It used to be that few owners were interested in buying a drum chipper, but we can see how drum types are getting more popular due to their crushing power and momentum that pulls material into the machine.”

While some manufacturers concentrate on specific specialty equipment, others have focused on achieving complete, one-stop-brand shopping solutions either through expanding their product lines or through acquisitions. A good example is Morbark, which has taken over brands such as Rayco and Boxer, and itself has become part of The Alamo Group, which includes John Deere and others.

“The great thing that Rayco has going for it is that we offer pretty much a solution for every category of ROW maintenance there is,” says J.R. Bowling, mulcher, trimmer and crawler-truck specialist for the Rayco Division of Morbark. “These include Morbark chippers, aerial trimmers and a complete line of mulchers, which includes all Rayco purpose-built mulchers as well as the Denis Cimaf line of Canadian-built brush-cutter/mulcher attachments, resulting in a full range of mulcher-head attachments to go on skid steers, excavators or any type of prime mover with a hydraulic auxiliary output.

“What that means,” he says, “is that we can be a resource for anyone who does vegetation management along a right of way, whether you need an attachment for a machine you own all the way up to a complete, dedicated, purpose-built skid steer to a 415-hp dedicated mulcher.

“The larger machines are typically for right-of-way clearing, while the smaller ones are mostly used in maintenance applications,” he observes.

“Our most popular machine for utility ROW maintenance is the model C120R, a 120-hp, purpose-built, rubber-tracked forestry mulcher capable of providing full-engine horsepower to the cutter head. The machine rides on rubber tracks, which makes it more desirable for power-distribution lines because it can easily cross a roadway.” Another consideration is ergonomics. “These mulchers keep the operator safer and more comfortable than a typical skid steer would.”

Bowling says the company recently added the C120S model, which rides on steel tracks, “typically for use in more rugged terrain and steep, muddy terrain where you want the durability of steel.

“On the near horizon is the C200R, a higher-powered, 191-hp, rubber-tracked version of the mulcher. This is for customers who want higher productivity than a skid steer or our C12R, but still want rubber tracks for ROW applications along distribution lines. We are taking orders now,” he says, “for delivery in the second quarter of this year.”

The Rayco product mix also includes the AT75 trimmer with a 75-foot reach. Bowling maintains, “The unique thing about the AT75 is that it is on a smaller, more nimble chassis than other machines in the industry. This allows operators to get into narrower rights of way or areas with a ditch, for example, or work in urban areas or among close-standing trees.” He points out that contributing to the maneuverability of these all-wheel-drive machines is the capability of opting for two- or four-wheel drive as well as “crab” steering.

One item you might not think of for right-of-way work is Rayco’s RCT150 Crawler Truck, designed to carry large off-road payloads of up to 15,000 pounds. Bowling describes this as “a crawler dump truck on rubber tracks.” However, it is actually a truck series capable of carrying not only material loads but also machinery and tools over terrain inaccessible to other trucks. For example, Bowling says, “In lieu of a dump bed, for ROW use you can use the RCT150 to carry spray rigs or hydro seeders or virtually any application in right of way, including matting material for excavators to drive on.

Rayco’s AT75 trimmer is on a smaller, more-nimble chassis than other machines in the industry, according to J.R. Bowling. This allows operators to get into narrower rights of way or urban areas or among close-standing trees. They come with two- or four-wheel drive as well as “crab” steering. Photo courtesy of Morbark/Rayco Division.

“The RCT150 is sold as a cab and chassis with dump bed or flatbed,” Bowling says. “Think of it as a medium-duty truck on rubber tracks. Whatever you see for on-road applications can be put on this machine for off-road. I’ve seen a couple used as service trucks with welders, for example.”

He concludes, “We have all machines for sale or for rent, which means you can contact Rayco directly to get a specialty machine for one project and not be married to it forever.”

While the evolution of machines being developed to clear and maintain rights of way is getting more complex, that means only that business opportunities are expanding at the same rate.

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