The term “offseason” might seem a bit misleading to more than a few tree care companies and their employees, for the winter months often seem at least as challenging and filled with tasks as the “busy” season. But, in general, the winter months involve preparing for the next growing, pruning and takedown time. This is obviously also geographically dependent, as tree folk in more temperate and southern climes may see few, if any, changes to their workloads and schedules, while those in the north may keep themselves occupied with snow removal and the presence of frozen ground/lakes to get those difficult-access jobs done. Regardless of location, though, the winter months are a time for tree care professionals to start looking at new gear/equipment needs for the next season, while carrying out regular care/maintenance tasks on existing gear.
In with the new
The offseason is an excellent time to evaluate what new gear and gizmos are needed to successfully take on the upcoming year, particularly after attendance at a few fall trade shows and chapter conferences filled with visions of bright and shiny new toys. Every consumer and/or business makes choices about what they need or want, but tree industry choices include a bottom line that includes a particularly vital item — safety and survival. In addition, the modern tree industry is replete with a multitude of choices involving new materials, fibers and technology, all of which, in the end, are better than the old “one size fits all,” but can be overwhelming without a little time, energy and direction. Luckily, climbing arborists can make better choices both for the bottom line and safety by considering a few key factors when evaluating new gear and equipment in the offseason.
The “shoulds” and “shalls” of standards
Anything that is being considered for offseason purchase is going to need to meet the industry’s existing standards, which for the tree industry, in most cases, is the ANSI Z133. These standards are always being reevaluated and updated by a committee made up of industry members; and although that certainly does not mean they can stay current in the immediate moment with every new material or item that has hit the tree care market, the standard is an excellent starting point for evaluating a new piece of gear or equipment. The most recent edition of the Z133 — while it will not necessarily explain how to use that new bright and shiny toy or whether it is actually any more efficient — will give basic requirements the new item must meet in regard to strength and general safe use.
Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should
Any group working together over time develops its own culture in conjunction with the combined skill sets and work habits of its members; and tree crews/companies are no exception. New offseason gear or equipment purchases need to be evaluated with a realistic eye at the company or crew culture; otherwise a bunch of very pricy and shiny paperweights may end up gathering dust on the shop shelves. A new piece of gear may assist in helping change a negative aspect of a company’s culture or work habits, such as a more comfortable or lightweight type of personal protective equipment (PPE) that results in more crew members actually wearing PPE. Unfortunately, new gear can also affect a crew’s culture or work habits in a negative manner when a new piece of gear is “mandated” or “required” by company leadership without user input or evaluation of comfort and crew skill set. Regardless of existing crew/company culture, both “buy-in” from the users and suitability or need regarding crew skills and work habits should be part of the offseason purchasing formula.
Data, data, data
Information and, even more importantly, existing user feedback are key in offseason gear evaluation and selection. Luckily, in this day and age of the Internet and the wide variety of social media platforms, there is no shortage of data and/or opinions available on gear and equipment; however, evaluators should remember that not all data is created equally, and sources should always be considered. In addition, more and more valuable and verifiable research is being done on tree industry gear and equipment in real-world application, and then shared with the tree-climbing industry at large. This data can not only make offseason gear evaluation and purchases easier, but can even steer companies or crew members to more specific choices, such as which rope or hitch should function best in very particular circumstances.
No money down until you’ve driven it around
The option to give that new piece of gear or equipment a try, regardless of how briefly, prior to swiping the company credit card may not always be an option, but, if available, should always be taken advantage of. There is no substitute for the “hands-on” experience of running some brush through a chipper prior to purchase, or knowing how the latest, greatest harness feels on ones hips when suspended. If possible, use any opportunities that a retailer or manufacturer presents for demonstrations or “try-outs.” If that’s not available, take advantage of any chance to attend an industry conference, trade show, convention, event or competition. Not only will these tree industry gatherings allow prospective purchasers to network and gather information/opinions from existing gear and equipment users, but they are also guaranteed to provide plenty of chances to see, touch and even try out all the new bright and shiny toys.
The bottom line is still the bottom line
Often the final limiting factor on offseason gear and equipment purchases is the cost; and for any tree company that wants to stay in business, this should be a very important factor or consideration. However, while the numbers and price tags for tree gear and equipment can be intimidating at first glance, prospective purchasers should ensure they are evaluating the cost realistically. An objective realistic evaluation of the cost/benefit of the new piece of gear or equipment will help prevent the “my precious” factor often associated with tree folk and new bright and shiny things, but also prevent the complete shutdown of “I remember when we just made our own harnesses out of old rope.” A professional, well-run tree care company or crew should have a fairly accurate idea of how much time is spent during the course of a season carrying out various tree care tasks, such as hanging in a harness, running a saw, or even chipping brush. Regardless of the activity, the time spent in a season carrying that activity out can then be used to generate an hourly cost for that new piece of gear or equipment for one season. An even more accurate determination of “cost” can be made with a realistic estimate of the “lifespan” of the piece of equipment. Assuming everyone is being honest, this process will give a pretty clear answer on whether or not the offseason purchase makes sense or not in view of the bottom line.
Taking care of the old
Time not spent in the offseason playing with the “latest and greatest” would be well spent on the care and feeding of existing gear and equipment. Obviously, regular inspection, care and maintenance should be part and parcel of every tree care company’s routine, regardless of season; but the offseason provides particular opportunities for the rest and restoration of all those old favorites.
If it’s got a motor
As mentioned previously, preventative care and maintenance should be going on regularly throughout the year, particularly when it comes to motorized equipment, but the offseason certainly provides opportunities to bring all those motorized beasts to the peak of efficiency. This is an excellent time to do a good “deep clean” both inside and out (within the limits of manufacturer’s recommendations). Although this may seem excessive to some, cleaner equipment not only presents a more professional appearance, but is also safer and tends to run better/last longer. In addition to regular inspection and maintenance, such as checking belts, changing fluids, and adjusting knives/teeth, the offseason is a great opportunity to take on those larger mechanical tasks such as considering a new engine, carburetor rebuild or transmission changes. Tree crews should not ignore their smaller motorized friends at this time of year either. Complete cleans, inspections and restorations of items such as chain saws, power pruners and winches will pay dividends in the upcoming busy time.
If it’s got fiber
Ropes and lines should be inspected before every use throughout the year, but the offseason allows crew members to check and care for their cordage at a much deeper level. Ropes not only can be washed regularly, but should be for safety and longevity; and the offseason provides a chance to get some of that grit, grime, and sap from between their fibers. A very mild detergent should be used, if one is used at all; and ropes do best if washed after being daisy chained and place inside a large mesh laundry bag in the machine. Unless the company has invested in a washer specifically for this purpose, large front-loading commercial washers such as those available at a laundromat are best for this purpose; and “begging for forgiveness instead of asking permission” might be the best option with laundromat staff. Nothing more than cold water is required; and ropes should not be put into a dryer in any circumstances, hanging to air or drip dry is the best option. The offseason also provides the time needed to do an in-depth inspection of all lines and rope tools for frayed or cut fibers and any areas of excessive wear/heat. Storing ropes in bags or buckets will help keep them cleaner, drier and protected from the fuels/solvents often present in tree care.
If it protects pieces and parts
That all important PPE should also be getting checked and evaluated regularly throughout the year, but once again the offseason provides a chance to inspect it closely, clean it as needed, and replace it as required. Items such as chain saw chaps and pants provide more protection if they are washed regularly within manufacturer’s recommendations; and other PPE items such as hardhats or helmets are more easily inspected for defects if they are also clean. This is also a good time of year to replace wear items in PPE such as the foam in hearing protection muffs or the suspension systems in hardhats or helmets.
The offseason is a time, in general, to attempt to make the next growing season safer and more productive. And although there are obviously many more activities than those discussed here that take place in the offseason, the basic standards and possibilities listed will help tree care companies and crews make the best use of their “down” time.
Michael “House” Tain is a contract climber, splicer, educator and writer associated with North American Training Solutions www.northamericantrainingsolutions.com and Arbor Canada Training and Education www.arborcanada.com. He is currently located in Lancaster, Ky., and can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.