Safe and Profitable Operation of Mowers and Mulchers

An A Plus Tree mowing crew works a gas-utility right of way in Eureka, California. Photo courtesy of A Plus Tree.
An A Plus Tree mowing crew works a gas utility right of way in Eureka, California. Photo courtesy of A Plus Tree.

Think brush mowers and mulchers are merely for right-of-way or land-clearing work and may be too expensive to justify for your tree care business? As the old song lyrics go, “It ain’t necessarily so” (from “Porgy and Bess,” song by George and Ira Gershwin).

In this article, we’ll explore techniques and practices for safely using mulching equipment in land-clearing, right-of-way (ROW) and fire-mitigation work, but also look at additional applications for this equipment that could become niche profit centers.

Scott Van Boerum, vice president of operations with Rapid Response Force, LLC, a minority- and woman-owned wildland-firefighting and hazardous-fuels-reduction company based in Morgan Hill, California, says the original vision for the first-year TCIA member company was utility line clearing, not wildland-fire mitigation. He says line clearing is not year-round (in some areas), and bids for line clearing typically open every three years. As the calendar broke, the company would be off-cycle by two years, so refocusing the mission became necessary.

With Van Boerum being a retired firefighter – including stints in Afghanistan and Antarctica and with NASA – and fire chief, he and his wife, Solesita Van Boerum, company owner, “moved into wildland firefighting, originally with two fire engines under contract to the federal government.” Much of that work is removing wild tree and brush growth that becomes the tinder for notorious California wildfires, he notes. They currently have 33 employees.

For Van Boerum, safety is a primary concern. As an experienced firefighter, he acknowledges that protective gear and safety procedures are de rigueur. In the case of using masticators – a generic collective term growing in popularity to describe brush and tree mowers and mulchers – the land and brush is so dry that contracts for clearing generally call for operators to have an on-scene water source. “The last masticating job we did for the U.S. Forestry Service required us to have a water tank on scene. A lot of federal contracts require tanks and hoses during the fire season when doing this kind of work,” Van Boerum says.

“A lot of operators will do a water trailer and pump, but we send out our engines with 300 gallons of water when doing a job such as a firebreak,” he says, adding that it is so important to have the right equipment and personnel with the tank. “Not only do you have to have the equipment, you also need to have personnel who are trained to fight fire. Our teams are officially certified wildland firefighters through the National Wildfire Coordinating Group (established by the U.S. Departments of Agriculture and the Interior in 1976).”

Van Boerum explains that wildlands can be areas of any size in any location. “You can have wildlands in urban areas where mastication is needed to establish firebreaks to protect homes and developed areas that interface with forest land.”

The process of using mulchers and mowers – mastication – is largely weather dependent, says Van Boerum. “In fact,” he says, “the California plans are based on weather. You may not be able to do mastication work on summer days. The state fire-danger levels limit what you can do. For example, there are days when you cannot use heavy equipment at all,” he reports. “These are called red-flag days. It’s a system used nationwide.

“In the forest, the fire danger may be so high as to not allow even the use of chain saws,” Van Boerum observes, adding that after the day’s work is done, crews leave up to an hour to patrol the area to check to see no fires were started. He reiterates that in such a flammable environment it does not take much to touch off a major incident, adding it can be a spark from a chain saw or simply heat from an exhaust. “It has not happened to us, but I have heard of it,” he says.

Compact carriers and mulchers, such as this Bandit Model 60FM attachment, are able to work in close quarters such as trails, yards or selective forest thinning. Courtesy of Bandit.
Compact carriers and mulchers, such as this Bandit Model 60FM attachment, are able to work in close quarters such as trails, yards or selective forest thinning. Courtesy of Bandit.

There’s more value to the mulcher story. According to Van Boerum, “After a fire, there is cleanup to do.” For example, remaining brush can be mulched and dispersed before a heavy rain to prevent lands from washing away and to help natural regrowth in the area. Additionally, “There is a need to safely get down the widow-makers hanging in the burned woods. We often leave the stronger ones standing, even if they are dead, as wildlife habitat,” he notes, adding, “It all depends on the prescription for the forestry plan.

“Certainly, I would say that forestry mulchers are the perfect piece of equipment when we start looking at fuel modification (vegetation reduction) around homes,” says Brett Huet, a Certified Tree Care Professional (CTSP) working as a safety-management consultant in vegetation management in the Pacific Northwest. Most recently he’s been with Southern Disaster Recovery, LLC, a TCIA member company based in Greenville, South Carolina, with an office in Roseville, Calif. Also a Board Certified Master Arborist, he has more than two decades’ experience in fire mediation and tree care.

Rapid Response Force’s National Wildfire Coordinating Group Type-6 fire engine standing by on the site. The U.S. Forestry Service can require companies to have a water tank on scene. Many federal contracts require tanks and hoses during fire season when doing this kind of work. Photo courtesy of Rapid Response Force.
Rapid Response Force’s National Wildfire Coordinating Group Type-6 fire engine standing by on the site. The U.S. Forestry Service can require companies to have a water tank on scene. Many federal contracts require tanks and hoses during fire season when doing this kind of work. Photo courtesy of Rapid Response Force.

“We know that when there is a fire near someone’s home, there are three different zones – zero to 5 feet, 5 to 30 feet and 30 to 100 feet,” he says. “Where right-of-way machines come into play is in the extended zone, 30 to 100 feet, especially when it comes to production rates far exceeding those of crews with chain saws and chippers. It is a consideration to know that the daily cost associated with a crew will be vastly more expensive than the cost per acre of a masticator. I would be comfortable saying that costs of a crew working by hand would be at least double that of those with a machine, taking into consideration local labor rates,” he observes.

“Say we are doing triage and have active fire in the area. With these machines, we can do fuel modification in the extended area more efficiently and safely than a crew with chippers because of the capability of the machine and the need for fewer people.

“One of the most important things to focus on when working around mulchers is mulching debris. One of our biggest concerns is flying debris,” Huet states. “As a general rule, non-essential personnel should keep a 300-foot-radius distance from the working machine (about the length of one football field).”

Things to watch out for include “limitations regarding slope.” According to Huet, machines have differing grade specifications and can negatively impact the soil. Also, as previously noted, there can be a risk of fire started by these machines. That is why pre-work site inspections and having adequate water supplies paired with the appropriate fire-fighting tools are so essential, notes Huet.

Things to watch out for include “limitations regarding slope.” According to Huet, machines have differing grade specifications and can negatively impact the soil. Also, as previously noted, there can be a risk of fire started by these machines. That is why pre-work site inspections and having adequate water supplies paired with the appropriate fire-fighting tools are so essential, notes Huet.

Chris Mazzera is director of operations for the utility division of A Plus Tree, Inc., a 14-year TCIA member headquartered in Pleasant Hill, in Northern California. A Plus Tree has spread into three states, including Washington and Utah as well as all of the Golden State.

Mazzera says the mulching tool of choice currently is a rotary mower. These, he says, can be in the form of an attachment for a skid steer or a dedicated, single-purpose unit. “Right now, I am using a three-blade mowing attachment operating on a highflow skid steer. It’s a large field mower.”

However, there are times when, even with high-processing-machine capability, some sites require a more labor-intensive approach, Mazzera says. “These are usually sites with environmental concerns.”

For example, he says, “We may have a high field to get down tall grass or other woody vegetation, trees or shrubs, and the reason is that the site needs to have an environmental assessment. That means getting the vegetation removed for pre-construction environmental teams to search for animal burrows, snakes and other protected species. For that situation, we must clear the site by hand with hedge trimmers or weed whackers and remove the material by hand. In these situations, we need to ensure no tracked or wheeled equipment impacts the land, due to environmental restrictions,” he notes.

Although this might be an exception to the mowing ROW mission, Mazzera says it is all part of “the same application, which is to create a safe work site (for subsequent construction) and to reduce the fuel load,” meaning combustible material.

“For municipalities and homeowner associations, we cut firebreaks around communities,” Mazzera adds. “This is hill country where we have rolling green land in the spring and rolling tinderbox in the summer. It’s hot right now (mid-June) and just over 100 degrees, the average for this time of year being 80 to 90 degrees.”

He describes a safety practice he says is “one of the best management practices for tree crews working in a high-fire-threat area.” It is a compressed-air foam system, a few ounces of organic foam solution, 30 gallons of water and 185 psi mixed to create 300 gallons of fire-retardant foam.

Like Van Boerum’s crews, Mazzera says that when working in high-fire-threat areas, his crews do a minimum of a one-hour fire patrol at the end of operations to ensure there are no smoldering materials or unnoticed fires waiting to take off.

Home Ignition Zone guide. When there is a fire near someone’s home, there are three different zones – zero to 5 feet, 5 to 30 feet and 30 to 100 feet. “Where right-of-way machines come into play is in the extended zone, 30 to 100 feet,” says Brett Huet. Image courtesy of the National Fire Protection Agency.
Home Ignition Zone guide. When there is a fire near someone’s home, there are three different zones – zero to 5 feet, 5 to 30 feet and 30 to 100 feet. “Where right-of-way machines come into play is in the extended zone, 30 to 100 feet,” says Brett Huet. Image courtesy of the National Fire Protection Agency.

“Actually, we do a daily job-site safety analysis at all sites in the morning, after lunch and any time conditions change.” According to Mazzera, “Where we are, it could be a low fire index in the morning in a coastal California area with fog, but when the fog burns off and temperatures rise to 105 degrees, it’s a high fire danger. Because of that, we have to monitor work conditions during the day and implement controls to deal with new hazards as they arise.

“When using these mowers, make sure it is the appropriate machine for the task and use attachments intended for the job,” Mazzera advises. “Because mowing and mulching can shoot material in many directions, it’s important to have machines with forestry packages, including windshields, to protect the operator.

“Of course,” he stresses, “training, training, training! Even old dogs with 20 years in the business need refreshers on the basics. Whether seasoned or new employees, they all go through the same courses,” Mazzera says. “It’s a way to teach new technology to the old dogs and build up the knowledge of the new dogs with the experience of the old.”

Tod Miller, owner of Sherdec Tree Service headquartered in Cincinnati, Ohio, says his company has a slightly different focus.

“We do not do much right of way, although we will do some for Duke Energy (a major power supplier in Ohio). We also do work with invasive species, knocking them down for homeowners. Of course, we clear lots for builders and push back encroaching vegetation for homeowner associations and commercial property owners.”

Miller cites a couple of areas where one might not think of larger mower mulchers as being major contributors.

“Sometimes we need to push back a brush line around parking lots,” he says, explaining that ever-growing vegetation will encroach along the perimeter of a parking lot, and adding that there is a liability issue when visibility is reduced or the vegetation interferes with vehicles.

Another circumstance where reducing vegetation with a mower/mulcher is called for is around buildings, especially behind residences where encroaching vegetation makes for camouflage for criminals. “Sometimes vegetation will block window views, and people just can’t see.” In some cases, it can be so thick that even “security cameras are worthless,” Miller says. “We also improve visibility for oncoming traffic at intersections.”

Miller states that he and his crews easily can do far more in a shorter period of time with mowers than doing the same job with manual labor.

Equipment selection is made based on the terrain and the job. “If we run into rugged terrain with a lot of erosion as a major issue, a steel-tracked machine is vastly superior. But on roadways or turf, that’s not practical for steel track and having to put down ground protection. To deal with muddy areas or spaces with a lot of dead fall, a machine with large rubber tires is most effective.

“If you have great distances to cover on a job,” Miller continues, “say a four-mile stretch of road with several areas that need attention, having a machine with faster over-the-ground speed on rubber tires and the ability to travel up to 30 miles an hour is easier to load on and off a trailer, and it is far easier on a machine with a steel undercarriage. Then there’s a safety issue regarding speed that is way under that of local traffic, 30 miles an hour versus 6 miles an hour on steel tracks and maybe 12 on rubber.”

Miller explains that the cutting systems allow for versatility on the job site. “With a mulcher, you can have either a fixed hammer design or a cutter tooth or chisel setup, which processes material more efficiently. But,” he notes, “the drawback to a cutter is running into the ground and striking a foreign object such as metal or stone, which quickly dulls the cutting surface. I think in rocky or unknown environments, it is best to use a carbide-hammer design.”

It all boils down to this, he says: “No two trees or properties are alike, and nothing is the same in any two weeks. However, machines like these allow you to do more with fewer people.

“While the equipment is expensive, when it comes to investment (in machines) versus doing a job manually or with a skid steer, grapple and chipper, not only can you do things you could not do practically, but you also can do a job at a price point people will go for,” Miller says.

“We can be at the same price point as people doing the job manually or with lesser equipment and come out with a higher profit,” Miller says. “On a $10,000 job, we can be in and out in a day versus three guys in three days.”

To get the most from his equipment, Miller says, “In the winter, we use the rubber-tracked and rubber-tired machines for snow removal.

“The trend in our industry has been toward equipment that is efficient and multi-purpose. Unless you are dedicated to right-of-way work, purchasing a machine for this purpose may appear expensive, but the return is far greater than you may realize,” he maintains.

Ron Wilson, now mostly retired, was an owner/operator contracting for 10 years with outfits such as Trees, Inc., and others in the area of Grant’s Pass, Oregon.

“I did brush and right-of-way work for power and gas companies and private fuel reduction for homeowners,” he says. “I put in a lot of firebreaks using a skid steer. I went with rubber tracks because they are more eco-friendly.

“That (cutter) head with chipper knives running at 1,800 rpm let me take down 10-inch trees right down to the ground, along with blackberries and grass,” Wilson says. “One thing I will tell you about safety is that you do not want anyone around for 400 to 600 feet because of the materials being thrown.”

He says when he was in the business, this was the best way to go in his area, but that today he would take a different path. As business and demand grows, one ends up needing more horsepower than a skid steer can deliver, especially for larger jobs and working on steep ground, he says. “A lot of horsepower gets used up just moving around. When in doubt, go with more horsepower,” he advises.

“And, as far as recommendations are concerned, go with a well-known brand,” Wilson adds.

“And, as far as recommendations are concerned, go with a well-known brand,” Wilson adds.

Conclusion

Land-clearing, fire-mitigation and ROW work can be nice niche services for tree care businesses in some locations that can justify the cost of one or more mulcher mowers, or masticators. And there are a variety of other jobs to sell that can keep this equipment busy, often without adding employees. But training is required to operate these machines productively and safely.

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