July 19, 2010 05:16

The Lowndown on Hydroseeding and Mulch Blowing

Environmental fallout is an inevitable result of living in the world. Natural disasters, like fires and floods, as well as man-made disasters such as the recent oil spill, wreak havoc with our natural resources. Then, there are the more everyday phenomena, like wind, rain and snow, which affect daily conditions. These kinds of occurrences have a profound impact on one of the most basic elements of our planet: the soil.

Whether because of massive erosion, stormwater runoff, or just clearing land to make way for new housing, the soil needs to be protected. Fortunately, many advances have been made toward controlling the damage to the soil, or at least making it so that the damage doesn’t have to be permanent or irreversible.

In many cases, specialized equipment is called on to do the job. One such piece of equipment is the hydroseeding machine. It was first introduced in the United States in the 1950s, as a way to help stabilize highways for military equipment transportation. Hydroseeders are now quite popular and used in a number of ways.

Hydroseeders—or hydraulic mulch seeders, as they are sometimes called—utilize a slurry of seed, fertilizer and mulch that is sprayed over a prepared site in a uniform layer. They are used for most large surfaces, on slopes and in areas that are otherwise inaccessible. They are fast, efficient and very cost-effective.

Hydroseeding machines are invaluable in keeping erosion at bay, especially in the aftermath of fires. When fires sweep through hillsides, they leave large denuded areas in their wake. These areas become extremely vulnerable when the rainy season comes, resulting in saturated soil. With nothing to hold the soil in place, it begins slipping down the slopes, sliding onto homes, highways and waterways. This can create a whole new set of problems.

In order to prevent soil and rain from creating these mudslides, it is necessary to quickly regenerate and germinate the land. With its speed and efficiency, these machines can broadcast seed and fertilizer so that the new vegetation will take hold prior to the rainy season.

According to Ryan Clark, owner of J and C Environmental Inc., the ease and efficiency of hydroseeders can’t be matched. “The simplicity is amazing; they’re so versatile,” he says. Clark, who runs his company out of Marlow, Oklahoma, swears by his machines. “The machine makes the slurry. You basically paint it on and you’re done. It’s so much less labor intensive and saves time.”

With that endorsement, one wonders how much time and energy a hydroseeding machine really can save. In Clark’s case, quite a bit. His company operates three 1,100gallon units. A major source of his business comes from catering to the oil and gas industry. He covers the Texas panhandle and Arkansas as well as Oklahoma.

“The oil and gas industries build their pads, and if they don’t do something to control the erosion, they will be fined. The quickest and easiest solution to their problem is to call us in,” says Clark. “We hydroseed the pads and stabilize the soil.”

In addition to working large areas efficiently, hydroseeders have also gained popularity in planting quality turfgrass. Depending on the quality of seed and the amount of seed used, hydroplanting is more economical than installing sod and produces excellent results.

As a result of all its different uses, hydroseeders are available in a variety of sizes, anywhere from 100-gallon tanks to 2,000-gallon tanks, and more if needed. They can be mounted on a truck or pulled along on a trailer. The smaller units can even be placed in the bed of a pickup truck. These units provide the versatility many contractors require.

Another piece of machinery is the relatively new mulch blower. Like the hydroseeder, it is designed to cover large areas quickly; but, mulch-blowing trucks have a wider variety of applications. “As long as you can fit the material through the hose, you can blow it,” says Jeff Johnson, co-owner of Power Mulch. “I just love these machines.”

Johnson and his partner Eddie Foy started their company, intending to own a grinder. After using someone’s mulch blower, however, they changed their minds. “I saw it and I thought, that’s the coolest thing I’ve ever seen in this business,” said Johnson.

Power Mulch, based in Smithfield, North Carolina, is now a twelve-person operation with two 40-cubic-foot blowers and one 60cubic-foot blower. They get a lot of contracts from the Department of Transportation (DOT), because as

Johnson says, “the DOT (and organizations like it) usually own more land in a given state than anyone.”

Green roofs, filter socks, compost blankets and top dressing are just a few of the many jobs these machines can handle. Johnson and his company have also capped landfills with compost, laid mulch on football and baseball fields, and most recently, were called upon to help with the May 2010 oil spill off the Gulf Coast. “We were asked to blow filter socks up to block and catch the oil,” he says.

Blowers provide contractors with unmatched efficiency; Johnson thinks that’s probably why their popularity on the East Coast is rising to meet the West. “You can get in and get out,” he says. “And there’s versatility. That’s what a mulch blower can really do for you.”

Mulch blowers have long hoses, which can help minimize jobsite disruption and damage. Because the average hose weighs only one pound per foot, there are things you can do with a blower that wouldn’t be possible with other equipment.

“Some people have tens of thousands of dollars of landscaping done, and a lawnmower makes lines all over the yard. I just blow the mulch in, and the only pressure is the maximum 150 pounds of hose,” says Johnson. The same principle applies when it comes to schoolyards and playgrounds enclosed with fences. “You just throw the hose over the fence,” says Johnson. “With a tractor, you’d have to tear it down.”

Another benefit of mulch blowing is the time it saves, especially on big jobs. “If you’re using a wheelbarrow and laying down mulch on 100 yards of land, it will take you 100 trips to do it. We can do it in one load,” says Johnson.

The loads are where the blowing process really begins: with the mulch itself. There are several different kinds, including wood, paper, straw and reclaimed cotton. There are also combinations of the different options, some of which include polyacrylamides (PAMs), which hold the pores of the soil open and allow water to get inside.

The most commonly used variety is wood fiber, as it tends to be longlasting, and almost all mulch is environmentally friendly. “Ninetynine percent of mulch is organic,” says Victor Acevedo, blower truck sales manager at Peterson Pacific Industries, Eugene, Oregon.

Once you have the mulch and it’s loaded and ready, “blower trucks lay it down like carpet,” says Acevedo. Laying a blanket of mulch over a surface locks in the moisture and keeps out the environmental hazards. By putting that protective cover of mulch down on top of the soil, mulch blowers enable the soil to retain its moisture by reducing the potential for evaporation. They also help the seed to germinate and reduce weed growth, and provide nutrients in case of soil decay.

Those are the basic uses for, and differences between, hydroseeding machines and mulch blowers. Based on your needs, you can decide if one is right for your business. But, before you purchase one of these pieces of equipment, there are a few considerations to take into account.

Cost vs. benefit

For starters, some of these mulching machines can run $100,000 to $300,000 at base price. In an economy where everyone is trying to cut back, that’s a substantial consideration. It could easily make up for its cost with the money and manpower it saves you day-to-day, but that depends on

your business load.

“With the marketplace the way it is right now, you really need to do a lot of research and make sure you have enough business to offset the cost of these machines,” says Acevedo. “You wouldn’t want to do just one load a day. That would not be cost effective. You want to do three to four loads in a day.”

Hydroseeders, on the other hand, are much less expensive, again depending on the work load and type of work, i.e., hydroplanting versus highway hydroseeding. There is a machine for each and everything in between.

If getting enough business to cover the cost isn’t a major concern, it’s time to move on to the specifics of the machines themselves.

Know the machines

There are questions of capacity and capability, size and maneuverability. Hydroseeding machines, for example, can hold anywhere from a few hundred gallons of liquid to a few thousand gallons, with lots of options in between. The gallon-size of the machines is different based on make and model, and varies by seller. How much do you need your truck to hold?

With mulch blowing equipment, the distance of the blower can mean the difference between being able to complete a job or having to turn it down. Acevedo says Peterson blowers can reach up to 400 or 500 feet away from the truck, which allows the operator to park in a driveway and reach around to the yard. “We put hundreds of feet of hose on the machines to give you as much room as we can. However, you need to go out and measure the jobsites if you’re going to use a blower truck,” he says.

Before you even get to the jobs, government and local regulations can factor in when you get up to larger size vehicles. Clark chose his model because, “They’re just small enough so I don’t have to deal with Commercial Driver’s Licensed (CDL) drivers,” he says.

Larger trucks require CDL drivers to operate them, and the DOTs impose fees and restrictions on the heavier machines. A visit to the DOT’s website will give you a complete list of rules and regulations for the size machine you’re in the market for.

Before you toss your file of research into the recycle bin, know that there are huge benefits awaiting you. If all the pieces come together, you’ll be able to accomplish more with one of these machines than you did without it, and each job will take less time and cost you less than it did before.

Also in Soil Erosion News

In many ways, we are fortunate that, in our chosen profession, we are able to help people when certain disasters occur: the tornadoes in Missouri, Oklahoma, Louisiana and Georgia, the flooding in Louisiana, the snows in the northeastern part of the country, the rain in California, and the snow in Colorado....

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