Clearing a Profit

July 1, 2000
Gx Bug Web

Land clearance may involve shrubs, brushwood, saplings, and even large trees that will be removed to make way for new roads, schools, healthcare facilities, or housing developments. Contrary to the accusations of some opponents of new construction and infrastructure, the clearance is not simply a destructive process. Just as they have discovered ways to reuse materials (e.g., concrete) that have been demolished grading and excavation contractors are learning that the wood cut, ground, and chipped at a clearance site can still serve the community and make the operation constructive.

David Harvey is the general superintendent for Solomon Construction Inc. based in Quincy, FL. “Up until four years ago, whenever we would clear a commercial land site, we would haul the debris to some landfill or to our state-licensed facility. We now have a landfill on a site the company originally bought as a source of sand for its backfill needs. Florida’s EPA requirements limit the landfill to the original size of the hole from which we excavated the sand, so we look for additional ways to dispose of debris material.” With the life of the landfill limited and the hauling and tipping fees rising steadily for disposal elsewhere, Solomon found some innovative and ingenious methods of debris disposal.

From Problem to Profit

“I started to network with other small companies in the area,” continues Harvey. Solomon Construction has about 60 employees. “The large-scale loggers would not consider a 10-acre site, but we thought smaller logging companies might be interested. We made a deal with a logger to pay us for the hardwoods. They even bought the pines we took down as long as we cut off the tops and the roots.” Such initiative immediately brought in extra revenue for a land-clearing site. Spending a little time to discover how the woodwastes can benefit the community can repay a contractor not only by reducing expenses but also by improving his company’s image and fostering a more positive perception of land development. A few years ago, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) initiated a program called Green Communities that allows local communities to take charge of their own environmental future. Could contractors who manage land clearance be leaders in the development of such programs?

The purchase of new equipment brought another solution for Solomon Construction. A Vermeer TG400A tub grinder was purchased to grind up the remaining tops and roots. Then the company contracted with others to take away the chips produced by the grinder. “Before we had this grinder, we would haul brush to a landfill,” explains Harvey. “Now we grind up the debris and have an arrangement with a large contractor to haul the chips by the semi load to a paper mill and electric power plants in our area. We do not charge him for the chips and he does not charge us for taking them away, so it has become a win/win situation for both of us. He gets the chips for nothing, and we eliminate the expense of the trucks to haul debris.” And the woodwastes are not just thrown away and buried.

Much of the work done by Solomon Construction involves utility installations and the grading required for them. At an 11-ac. nursing-home construction project, for example, the company bid to clear the land, perform the rough and finish grading, and install the wet utilities (municipal water, sanitary, and storm sewers). Solomon bids against larger construction companies for the complete site preparation, including installation of utilities, but one of the areas where it can earn a competitive edge is in the land clearance and grading. That means that costs (and potential profit) start from the moment workers arrive at the site. A good start to the project’s profitability is achieved through the efficiency of the land clearance.

Cutting the Problems Down to Size

The Vermeer TG400A tub grinder will use a 40-hp Caterpillar engine to power the HammerTooth teeth that rip through the toughest wood. Koester Environmental from Chattanooga, TN, rented one of these grinders to handle the trees, branches, and stumps of clearance work at the Cumberland River near Redbird, KY. The company was responsible for grading the area and building parking areas and fences. To collect the debris at a trash gate constructed for the river, the contractors used a Caterpillar trackhoe with an 80-ft. reach, then used the tub grinder. “It’s easy to transport from site to site,” remarks Aaron Smith of Koester Environmental. “It has a relatively narrow profile and requires no special permit. With the infrequent and episodic nature of the collection and recycling program here, renting makes sense to us.”

Renting wood-handling equipment has gained favor rapidly. “Small lot-clearing operators, including contractors and municipalities, frequently rent brush chippers and stump cutters,” says Brad Coverdale, regional manager for NationsRent in central and southern Indiana. “Although the large tree trimming operations own their own equipment, they will rent an additional 12-inch chipper when they have extra work.” Grading and excavation contractors seem to be considering renting rather than purchasing land-clearance equipment because not all of their jobs require such machinery. At Hejny Rental in the St. Paul, MN, area, Duane Hejny comments on the upswing in the rental of land-clearance equipment. “There are four main reasons for contractors to rent,” notes Hejny when discussing the Vermeer 1230 chipper, a popular rental. “They don’t use the equipment every day. They don’t want to front the money to buy the machines. They don’t want to maintain them. But they still want to use a 100%-reliable piece of equipment.”

Renting or purchasing special equipment to handle trees cannot always be justified. “When there are only one or two trees, we try to let people know what we are going to do,” explains Marsha Mitchell, a contractor in Montana who uses her excavator to remove stumps before grading and excavation. “Usually somebody will come to take the wood for firewood, but sometimes the only choice is to take a single stump to the landfill.” The use of wood chippings for mulching and landscaping varies according to local needs and preferences, but their value for erosion control programs seems to be recognized in every state. “Sometimes the materials are just blown across the soil, but that is rare,” says Lori Minzey of Universal Refiner, based in Montesano, WA. “One of the most practical uses here is along highways and banks to prevent soil erosion. Most users are general contractors who try to find ways to use the woodwastes for a community’s benefit.”

Soil erosion (to the tune of billions of tons of topsoil each year) is primarily caused by wind and rain, but it can be aggravated by new construction and road building. An obvious danger of soil erosion is that displaced soil finds its way into rivers and streams, sometimes carrying harmful chemicals. Where the topsoil has been removed, the next layer is frequently unable to support the plants. Using the wood ground up after land clearance as a foundation for mats or covers to combat and halt soil erosion was mentioned several times by contractors in different parts of the country. The chips can also be mixed with waste sludges to help ground stability. Using the chips for mulching on landscape projects also fights soil erosion. In addition, the product from grinders and chippers has prevented many tons of soil from being washed away, especially at locations where irrigation or sprinkler systems are inaccurate.

The Tools of the Trade

The contractors who specialize in clearing come to the site and cut the trees that can be sold as wood. They use chain saws. Then the next group of contractors (who could be principally grading and excavation contractors) takes out the tree stumps and branches for grinding and chipping. Morbark’s 7600 Boss Hog (using almost 1,000 hp) can produce more than 400 yd.3/hr. for the largest clearance projects, while the 950 Tub Grinder can handle up to 85 yd.3/hr. at smaller sites. Working with a chain saw is slower than using a chipper. If the worker with the chain saw has to cut off branches so that only a straight log is left for feeding into the chipper, the operation becomes lengthy and expensive. One of the points emphasized by Morbark for its 2400XL Hurricane model (powered by a 275-hp Cummins engine) is the 20-in.-high x 30-in.-wide opening at the feed wheels. The recently increased size of the opening allows the chipper to cut crotches in tree limbs more easily, and that, says the manufacturer, dramatically reduces the time and labor required for chain saw work and increases production.

“Eighty percent of the product generated in our grinders is put to a good purpose,” points out Jon Little, owner of W.H.O. Manufacturing in Grass Valley, CA. “We hear of it being used by power companies and mixed with sewer sludge for fertilizers in addition to the traditional use of mulch for private and public areas. Tub grinders break down many different woody materials and give them a second life. What was creating a disposal problem is reduced in volume and can become a useful product.” W.H.O. markets three models of woodwaste grinders, with capacities up to 200 yd.3/hr.

Bandit Industries (Remus, MI) manufactures various machines for land-clearance jobs. The Model 3680 Beast Recycler is an alternative to a tub grinder for the reduction of logs, railroad ties, greenwaste, telephone poles, and construction and demolition debris. The end product has been used for compost, mulch, fuel for wood-fire boilers, and animal bedding. Grading and excavation contractors will appreciate another Bandit product, the Megabyte-an attachment for excavators that is a stump and log shear and can also serve as a stump puller, eliminating the need to dig around the stump for removal. At the beginning of this year, Bandit introduced the 14-in. Model 254 chipper. It has a new easy-climb-feed wheel tensioning system to make the feeding of larger pieces easier. “We felt that this size of unit was needed to fill a void for those companies that want a chipper with a greater opening to better collapse limbs and branches without adding much weight and bulk,” says Jerry Morey, Bandit marketing manager. Some contractors are surprised by the thickness of branches that chippers can accept, as well as by the usefulness (to individuals, municipalities, and commercial entities) of byproducts that they make. Similar to Solomon Construction, contractors are learning that even if they do not sell the waste from land clearance, others who need it will haul it away for nothing. The savings in truck costs and labor can be significant, and everyone wins!

The aspect of land clearance that seems to cause more headaches than expected is stump removal. “Make sure that you don’t cut that stump too short if you’re going to pull it out,” advise several contractors. Those with excavators often pull out the stump with an attachment to the excavator’s boom, but at some sites, the use of a stump cutter might be more suitable. These cutters can be remotely controlled. Vermeer has an SC502A model, for example, that will deliver a cut 19 in. deep and 67 in. wide. Its AutoSweep function maintains the rated engine speed of the stump cutter by automatically adjusting the sweep rate of the cutter wheel. The optional wireless remote controls allow operation up to 100 ft. from the machine. In J.P. Carlton’s range of seven stump grinders, the horsepower varies from 25 to 106, the cutting depth from 12 to 27 in., and the number of teeth on the cutter wheel from 20 to 48. Whatever the size of the stumps you need to remove, there is probably a cutter available to handle them.

Safety and Neighborhood Concerns

“There is a definite trend away from tub grinders to horizontal configurations,” mentions Dan Brandon, marketing manager for Morbark in Winn, MI, a leading manufacturer that makes both styles. “One of the problems the horizontal machine addresses is the danger of flying objects. It does not seem to produce the same swirling danger as some tub grinders. Our customers used to consider the product from the grinders as suitable only for biomass fuels or ground cover. Now they screen the material for different sizes and applications. The smallest can be used for a soil amendment desperately needed in some areas, and then there is landscape mulch and even decorative ground cover. We offer equipment for coloring the materials too.” The Packer 2000 is a horizontal grinder from Packer Industries in Mableton, GA. It too has the power to grind logs, stumps, brush, and greenwaste. Contractors who have used this grinder repeat what has been said about other onsite equipment for land clearance: It saves the cost of taking stumps and brushwood to the landfill. Packer also makes “Thumbs”-attachments for excavators and backhoes to remove trees and bushes.

Diamond Z Manufacturing (Caldwell, ID) says it has the answer to onsite safety problems with its totally enclosed E6000B tub grinder. “It offers the advantages of both systems,” observes Sam Ozuna of Diamond Z. “Horizontal grinders can be limiting because the feed may only be as wide as the length of the mill, which could be only 2 feet. With the E6000, the user has the safety of the enclosed operation, but the feed is still like that of a tub grinder-able to accept long logs.” The enclosure eliminates the dangers of airborne debris and also suppresses noise and dust. For stumps and logs, it can process up to 210 tph (about 70 yd.) and considerably more if the contractor is reducing brushwood. On the subject of reuse of wood debris, Ozuna says many of his customers are finding ways to use them, often in cooperation with other contractors or local municipalities. “The tipping fees had begun to kill them,” he adds.

Grinders are the machines that handle the big trees and logs. Chippers work with smaller pieces, such as brushwood. Users should understand that both types of machines are dangerous and that safety procedures for their operation should never be ignored. Vermeer (Pella, IA) offers the Falling Object Canopy above-ground control panel for its tub grinders, as well as a Thrown Object Restraint System. Keeping the equipment in good condition is a practice that benefits both the operation and the level of safety. At Solomon Construction, the operator runs the grinder for four hours, then a welder and mechanic work for two hours, and then the machine runs again for four hours. The welder will hard face the hammers and teeth while the mechanic greases the machine and performs other required daily maintenance. Such a maintenance schedule gives longer life and lowers the life cycle costs of the machine. Clean debris can make a dramatic difference to the running time of teeth, and contractors who insist on clean debris (rather than materials that have accumulated dirt by lying abandoned on sites or in landfills) will notice the improved performance.

Any machine that grinds and cuts is noisy, but Vermeer has gone a long way toward making some of its brush chippers less noisy and more acceptable to residents near land-clearance jobs. “The BC1000 unites European style and quietness with American power and productivity,” states Chris Nichols, product manager for Vermeer’s Environmental Products Division. “With this model, we have proved that you don’t have to sacrifice horsepower for the sake of sound and looks.” Strict regulations in Europe demand much lower noise levels than in the United States, but it seems likely that our laws will follow suit. Being friendly to the neighborhood has rarely hurt any contractor, so consideration of the noise of machinery is good sense. The BC1000 handles branches up to 10 in. in diameter through a rectangular opening (10 x 17 in.), which allows for bent or forked material. “We expect the quietness of this powerful chipper to prove an important selling point in the American market,” adds Nichols.

An idea from across the world in Perth, Australia, may interest land-clearance contractors here in America. Tree contractors there contribute to the Mulch Network, a kind of brokerage service that handles recycled tree mulch (calling it Forest Floor Mulch). The mulch is sold to customers straight from the truck at a low cost per cubic yard. It is virtually free of soil contamination because it comes straight from the trees and does not touch the ground. Some of the profits from the system go toward the planting of new trees and to schools. The schools sell the mulch to their neighborhoods as a fundraiser for their extracurricular activities. In Perth, Australia, or Perth Amboy, NJ, or at any point between, land-clearance contractors have the opportunity to benefit themselves and the public from what has become the fruits of their work.