When costs such as fuel suddenly skyrocket, there are basically three things you can do in order to hold your margin:
• Take steps to reduce your consumption/cost in this area
• Pass the increased cost along to customers
• Work to reduce other costs so overhead as a whole stays in line
We asked landscape contractors what they are doing to combat the record-high fuel costs this season. Dozens responded, offering numerous suggestions in each of the three main areas listed above. A summary of best practices is below, although responses are being kept anonymous to encourage future participation in “best practice studies.”
Also faced with a soft market and increased competition, most contractors first think about things they can do to reduce fuel consumption because there’s a general fear of losing business as a result of a price increase. Contractors are trying to become more efficient to cut down on windshield time and wasted fuel.
“We have weekly meetings to discuss ways to save fuel, like cutting warm-up and idling time with our trucks,” said one Canadian full-service firm. A Louisville contractor said he’s implemented a policy that says trucks can never idle for more than two minutes. “If it’s sitting, it isn’t running,” he added.
In Florida, a large design/build company has found a way to cut back on miles logged by its bigger vehicles. “We’re looking to our vendors to have most of our materials delivered,” this operations manager said.
Working smarter includes not only trucks, but also equipment. “My truck has a mileage computer that shows fuel usage on the fly,” said this North Carolina contractor. “I try to keep it above 10 mpg when accelerating from a stop and over 25 mpg when cruising. When mowing, I’ve dropped my throttle back just a bit, especially in light grass or tight areas where I can’t utilize my full speed anyway.”
“We tell our employees not to run blowers, trimmers and edgers wide open,” said this Georgia maintenance contractor. “We also make sure all of our equipment is properly maintained with fluids and lubes, and the right tire pressure.”
“Be sure to mow with properly sharpened and balanced blades,” said a Virginia operator. “Properly sharpened blades will cut through turf with less resistance, which can reduce fuel consumption by as much as 30%. Sharp blades can also help cut back labor hours by reducing the need for slower mowing or double-cutting in order to achieve the desired result, which is a clean, manicured cut. Also, properly balanced blades will allow for minimum vibrations, which will decrease resistance and friction, too.”
Also on the topic of mowing, adhering to the 1/3 rule can help. Cutting no more than 33% of the shoot growth in a single mowing will prevent excessive clipping yield, a prime catalyst for increased engine load. “The difference in fuel consumption when cutting tall, thick grass vs. properly maintained turf is substantial,” the Virginia operator pointed out. “It would be like driving your vehicle uphill forever.”
Speaking of driving your vehicle, some contractors are relying more heavily on a fuel-efficient model(s) for running simple errands and making client visits. Scheduling of these tasks has also been fine-tuned. One contractor said appointments for estimates are now scheduled only two days a week, which helps plan better routes and cuts down on total miles driven. Also, managers who drive company vehicles are asked to schedule client visits first thing in the morning on their way to work and late in the afternoon on their way home.
A Florida maintenance contractor has made a more dramatic change this year, though it’s still too soon to quantify the benefits. He went from a 2002 4x4 7.3L Ford F-250 with a 7x16 enclosed trailer to a 1991 Ford F-450 with a 16-foot flat bed in hopes of saving money on fuel. “If I cut off about 2,700 pounds of trailer weight, plus the wind drag behind the trailer, it should help,” he explained.