Auburn student wins Lawn & Landscape scholarship

With diligent preventive maintenance and operator care, Ace Outdoors co-owner Ashley Foster is hopeful that an eight-year replacement cycle will prove to be viable.

Photo courtesy of Ace Outdoors

Landscape companies have a lot of truck options. We’re not just talking about brand name, either. A truck’s size, style, capabilities, fuel source, technologies and other features all influence return on investment. Choosing the best possible machine for the application at hand should be top priority.

“We try to spec our trucks as much as possible for the work being done,” says Sean Bishop, owner and president of Ground Effects Landscaping in Carver, Mass. “Up here in New England, we also need some extra versatility because we’re using many of our trucks to push snow in the winter.”

One adjustment Bishop has had to make relates to truck size. The pool of potential drivers has become increasingly limited over the past few years; that’s why Bishop has begun moving away from larger trucks that require a driver to have a CDL. “We have our trucks built as big and capable as possible without crossing the line of the CDL regulation,” Bishop says. Though it may vary by state, that “line” is a GVWR (gross vehicle weight rating) in excess of 26,000 lbs., depending on how much weight the truck may be towing on a trailer. It’s always important to check your given state’s regulations regarding CDL licensing.

“Regardless of size, we have our trucks customized to what we need,” Bishop continues. “For example, we like barn doors on the back of a dump body so we can dump brush and stumps and not get stuck in a swing tailgate. We also like high-sided grain bodies on our dump trucks. A lot of the mulch and other bulk materials we carry are lighter. We want to get as much yardage on the truck as possible. The high-sided grain bodies also help with brush, grass clippings and leaves because a crew doesn’t have to dump as often.”

Reducing the frequency of dump stops is something crews appreciate. Landscape company owners appreciate it, too, because it helps reduce unbillable downtime.

Trailer setups that save time

At Ace Outdoors in Kodak, Tenn., co-owner Ashley Foster has determined that “saving time” is the underlying consideration when selecting a truck or trailer. To that point, a change with the hardscaping crew is really paying off.

“We’re now using a 3/4-ton diesel pickup to pull an enclosed cargo trailer,” Foster says. That trailer is stocked with all of the essential tools and supplies the hardscaping crew needs on a daily basis.

“It has been great to keep all of these things in the same place and not have to unload and reload them every day,” Foster points out. “We keep everything on there, things like screeders, levels, hand tools, caution tape, back braces, saws and a generator. Our hardscape crew also has a compactor and tabletop saw, but those get locked up in the shop every night. Everything else goes in our enclosed trailer and stays there. This has saved us a lot of time — especially at night when the crew is already tired and the last thing they want to do is unload the trailer.”

Like Ace Outdoors, Jonny Nichols Landscape Maintenance in Dover, Del., has set up an enclosed trailer for its hardscaping crew. Jonny Nichols has also done the same thing for its irrigation crew, three installation crews and five maintenance crews.

“Our installation trailers are set up identically, as are our maintenance trailers,” says Nichols, the CEO and president. “If a crew ever has to change trailers, there is nothing new to learn. All of the equipment, tools and supplies are the same and stored the same way. This has been huge for us when it comes to training and being consistent in what we do.”

Enclosed trailers across the fleet have also helped Jonny Nichols Landscape Maintenance reduce unbillable time. “It is amazing how much time we’re saving every morning by allowing our trailers to remain loaded overnight,” Nichols says. “Our crews just have to do a quick pre-check in the morning and they’re off to the jobsite in seven to 10 minutes, on average.”

Maneuverability means a lot

Largely due to the labor shortage, Ace Outdoors isn’t taking on any new maintenance accounts. For the handful of large contracts the company continues to retain, a cab-forward truck (aka cab-over) with open landscape bed offers some advantages.

“We’re in a mountainous area with a lot of narrow, windy roads,” Foster says. “The cab-forward design is safer for employees because visibility is better. The truck is also more maneuverable and can turn around in a much tighter radius. Also, with the open landscape bed, we don’t have to worry about the driver pulling a trailer. We can fit both a 61-inch zero-turn and 61-inch stand-on mower on our truck.”

Bishop has also taken a liking to the cab-over truck. He still has some big pickups for plowing snow, but the cab-overs have been effective on his maintenance routes.

“The shorter wheelbase makes it easier for a crew to get in and out of a neighborhood,” Bishop says. “Cab-overs are also easier to drive. They might not be as fancy with many of the bells and whistles you’ll find on pickups these days, but cab-overs also have fewer issues. They are also easier to maintain because the cab tilts forward. Cab-overs are also very good on fuel.”

Consider the fuel source

Speaking of fuel, Bishop has begun veering away from diesel — at least on his smaller trucks like the cab-overs used for maintenance.

“With all of the emissions controls on today’s diesel trucks, we’re finding that maintenance costs on a gas-powered truck are much lower,” Bishop says. On the typical maintenance route, a truck drives shorter distances at a time with a lot of stop-and-go events. Speed remains relatively low since the truck is spending a lot of time in residential environments.

“A diesel engine doesn’t get running hot enough and things get gummed up,” Bishop says. “So, we started buying gas-powered pickups a couple of years ago. The cab-overs we’ve been buying are also gas. We haven’t seen any real difference in performance. We burn a little more fuel by running gas, but that is more than offset by other savings. First off, you save around $10,000 on the purchase price of a new truck. When you start factoring in the other savings from reduced engine maintenance, it isn’t even a comparison.”

Nichols has also decided to only purchase gas-powered trucks — except for anything 1-ton or larger, which still requires a diesel engine. “The maintenance aspect of a gasoline truck is so much easier and less expensive,” Nichols says.

“If a crew ever has to change trailers, there is nothing new to learn. All of the equipment, tools and supplies are the same and stored the same way. This has been huge for us when it comes to training and being consistent in what we do.”

— Jonny Nichols, Landscape Maintenance in Dover, Del.

Investing in uptime

Nichols says his company tends to stick with a certain brand of truck, not to mention a certain brand of enclosed trailer.

Yes, the products are well-designed, but the main reason for the brand loyalty is the fact that reliable dealers are just a few miles away. “When you get tight with a certain dealer, you get excellent service as a result,” Nichols says.

That excellent service comes in handy when a more intensive truck repair is needed such as a brake job. As for his trailer fleet, Nichols says the main thing is to keep an eye on the tires and make sure they are regularly rotated. His in-house mechanics handle those types of procedures, along with basic preventive maintenance on all trucks and equipment.

At Ground Effects Landscaping, basic preventive maintenance is also handled by an in-house mechanic. We’re talking about oil and filter changes, minor electrical issues like wiring harnesses and trailer plugs, daily greasing, etc. Any intensive repairs involving the engine or transmission are sent to the local dealer.

As important as preventive maintenance is, optimizing truck ROI requires an understanding of when it’s time to replace something. At Ground Effects Landscaping, trucks are fully depreciated before being replaced.

An open trailer allows landscapers to carry different equipment.

Photo courtesy of Super Lawn Trucks

“Our goal is to keep a truck for 10 years,” Bishop relates. “In theory, we’re paying for that truck for five to seven years. Then we have a couple of years when the truck is making good money for us. Then we have a year or two when signs of aging are starting to show. That’s when we start watching expenses very closely. It doesn’t take long before annual repair bills are more than payments on a new truck.”

Ace Outdoors faced that dilemma early in its history six years ago. Like most landscape companies just starting out, Ace Outdoors relied heavily on used vehicles. Nowadays, just one truck in the five-truck fleet is more than three years old. “We have come to find a lot of value in warranty and dealer support,” Foster says.

With diligent preventive maintenance and operator care, Foster is hopeful that an eight-year replacement cycle will prove to be viable. Whatever the case may be, she says downtime and repair bills will not get the best of them any longer.

New trucks, new technologies

New technologies can add some cost to modern-day work trucks. Some features, however, can prove to be well worth the extra upfront investment.

Foster says the dump truck driver at Ace Outdoors has come to rely on the backup camera. “It’s a big safety benefit and puts our driver at a lot of ease,” Foster says.

For Jonny Nichols Landscape Maintenance, backup cameras have greatly simplified the process of backing up to a trailer. “Another feature we like is the power-extending mirrors on some of our trucks,” Nichols adds.

The driver can extend or retract the side mirrors as needed. Having the mirrors extended helps when pulling a large, enclosed trailer. But if the truck is operating solo, such as when driving around a property doing cleanup, retracting the side mirrors provides a safety advantage.

Backup cameras help with backing up to a trailer.

Photo courtesy of Jonny Nichols

“If you’re on a narrow street or driveway, it’s nice when you don’t have to worry about those side mirrors scraping against a tree branch or taking out a trash can or something,” Nichols says.

In some instances, retractable mirrors don’t provide a lot of value. You can say the same thing about most optional features on a work truck. In fact, you can say the same thing about most work trucks, period. As Foster points out, no truck or trailer is 100% perfect for everything.

“That’s why we tend to have a slew of different things,” Foster says. “It’s all about matching the right equipment to the right application and setting up that equipment so employees can be as safe and productive as possible.”

The author is a freelance writer based in Wisconsin.

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