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Power (and Safety) in Hand
Landscapes change, obviously. But besides the changes that come from plant growth, landscapes also evolve as a result of new buildings, different plant selection, and increased pressure for grounds to enhance the appearance of campuses and buildings. In response to these changes, each new generation of outdoor power equipment offers grounds managers greater opportunities to improve their productivity and ensure the safety of workers.
In recent years, manufacturers have made product advances that aim to improve the productivity of equipment operators.
“The biggest trend in the last five years outdoor power has been maximizing the performance to increase operators’ productivity," says Sean Sundberg, business-to-business planning manager with John Deere.
Several manufacturers now offer mower and tractor attachments that workers can change more quickly and easily than previous models.
“It was so cumbersome in the past,” says John Caron, Toro’s senior marketing manager. Many operators wouldn't change the attachments because the process could take 30-45 minutes.
“Now, it takes them literally a minute to take off the old attachment and put on the new one,” Caron says. Equipment features, such as attachments that workers can change more quickly, might help departments facing staff shortages.
“Many grounds managers are having to cut more areas with a staff that isn’t growing proportionately,” Caron says.
In addition to helping operators accomplish more tasks in a finite amount of time, attachments also can help managers who want to improve the appearance of their grounds with limited equipment budgets.
Some departments face mounting expectations because facility executives and the general public in many cases are paying closer attention to aesthetics.
“We are seeing a general improvement in the quality of athletic fields.” Caron says. “They see the beautifully manicured athletic fields at the school down the street or on TV and want to know why their fields can't look like that. A lot of customers tell us that they can no longer afford to buy as many dedicated pieces of equipment as they once could.”
Because they tend to be less expensive than a dedicated piece of equipment, attachments can offer an affordable solution.
To help improve productivity and turf conditions, some managers are taking a closer look at equipment’s mulching capabilities.
“A lot of times, you see workers bagging when they could just mulch and save the time of emptying bags and disposing of those clippings,” says Sarah Pines, public relations regional manager with American Honda. “You can return those clippings to the earth and have them act as nutrients to the earth.”
Some manufacturers have refine the mulching capabilities on their products so equipment operators can fit more clippings in a bag, should they choose to bag them.
“As you’re able to more thinly and compactly cut the blades of grass, it makes your work more efficient because you can put more into the bag and you need to empty the bag less often,” Pines says.
Manufacturers also are making design modifications to handheld power equipment to improve ergonomics. Equipment users who are comfortable also tend to be more productive, Sundberg says. So manufacturers are looking at the typical stance and posture of equipment operators, as well as the position of their hands, how far they have to reach to turn on controls, and how long they can hold the equipment without getting tired,
“Labor is a huge issue for managers, and so I think you are going to see some changes in the next five years that will allow equipment operators do more work with less effort,” Sundberg says.
For example, the newest backpack blowers have higher air velocities, allowing users to blow more leaves more quickly, he says. Also, line-trimmer operators will be able to feed the lines back into equipment faster.
To comply with more stringent air-emission standards, manufacturers are offering cleaner and more environmentally friendly products. For example, four–cycle engines are more fuel efficient and environmentally friendly than their two-cycle counterparts, so manufacturers have offered mowers with four-cycle engines for several years in order to meet air emissions standards.
More recently, they have begun offering handheld equipment, such as trimmers, with four-cycle engines. Some manufacturers claim that four-cycle engines can cut emissions by as much as 75 percent.
Four-cycle engines also tend to require less maintenance than two-cycle engines. Two-cycle engines require users to mix oil with the gasoline, while four-cycle engines add the oil automatically, so users only need to pour in gasoline.
“There is some bit of a movement to four-cycle engines,” Sundberg says, adding that the engines are heavier than two-cycle engines. Workers using a four-cycle trimmer might tire more quickly, even if they are wearing a shoulder strap to help support the weight.
Many manufacturers are looking for more efficient ways of using the two-cycle option, says Tom Ernice, manager of lawn and garden product development and marketing with American Honda. Managers who want to specify equipment with a two-cycle engine might want to look for products that meet standards set by the California Air Resource Board’s (CARB).
“If you specify something that is approved by CARB, which is the toughest standard in the nation, then you are getting the best products available for cutting emissions,” Sundberg says.
Manufacturers expect emission standards to stiffen.
“The EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) and CARB regulations are going to drive the efficiencies and emissions to higher levels,” Ernice says. “You will see catalytic converters on power equipment.”
Equipment developers also are taking a closer look at how the noise levels their products produce. Many managers are looking for options to minimize noise, which can disturb occupants in facilities, such as schools and hospitals.
“I know on leaf blowers, noise is a huge issue,” Ernice says.
Adds Sundberg, “In addition to tougher emission standards, I think you are going to see tougher noise standards.”
The desire for less noise might be a reason equipment with four-cycle engines, which are quieter than two-cycle engines, are becoming more popular. Managers concerned about noise also might specify electric-powered equipment.
“I think particularly around schools, we see a fair amount of requests for electric (models) because of the noise issue,” Caron says.
Says Sundberg, “There have been some advances on reducing noise, but I would say there is still work to be done.” With small two-cycle engines, which produce higher noise levels noise, it is difficult to muffle the noise.
“In five years, whatever the product is, it is going to be quieter,” Caron says.
Safety continues to be a major concern for all manufacturers, who seek to emphasize equipment safety through owners’ manuals, warning labels and enhanced product design.
It is up to managers to ensure that equipment operators are aware of any safety dangers related to outdoor power equipment and to provide the proper training.
“Safety training needs to begin with having a plan and process that everybody knows well and can follow,” Sundberg says. “If you have workers who speak English as a second language, make sure that you provide them information in their native language so they can understand. Also, if you have aging equipment, it is important to make sure they have the latest safety features and upgrade you fleet of equipment as necessary.”
The Outdoor Power Equipment Institute (OPEI) is an international trade association committed to advancing the outdoor power equipment industry in the areas of public safety, environmental responsibility, business development and advocacy. Members of OPEI, founded in 1952, are manufacturers of outdoor power equipment intended for use in lawn, garden, turf maintenance and snow removal, as well as suppliers of component products and related industry services.
For more information, visit www.opei.org