It’s been said that landscaping was invented by snow professionals as something to do during the off season. And maybe that’s us down the road, but at the moment, we’re still a snow-only company. The challenge for us is figuring out what to do with all our equipment during the off season.
The problem is, a good chunk of it is highly specialized to perform one task only! Aside from my truck, nearly everything else pretty much does one task only. The plows push snow around and that’s it. Same with the salt spreaders, snow shovels, walk-behinds, the brine mixer, the list goes on. They’re seasonal use only, and completely dead weight during the summer.
Even if you can’t make full use of it, keeping equipment at least somewhat employed is better than none at all, especially if still paying off a loan. A lot of landscaping equipment found its way into snow work this way. Innovation in sidewalk snow removal started from the landscaping side by custom fitting small plows and brushes to lawn care tractors. By adapting existing machinery to handle snow removal as well, landscapers were able to eke out additional profits year-round. More recent developments in sidewalk snow removal technology have come from the opposite angle, starting with snow removal as a primary function, and adding in turf sprayers and aerator attachments for all-season versatility.
Heavy equipment, on the other hand, is all-season equipment that can be put to work any time of year. Take the skid-steer for example – these loaders are immensely commonplace in our industry. They easily fit on a trailer and can hook up to a million different attachments, providing versatility through all four seasons. Larger loaders, while not nearly as versatile, are familiar sights at construction yards year-round, but their higher price tag makes them less of a commodity among small companies. However, nearly every company that purchases heavy equipment does so with some intention to ensure their use year-round.
Our past investments in technology were for a range of reasons. Some of them occurred on the heels of “acts of God”-level general unpreparedness (like the year we got 3x the normal snowfall). Others were more proactive, sensing a possible shortcoming given our current equipment posture (e.g. sidewalk operations with a thick crust of ice on top). In addition to solving a current or future problem, we also considered how that equipment might be integrated into existing operations. But as the business has grown, our single-biggest focus has shifted to how we might most benefit year-round from our equipment.
But it’s easy to forget that investment in equipment isn’t the only consideration. Since we’re snow-only, our particular labor pool includes workers in a variety of different trades. We have construction workers, arborists, carpenters, real estate agents, and masons (the actual kind), to name a few. And many of them are in the same boat as we are, running their own small seasonal businesses. Their success is oftentimes directly related to ours. How can we invest in our human capital as well?
When we transitioned to bulk salt, a prime consideration was how to most efficiently apply it. While it would require a big truck with a big spreader, we also saw an opportunity to maximize potential in multiple areas. So our decision to get a specialized truck didn’t result another one-trick pony taking up room in the yard. Instead, we got a Swiss Army knife.
One Truck to Rule Them All
Our truck had more than a few requirements to meet. Primarily, it needed to plow and apply salt. It also needed to transport skid-steer loaders and other equipment, and perform other functions as we saw a need. Furthermore, we didn’t want a truck that required a commercial drivers license to legally operate. It needed to be big enough to do the big things, but small enough for anyone to drive. That meant needing a short wheelbase for a small turning radius while at the same time able to carry a lot of salt, all while staying under 26,000 lbs GVWR.
The primary functions were all met in a cab-over Isuzu box truck. With a GVWR of just under 26,000 lbs, we were in the clear. The frame easily accommodated a shortened wheelbase (actually a few inches shorter than my F-250), making it an effective plow truck. The box would have to come off to mount a salt spreader, but what about the ancillary requirements?
Enter the hooklift. You’ve probably seen them before, even if you aren’t familiar with how they work. Often associated with transporting construction waste, “roll-off” trucks utilize this mechanism to pick up and unload large containers. When fully extended, an L-shaped arm hooks the container and rotates forward, lifting the container up and onto the back of the truck, rolling over a set of wheels. It brings the container level as the arm fully rotates, and a piston pushes the entire payload forward towards the cab.
By swapping out different payloads, the truck would be able to perform various tasks year-round. We engaged local specialists to fabricate various payloads to interface with the hooklift. One would carry a 6-yard hydraulic stainless steel hopper spreader. Another was flatbed custom-designed with hold downs for transporting a skid-steer loader. Adding payloads isn’t a simple matter of plug and play, however. The hooklift operates via hydraulic system, the pump of which is powered by the truck’s PTO. Loading and unloading anything other than a “dumb” payload required additional hydraulics, which may not be sized the same as the hooklift. For example, our spreader required its own hydraulic system with much larger capacity, so a custom solution was required. More payloads are in the works, including a dump bed for general hauling/removal use, and also a removable cap to turn it into a chipper box for arborist use. And we know a few guys who could put that sort of functionality to good use, at favorable rates.
Snow and ice management is an intense and time-sensitive job. Sometimes it feels like we’re just scraping by, but we’ve been immensely blessed to have a diverse and resilient workforce helping us stay afloat. Their talent and reliability has helped us not just to keep our existing clients year on year, but to service them at the highest standards. In building a multipurpose truck, we can support their businesses as well. Believe me, we’re not trying to expand into new markets. I’m perfectly comfortable with my feet on the ground and not up in a dead tree, sitting in a chair and not swinging a sledgehammer. By forging strong relationships with our workforce and helping out their businesses, our rising tide helps lift their boats as well.
This article was first published in the April 2019 issue of Snow Business magazine.