In a Tight Spot

Michigan tree trimmer uses compact equipment for distribution rights-of-way.

Loft Compact Trimmer3

Michigan tree trimmer uses compact equipment for distribution rights-of-way.

When clearing the strips of land along utility lines, or the rights-of-way, many contractors have struggled to find an efficient method of tree trimming. For open areas, manufacturers have developed large-scale mechanical trimmers equipped with saw blades mounted on long booms. But, for distribution lines in metropolitan areas and other confined spaces, contractors are caught in a tight spot-literally. Most resort to using chain saws and bucket trucks, slowly working their way down the line. For Kappen Tree Service, however, this approach wouldn't work.

Based in Cass City, Mich., Kappen Tree Service has been clearing rights-of-way for 20 years. Today, it services 4,000 to 5,000 miles each year, depending on budgets. Kappen Tree Service holds contracts with multiple electric utilities for doing work along a variety of transmission, subtransmission and distribution lines.

Much of the contractor's work started in the "thumb" of Michigan, where the landscape mainly consists of farmland and wood lots. Here it was easy for crews to get in and out with the seven large-scale mechanical trimmers in their fleet. Kappen Tree Service, however, eventually started getting distribution contracts farther south into the metropolitan Detroit area, where heavier traffic and smaller working areas limited the use of large equipment.

"In the Detroit area, you can't just drive down the road like you can in the northern part of the state," said Warren Kappen, part owner of Kappen Tree Service.

As Kappen's work started to shift south, he began looking for a more efficient alternative to trimming trees with chain saws and bucket trucks.

"We probably have 100 bucket trucks, but those guys have to raise the machine, trim the branch with a chainsaw, come back down and move the truck ahead to the next tree," Kappan said.

He also wanted something that could maneuver better than his bucket trucks.

"They work in some of the small areas, but they're just so clumsy," Kappan said.

Kappen eventually discovered a new type of equipment-the Kwik-Trim compact tree trimmer made by Loftness. These machines use a mini-excavator chassis, but, instead of having a hydraulic arm and bucket, they are equipped with a saw blade on a nonconductive, hydraulically telescoping boom-similar to the larger equipment on the market.

The design of a compact tree trimmer lends itself to the metropolitan applications that Kappen faces. With its small footprint, zero-turn radius and 360-degree boom swing, the machine can maneuver much easier than other trimming equipment. On reaching the jobsite, it can quickly drive along the right-of-way without wasting time being repositioned. In addition, the quiet operation is good for residential areas.

Because of their small size, compact tree trimmers are easy to transport. Unlike large-scale mechanical trimmers, which typically require a tractor-trailer to haul, compact trimmers can be towed from site to site on a standard trailer behind a pickup truck.

After purchasing this new equipment in February 2011 and putting it to work, Kappen averaged some 20 hours on the machine per week. He immediately noticed the time savings the new trimmers offered.

"On a really good day, a two-man bucket crew might be able to trim 64 trees," Kappen said. "That's with both men averaging four trees per hour on an eight-hour day." On the other hand, the compact tree trimmer works nearly four times quicker for Kappen. "I've seen one man do 250 trees in a day with this."

To transport the compact trimmer, Kappen hauls the unit on the same trailer as his skid steer mowers.

"We pull the trimmer and mowers with a trailer behind a diesel dually pickup," Kappan said. "The guys move around pretty easily like that."

Despite the advantages of the compact trimmer, it doesn't replace Kappen Tree Service's larger trimmers, which reach up to 70 feet high vs. the 53-foot maximum cutting height of the Kwik-Trim. Kappen, therefore, continues to use his large trimmers mostly along transmission and subtransmission lines, while reserving the Kwik-Trim mainly for smaller distribution rights-of-way.

For tall branches that hang over the compact trimmer's reach, Kappen's crew comes back to clean up by using off-road trucks and climbing trees. Kappen, nonetheless, finds that the compact machine still saves much time.

"If we can get 90 trees out of 100 with the Kwik-Trim, we'll save a lot of time," he said. "Over the course of the season, it saves us hours, days and even weeks."

Through these time savings, Kappen believes the compact trimmer can help him more competitively bid contracts.

"Whether we get paid by the tree or by the mile, we make more money by trimming trees faster," Kappan said. "And, the next time we bid a job, we can come in a little lower."

After putting some 900 hours on his compact trimmer, Kappen is considering purchasing another unit from Loftness. He also plans to put the machines to more use.

"We're trying to do more with the Kwik-Trim because the utilities want us to cut even more trees," Kappan said.

As the industry evolves, more contractors will search for ways to increase efficiency and meet tight budgets. Consequently, a compact tree trimmer may be an ideal addition to many fleets because of its ability to access areas where bucket trucks or large trimmers can't go. As for Kappen's success with a compact trimmer, he reports that it's working out well-and definitely saving time.

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