A safer approach to handling mulch
As with any industrial equipment the safe use of front-end loaders is the responsibility of operators and fellow employees. Site-specific training is necessary to ensure safety at any job site, but where mulch is concerned, safety requires knowledge of many more variables. Attention to surroundings just scratches the surface. And with mulch, even scratching the surface of a stockpile with a front-end loader can be hazardous. Wet, dry or frozen, mulch behaves differently under the weight of a loader. Spontaneous combustion might set it afire.. The most seasoned front-end loader operator may be as green as a newbie off the street where proper mulch handling is concerned.
Working a stockpile
“When you’re building a stockpile you are never on good solid footing as you would be in a gravel operation,” notes Kelly McFarland, plant manager at Latham Lumber, Latham, OH. “If you get too close to the edge human nature is to turn the wheel and get away from it. But when you make that sudden turn with a dozer or a loader, that kicks the edge out from underneath you.”
Latham employs two veteran loader operators, with 18 and 20 years experience respectively. McFarland says these men know not to overreact if they get too close to the edge of a pile, but that sense comes with decades of experience and proper training. Gut instinct doesn’t tell you to take the fall—training does.
Cratering or ground shift is the biggest problem with mulch, according to Jim Shephard, president of Shephard’s Industrial Training Systems, Memphis, TN. Inexperienced operators typically don’t realize how much their equipment weighs and how their high center of gravity makes them vulnerable to rollovers—especially when working on the edge of a mulch stockpile.
“You can flatten it out and put more up there but you’ll still go up like a cone and it doesn’t compact,” says Shephard. “Once it starts going it’s like an avalanche. The only way to correct the problem is to turn into the avalanche with the bucket down and go with it. This can help it from rolling over if you can get into that position. Most loaders have rollover protection so it will hold the weight of the unit plus the load if it does roll. However, it’s only rated for one roll.”
Safety must be taught
The danger of using a front-end loader to stockpile grows as the mulch pile does. If a producer offers several varieties of product, the challenge is to keep those varieties separated. That means either having lots of real estate or stockpiling higher.
“Most young operators don’t know how to pile or how to build a road in such a small area to be able to turn and get up to a second level,” Shephard adds. “And they shouldn’t make roads around the edges to make them higher. The pile should be as broad based as possible, and they should stay five to 10 feet from any edge.”
Hot and cold conditions can make stockpiling with a loader even more dangerous. At near-freezing conditions a mulch pile can become very unstable. Also, when heat, moisture and air get into mulch, microbial activity can create just the right conditions for spontaneous combustion.
“A difference in ambient temperature during the day or night can ignite a fire,” says Lenny Neal, executive manager at Kurtz Brothers, Ohio-based providers of landscape services and materials. “Piles can reach 130-145 degrees F. Once they get above 150-160 you have to worry about a hot spot and that’s where the fire will start. The fire hazard is mitigated dramatically when you use a pile that’s not compacted. There’s an inherent danger using a loader or dozer.”
Why consider conveyors
Neal believes his industry will eventually follow the lead of sand and gravel producers and start using conveyors to stockpile mulch.
“Without a conveyor you need a second loader operator pushing up the material,” he explains. “Loaders burn a lot more fuel and they compress the material. Once it’s compressed you can be overloading customer orders more than you would with a stacking conveyor.”
Brock Harrington, president of Scotia Machinery in Indianapolis, sells conveyors to a wide variety of materials producers. He sees landscaping as an under-served market where this equipment is concerned because the industry is relatively young and operates on thin profit margins. It is also seasonal, operating full-tilt during the warmer months and ramping back dramatically during fall and winter. These business owners have to learn how the investment in a conveyor breaks down compared to a wheel loader.
“Wheel loaders are not designed to work on inclines, let alone be used as a bulldozer to build a ski ramp with wood chips,” Harrington says. “Conveyors are designed for stockpiling safely and at a low cost. You can use a bulldozer for a little while but when you start getting 50 ft in the air on a big pile of mulch that’s not stable, there will be consequences.”
Harrington puts the hourly cost of a front end loader between $75 and $125. In contrast, a conveyor has no operator and very little operating cost.
“In today’s market people need to be looking at managing their operating costs better,” he concludes. “Electric conveyors don’t have high operating costs.”
You might expect Harrington to make a good case for conveyors because he sells them, but Latham Lumber’s Kelly McFarland does not use conveyors to stockpile mulch—although he’s sold on them for that purpose. He just needs to make the case to the owner of his company. That’s his goal.
Green and lean
McFarland believes the need to be greener and more energy efficient will make the case for conveyors easier for him and many others in his business to make.
“Instead of burning diesel fuel we should be electric,” he says. “If we could put in conveyors I feel we could take one loader out of this equation daily. A loader burns 5-6 gallons of diesel an hour. We run six months out of the year 9 hours a day. Figure in the labor cost and the maintenance cost, as well as replacement cost down the road. Instead, with a conveyor we could run at maximum a 15 hp electric motor. Once we get past the initial capital for the conveyor, the maintenance cost in a mulch operation would be just that electric motor. We could also get a lot of life out of a conveyor belt compared to a set of loader tires.”
Adapt to business demands
Of course no two landscaping materials providers are exactly alike in terms of square footage and mulch varieties. That’s why a site-specific needs assessment is important to determine the appropriate equipment and staffing requirements. Jim Shephard says in many cases conveyors and front-end loaders can work together to match business demands.
“If a loader is spending 85% of its time stockpiling, you may have a good argument for conveyors,” he suggests. If you have a small area it will be hard for a loader to build a pile very high. A conveyor would be perfect for that. Stockpile with a conveyor and you can unload it for customers a lot easier with a loader.”
The point is, as your business changes over time, so will your equipment strategies. Equipment suppliers can help match the right strategy to your growth plan. Just keep in mind, the operators of that equipment will come and go. That makes consistent operator training key to productivity and safety. And if you are blessed to have operators who stay with you for decades, their skills must change with the times.
“Sometimes having a yard guru is not the best thing if he doesn’t have enough experience on the equipment,” Shephard concludes. “A professional trainer will find out what that guru knows about that yard and some of its problem spots, then tie that information to a good training program.”
Lenny Neal of Kurtz Brothers agrees. In fact he considers his company the mavericks of the landscape supply business where training is concerned. It has a trainer on staff and according to company policy, only people with the proper qualifications can operate equipment.
“We certify operators through a trainer and our people are trained on OSHA regulations,” he says. “We have safety meetings every month and courses twice a year.”
As business heads out of recession and into a healthier economy, landscapers will see more orders for mulch and many other materials—each of which will behave differently when processed and handled. Neal is anticipating a time when order volume will challenge his company’s capacity to deliver. When that time comes he’s determined to have qualified people with the appropriate equipment to meet the demand safely and productively.