Truck-Mounted Grapple Saws Come to the Rescue in Disaster Cleanup

An operator with Bofinger’s Tree Service, an accredited, 13-year TCIA member company based in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, operates a Palfinger PK 65002 SH knuckleboom crane during storm cleanup. Photo courtesy of Bofinger’s Tree Service.

When disaster strikes, Justin Hartmann and his grapple saws are always ready to go.

Hartmann, owner of Canary Tree Service, a pending new TCIA member company based in Jacksonville, Florida, runs a fleet of six truck-mounted, knuckle-boom cranes with grapple saws. He has become adept at insurance billing and has built a large network of subcontractors, including many other TCIA member companies that also respond to southern hurricanes, Midwest tornadoes, New England Nor’easters, West Coast wildfires and other extreme-
weather events.

“Whenever the wind blows, I get a phone call,” says Hartmann, whose company had just deployed its fleet of truck-mounted grapple saws for a near 20-day stretch in Michigan, Oklahoma and Wisconsin for four different weather events. “It doesn’t matter if it’s a little thing you would never see on the news or a full-blown disaster. We’ll partner up with the local operator. When the Newnan (Georgia) tornado hit back in March, there were six local tree services that were giving us all their work, because we guarantee them that in less than 48 hours, they’ll have the trees off the house. For the local operator, they’ve worked hard, they’ve gotten their name out there – this is a moment to be able to do the best job possible for their customers, and to be able to earn some money at the same time. The last thing they want is to get so overwhelmed that they can’t get to the customers who have trusted them.”

Storm chasers like Canary Tree crews often arrive to carnage: trees, poles and other structures down, often on people’s homes. There is plenty of work to be done, and some storm-relief tree workers tell stories of working a job on one end of a street and then working their way down the street as neighbors approach them asking if they can clean up the problems in their yard. Crews may go without the comforts of home for a few days, and the working conditions are often unpredictable and perilous.

“We go to places where there’s no power, there’s no water, there’s no cellphone service, and we make it happen,” Hartmann says.

Self portrait: Owen Walsten took this picture of the silhouette of his sleeping accommodations on a storm job. Photo courtesy of Owen Walsten, Yeah Tree.

Owen Walsten, owner of Yeah Trees, a six-year TCIA member company based in Slidell, Louisiana, worked with Hartmann recently in Flushing, Michigan, after a tornado there. He sent a picture of himself sleeping in a hammock suspended from the grapple crane. “I often sleep in hammocks suspended from equipment,” says Walsten. “I prefer sleeping in the work environment while dealing with disasters. It’s a constant reminder of why we are helping.”

Dan Mayer, owner of Mayer Tree Service, Inc., a 19-year TCIA member company based in Essex, Massachusetts, concurs. “Everybody’s evacuating – you’ve seen the lines of people leaving Florida – and once they leave the disaster area, they start filling up hotels,” says Mayer, who did storm chasing when he was younger, but no longer. “Picture concentric circles, ripples in a pool. They fill up hotels and the people behind them fill out farther away, and farther away and farther away. Now here comes a (tree) crew from outside the rings trying to work their way in. There’s no fuel, there’s no hotel – and we want to be close.”

Mayer recalls once needing to commute two-and-a-half to three hours to his hotel because a bridge was out.

“It can be done, and pays a premium, but it’s a young person’s game,” Mayer says.

When Mother Nature makes a mess, a trunk-mounted grapple saw is a good tool to have.

True Cut Tree Service, a first-year TCIA member based in Farmington, Michigan, works storm cleanup using a Copma 650 grapple-saw truck with a Mecanil SG280 grapple saw. Photo courtesy of Frank Bankowski, True Cut Tree Service.

The grapple saw connects to a knuckle-boom crane mounted on the bed of a truck or (in some cases) other vehicle. It will grip the tree, make the cut and then remove the pieces. Remote controls allow an operator to work from the ground, either with or often without a climber, a safe distance away from the equipment.

“As an employer, I don’t have to worry about my crews up on these houses getting hurt, getting pinched by wood or having wood kicking back, hurting them or killing them,” Hartmann says. “The grapple saw is a one-person show. We put more crews with it because you need that to move the material and things like that, but you don’t have to. And you never have to worry about someone getting hurt. This is extremely dangerous work when you’re dealing with fallen trees, and I don’t have to worry about that because they’re not in the danger zone.”

Since first appearing in the United States roughly seven years ago, the truck-mounted grapple saws have become a popular tool in tree care, part of a general movement toward increased use of cranes for tree removal.

Manufacturers, dealers and end users agree that the grapple saw has proven an excellent tool for storm cleanup, with the same benefits it brings to everyday use.

Keeping workers safe

“In storm work, there are a lot of downed trees with hangers and stuff, and dangerous situations where, if you have a person in that danger zone, it can be pretty risky,” explains Todd Brady, owner of GrapplesawTrucks.com, a three-year TCIA corporate member based in Daytona Beach, Florida, who sells grapple-saw attachments directly to crane dealers. “You can control the grapple saw from 100 feet away, so you can be controlling it outside of the risk zone, and that makes the work much safer. Many things are very unpredictable in storm cleanup.”

All of the manufacturers contacted for this article point out that the biggest attraction to the truck-mounted grapple saw is the safety factor. However, the same features that make the use of the grapple saw safer also reduce the need for manual labor, and many users find it more efficient and, therefore, more productive.

“When Altec became aware of the potential for this technology, the overwhelming reason we were interested was to give our customers a safer work practice. This technology allows the worker to not only remain on the ground but also well outside the work zone,” says Andy Price, market manager for tree care products for Altec.

The popularity of the truck-mounted cranes with grapple saws has grown since their introduction in 2015, more so in some parts of the country than in others, but generally wherever there are large numbers of trees to be tended.

A pair of Altec truck-mounted grapple saws are put to work on wildfire cleanup by ArborWorks, Inc., a 15-year TCIA member company headquartered in Oakhurst, California. Photo courtesy of ArborWorks and Altec.

“Sales are growing,” Price says. “They grew really fast in the northern part of the country the last three or four years, primarily due to the emerald ash borer killing all the ash trees, when there were, literally, hundreds of ash trees that had to be removed.”

But grapple-saw use also has increased on the West Coast, for wildfire and other types of disaster cleanup.

The benefits of this technology extend to more routine residential work as well, for all of the same reasons: safety, labor savings and efficiency in the field.

“Once we had the equipment available to use and were able to get it into the field, we realized the production gains possible utilizing these trucks. With this technology, companies are able to get more done in a day and usually with fewer crew members,” says Price. “Increased production is a side benefit. The safety aspect is still number-one reason to own these units.”

Estimating that he’s sold nearly 200 units since his first sale six years ago, Brady figures there are about 600 tree care companies with grapple-saw trucks across the country.

“Back in 2015, when I sold my first grapple saw, I think there were three companies that had one,” he said. “It’s really taken off.”

“Since completing the first production-built Tree-Mek arborist package in the U.S. in 2014, we have realized the product to be very useful in many facets of the arboriculture industry,” says Jason Smith, application specialist for Palfinger North America. “Tree removals utilizing the Tree-Mek solely can prove to be productive, with a minimum number of employees required. However, employing a Tree-Mek in conjunction with a tracked lift or bucket truck, or conventionally with a climber, can prove to be highly productive also.

“Deploying a Tree-Mek to a disaster area has proven to greatly increase safety measures when removing downed trees by allowing the cutting and removal of those unpredictable trees without putting an employee into an increased-risk-level environment,” adds Smith. “Additionally, we are now producing Log-Mek trucks, which include a Palfinger Epsilon debris loader with a Mecanil saw head on the machine. This product allows a single employee to remove smaller boulevard and front-lawn trees, as well as haul them away by themselves. These Log-Mek units also have been proven to be productive during storm cleanup and disaster work by limiting the labor hours required to complete each job.”

Good in a pinch, safe at home

Chris Herold, co-owner of The Tree Company, LLC, a 10-year TCIA member company based in in Haddam, Connecticut, doesn’t chase storms, but gets plenty of storm-cleanup work in the company’s service area on the Connecticut coast.

“Since I started my business nine years ago, that’s the new norm,” he says, “It’s either extremely violent thunderstorms in late July and August or we get the tropical storms on a regular basis.”

A BIK TC-126 grapple-saw crane is deployed on storm cleanup for Canary Tree Service in Michigan this past summer. Photo courtesy of Owen Walsten.

Not having the need for a climber and reducing the size of the crew add to job safety, he says. He stops short of saying the work is quicker, however.

“There seems to be this boom-stick (with a climber) vs. grapple-saw argument that operators love to go toe-to-toe on,” says Herold. ” It’s what works for us. Considering the current labor market, there are not a lot of workers who want to put on spikes anymore or climb a tree. For us, it’s always there every morning. It never asks for a raise. It doesn’t like to drink or smoke or any of that. So, it’s just been a phenomenal tool.

“It’s all business, and that’s what I love about it.”

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