Every piece of equipment you own contributes to the safety, efficiency and profitability of your business. Considered to be the nucleus of most tree care companies, the right chipper is paramount to your success. What are the options, and how do you choose the chipper that best suits the needs of your business? We asked industry experts to weigh in on the topic.
Have a plan
Creating a business plan when starting your business is just common sense; it’s often required if you are incorporating loans or investors into your company. But what about when your business is well established? “Keep your business plan updated, because it affects everything you buy,” says Lou Hicks, regional sales manager at Morbark, LLC, a 42-year TCIA corporate member based in Winn, Michigan. “Goal number one is to be safe; goal number two is to be profitable and productive,” explains Hicks.
As an example, using arbitrary figures, Hicks says to compare the cost of two machines with price points of $50,000 and $75,000. The higher-priced chipper may cost an additional $100 per month in finance charges over the lower-priced unit. At the same time, the higher-priced unit may bring in an additional $250 to $500 per month in revenue. This is because of the added capacity and speed at which you can complete the jobs. In general, a bigger machine will work faster than what you currently may be using. Profitability increases since you can take on more work over a given period. “If you have a solid business plan and purchase accordingly, every time you’re up at bat, you have a better chance of hitting a home run,” says Hicks.
Depreciation is also a consideration when creating your business plan, says Hicks. All capital equipment depreciates over time, and your bookkeeper will account for that. But along with depreciation captured on the books, there is actual deprecation that occurs in the field. To illustrate, let’s look at a side-by-side comparison of a 12-inch, 100-hp machine and a 15-inch, 165-hp machine. “The smaller unit will work harder than the larger unit to complete a 12-inch removal. This means the engine will work harder and run longer to accomplish the job. Over time, this additional use will put more strain on the engine, and ultimately, the unit will wear more quickly because it is working to maximum capacity more often,” explains Hicks.
A good rule of thumb is to buy a chipper that can handle 80-90% of the work you do or plan to do, says Matt Hutchinson, product manager for Tree Care/Rental & Landscape at Vermeer, a 39-year TCIA corporate member based in Pella, Iowa. “If the chipper is too small, contractors are going to spend more time maneuvering the material and hauling wood off to other companies’ sites so that it can be chipped and prepared for dumping,” says Hutchinson. On the other hand, larger chippers use more fuel, and you could be wasting fuel running a machine that is larger than needed. “If a contractor upgrades to a bigger machine, he may have to get a larger truck – and there probably will be additional fuel costs associated with not only the truck, but also the chipper.”
Don’t overbuy or underbuy; it won’t suit your needs in the long run. “A company taking down trees cannot complete the job without a chipper. They won’t get paid if debris is left on the customer’s lawn,” says Hicks. It’s best to look at the big picture, the scope of work you are doing and what you may do in the future. “A small landscaping company may just do trimming, so an 8-inch chipper for 3- to 4-inch limbs works well. But later, they add climbing and need a bigger machine, so they may decide a 12-inch machine gives them more options,” explains Hicks.
Disc or drum
Two primary brush-chipping methods are available in today’s machines: drum style and disc style. While both can do most jobs, one might have advantages over the other for the type of work you will use it for in your business.
Disc-style chippers feature faster feed rates and throw chips at a greater velocity, chipping material at a 45-degree angle. “Since the disc is mounted at a 45-degree angle, the cutting action is more efficient, especially when chipping round wood. This cutting action will require less horsepower and fuel,” explains Jason Morey, marketing manager for Bandit Industries, a 35-year TCIA corporate member based in Remus, Michigan. Some utility-line-clearance professionals prefer disc-style chippers due to their ability to quickly chip material, according to Morey. Smaller chippers tend to use discs, since the discs are typically smaller than drums, resulting in lighter-weight machines with smaller engines, he adds.
Drum-style chippers feature a drum mounted at a 90-degree angle and closely positioned to the feed wheels. Drum-style chippers feature larger throat openings, making them a better choice to efficiently process larger trees and limbs and fibrous vegetation such as palm fronds, according to Morey. Some drum-style chippers feature drums with four knives that turn at a lower RPM. “This allows for more cuts per revolution and increased torque, reducing the amount of horsepower and fuel required to chip material,” explains Morey.
Chippers utilize their own power source or use the power of another piece of equipment. Power-take-off (PTO) chippers use power from another source, such as a tractor. “Pecan and avocado producers typically use PTO equipment, because they have one or two tractors for every piece of equipment on the farm,” says Marty Carroll, customer service manager for Crary Bear Cat Products, a one-year TCIA corporate member based in West Fargo, North Dakota. Terrain also may dictate the need for a PTO machine. “If a company is working on a mountainside where a trailered unit can’t go, a tractor is more convenient,” explains Carroll.
Tow-behind units utilize a built-in gas/diesel engine as the power source. There are various factors to consider when evaluating gas or diesel engine options. The cost of fuel may be on your mind, but if your company utilizes a fueling service for the rest of your equipment, you may need to use the same fuel type for your chipper, says Morey. Fuel type may not be important to you, but performance may be. “Gas engines have less torque but feature quicker recovery times. Diesel engines have more torque but tend to be heavier,” explains Morey. Serviceability also may be a factor. Who in your area is authorized to work on the engine in your machine? “Gas engines feature fewer electronic components, while Tier 4 diesel engines utilize more electronic components, including regen (diesel particulate filter [DPF] regeneration) systems, and most require DEF (diesel exhaust fluid),” says Morey.
Self-feed vs. hydraulic feed
With a self-feed or gravity-feed chipper, the blades pull the material through the feed hopper and the operator regulates the feed. These units are easy to operate, less expensive and require less maintenance than hydraulic-fed machines. On the downside, the wood needs to be relatively straight to feed through without getting stuck, and the feed process is slow. Self-feeding options are best suited for small operations and homeowner use.
Hydraulic-feed chippers have in-feed rollers that pull the material into the hopper. This system requires less effort on the operator’s part, enabling a more efficient work process. “The hydraulic units have some great safety features and add to ease of operation. If the kneebar is bumped, it will shut down the feed roller and shut off the machines,” explains Carroll. Most large tree care operations today use hydraulic-feed units. They are more expensive but add to efficiency and overall ease of use.
Consider features that add to your overall productivity. A grapple loader may be beneficial, but price and weight may affect your decision. “Grapple loaders are efficient, but they can be expensive and heavy,” explains James Patrick, outside sales manager for J.P. Carlton, a 32-year TCIA corporate member company based in Spartanburg, South Carolina. “Adding a grapple may put the overall weight of your vehicle over the 10,000-pound threshold, which would in turn mean that your driver must have a commercial driver’s license (CDL),” explains Patrick.
Adding a winch is something to consider. “Winches are helpful in locations such as mountainsides and wooded areas where you can’t get the chipper in close,” says Patrick. A track-mounted undercarriage is another option for specific applications, Patrick adds. “A track-mounted chipper makes the chipper moveable. Undercarriages are expensive, but do pay for themselves when needed for applications such as storm-damage work, clearing land and right-of-way cut-ins.”
As with any equipment, safety is the number-one priority. All employees need training, says Hicks. “Attend workshops, educate your end users. Even the most seasoned professionals can learn something from TCIA chipper workshops. You also can request training from your dealer,” says Hicks. He suggests paying attention to safety decals and to the digital display controller (DDC), a device located on the chipper that allows an operator to monitor engine and machine parameters and control the chipper’s auto-feed functions. It should be easily read and available in several languages, says Hicks.
Industry safety regulations apply to chippers, and adherence is crucial, says Morey. “Every employee operating a chipper must be trained and have read and understand the safety decals on the machine and in the manual (and on) video (if applicable), and then adhere to Z133, ANSI and OSHA standards. It also is recommended for a company to have daily or weekly morning meetings before the day starts to review potential hazards and discuss how operator accidents can be avoided,” says Morey.
Knowing which chipper is best suited for your business just takes a little planning and research. With many options available, you can be sure there is one that will help you reach your goals.