Jan. 19, 2016 03:41

The Seeds of Innovation

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Hydroseeding can be a very satisfying occupation. After all, you’re sowing the seeds of new life, often in places where none exists. As a hydroseeding contractor, your past experience helps you figure out what to do when new challenges present themselves.

Manufacturers of hydroseeding equipment, in turn, look to you for feedback because they want to build better machines. Once again, you’re sowing seeds; but this time, they’re the seeds of innovation. As a result, there have been some dramatic improvements to hydroseeding products and the machines that distribute them. They’re getting bigger, tougher and more efficient than ever, with uses that extend even beyond the realm of seeding.

We’ve seen the advances made in new types of mulches, the bonded fiber matrices and flexible growth media. Thicker mulches, consisting of 80 to 100 percent wood fibers, were developed that are much better suited to soil erosion work than the thinner slurries. Most hydroseeding contractors who do soil erosion and highway work use the thicker products exclusively.

“Hydroseeding is more of a site-specific approach than it used to be,” said John Imm, director of sales at Siteworx Global, llC, the company that manufactures the Apex brand of hydroseeding equipment. “Contractors have a wide variety of slurries and material ratios they can apply and most often, the thicker the material, the better results they achieve.”

Two trends have powered innovation. The development of thicker, denser, more fibrous slurries demanded heavier-duty pumps to mix and spray them. Both newer companies and the industry’s old hands have recognized the need for bigger and better pumps to handle these more viscous materials.

At the same time, the types of applications hydroseeders can be used for have greatly expanded. This has driven the development of hydraulic power and larger tanks, so that bigger areas can be covered in shorter amounts of time.

Siteworx Global is a new name in the hydroseeding industry, now beginning its fifth year in business. It’s a 50/50 partnership with Fecon, a leading manufacturer of forestry equipment. Both companies are headquartered in Lebanon, Ohio.

Siteworx purchased the Apex brand of hydroseeders and reengineered them based on feedback from contractors. More importantly, the company’s president, Mark Middendorf, and a group of its engineers all came from a leading manufacturer of hydroseeding equipment.

Most hydroseeders use either jet agitation or mechanical agitation, i.e., paddles. Jet agitation works kind of like a Jacuzzi, and is better suited to thinner slurries. Mechanical agitation is usually found on larger machines, as it’s better at breaking up and spraying the thicker, more fibrous slurries.

Most Apex hydroseeders have vortex centrifugal pumps. While suitable for all types of seeds and slurries, this style of pump and system of discharge is particularly well-suited to spraying thicker and higher viscosity materials.

Vortex centrifugal pumps aren’t new; they were invented in the early 1900s. Other manufacturers also make hydroseeders employing vortex pumps, because they can handle slurries with high concentrations of abrasives and long fibrous materials, such as the bonded fiber matrix mulches that are increasingly being used.

What’s so different about these types of pumps? A vortex is a very powerful force. A tornado is a vortex.

“The impeller creates a whirlpool,” said Middendorf. “Imagine if you saw a whirlpool, and you threw a tennis ball into it. It would swirl around and shoot out.”

In a vortex centrifugal pump, the impeller is positioned outside of the primary fluid flow path of the casing. A relatively small portion of the slurry hits the spinning impeller, but it creates a localized vortex in the area of the impeller vanes. This, in turn, creates an even larger vortex in the casing. The position of the impeller makes it easier for the pump to pass larger solids and more fibrous material, with less chance of cavitation or clogging.

Think about that tennis-ball-in-a-whirlpool example. Vortex pumps are gentler on certain kinds of plants, such as Bermuda grasses, that grow from sprigs and stolons. The vast majority of the fluid never comes in contact with the spinning impeller, limiting pump wear and seed or sprig damage.

Equipment using the older-style centrifugal pumps with open-faced vein impellers may clog up, or even damage, some delicate warm-season stolons. “The material hits the impeller, and then is rotated and squeezed between a wear plate and the impeller to discharge and build pressure,” said Middendorf. “The sprigs or stolons are almost squeezed in between those two things.”

The growing need for thicker mulches to withstand wind, rain and steep slopes also challenges older designs of equipment. Having the capability to use engineered hydraulic mulch gives contractors an alternative to seed and straw blankets, but if they’re using traditional pumps, the application may not be as efficient or as easy.

“These types of mulches save a lot of time and money,” said Wally Butman, vice president of sales at Buffalo Grove, Illinois-based profile products, llC. “But because they are thick and highly viscous, they can be very difficult to pump.”

Another advantage of the vortex design is that it dramatically reduces maintenance. “There’s no grease cup for lubricating the seal,” said Jeff Clouser, marketing manager at Greenwood, Delaware-based Epic Manufacturing. “It’s water-lubricated. So whenever there’s water in the tank and you’re running that pump, water is providing lubrication to the seal.”

“Most pumps, as they wear, must be adjusted to keep them performing properly,” said Clouser. “With these, there are no adjustments necessary for the life of the unit.”

Not just a hydroseeder anymore

Hydroseeding contractors—and the industry as a whole—felt the impact of the recession that just passed. During that time, many contractors looked for other applications to keep their expensive equipment from sitting idle. Fortunately, there were, and are, lots of these other applications.

Middendorf cites these expanding applications as a major driver behind his company’s innovations. “Spraying hydromulch is a low-margin, low-cost, highly competitive world. If a contractor can widen the scope of what he can do outside of seeding, then he can get more jobs at higher margins.”

“There are so many uses for these machines, you can’t even really call them hydroseeders anymore,” Middendorf added. “They are really applicators at heart.”

The U.S. Environmental protection Agency (EpA) and its growing list of environmental regulations may be a hydroseeding contractors’ best friend. Mining operations and industrial sites are required to control dust, debris and runoff; they need someone to spray water or tackifiers to do so.

There’s good money to be made applying spray-on erosion control blankets over mine tailings, industrial stockpiles and fly ash mounds. Landfills need alternative daily covers, and ponds need bentonite sprayed over their sides and bottoms before filling. There’s even fire-suppression work.

If you’re a hydroseeding contractor who applies relatively thin slurries on small- to mid-size residential and commercial properties, you know that demand for your work dips sharply during the middle of summer when it’s too hot and dry to spread seed. Providing services in other markets can help you stay profitable during those slow periods.

Materials selection software is available that can help you figure out just what you need and in what quantities for any type of project. You simply enter the job’s parameters and the program will provide material suggestions, ratios and risk analysis.

Hydraulic power

Another advance in hydroseeding technology is the advent of hydraulic power. “About three years ago, we started building machines with hydraulic power,” said James Lincoln, president of TurfMaker Corporation, Rowlett, Texas. “Running the agitator with a hydraulic system gives you the ability to reverse the agitator if you need to, in order to clear a clog.”

Hydraulics also allows you to vary the speed of the agitator. It’s kind of like mixing a bowl of cake batter. It takes more power for your initial mixing, but once it’s mixed, then it takes a lot less power with a hydraulic system. When you slow it down substantially, you reduce the amount of horsepower required from the engine to do that stirring.

“You can’t do it if you don’t have a hydraulic system,” says Lincoln. “If you slow down the mixing auger, and reduce the amount of horsepower being taken from the engine, that extra horsepower is available to be delivered to the pump. This gives you more pumping power for hose or gun applications.”

“An all-hydraulic design reduces maintenance because it eliminates clutches, belts, pulleys, sprockets and other drive-type gears, and all the maintenance associated with them,” added Clouser. “All you have to do is check the levels of the hydraulic fluid.”

Ease of use is another factor. “It eliminates the variable throttle, and uses a hydraulic valve to control paddle speed,” said Clouser.

“Another hydraulic valve controls the spray pump, so you don’t have to throttle the engine up and down to control the pump’s output; you simply adjust that valve. You don’t have to engage any clutches to spray. When you move the valve, it automatically starts spraying, just like a joystick.”

“It provides for optimal machine design flexibility,” said Clouser. “On a machine that’s direct-drive for the spray pump, you have to have the engine right by that spray pump. With a hydraulic machine, we have the ability to locate the components where they make sense, rather than where we’re forced to.”

Stainless steel vs. carbon steel

Bryan Guthals, co-owner of Guthals Nursery and landscape in Clovis, New Mexico, has been hydroseeding for more than 20 years.

He’s seen how hydroseeding equipment has improved drastically since he started.

“Tanks and equipment overall are so much further advanced than the first machine I purchased back in 1992. The tank on that machine was some kind of high-grade metal, and it leaked. One of the units I have now is a decade old, with an epoxy-coated carbon-steel tank, and it’s never leaked once.”

Most hydroseeder tanks are made of carbon steel. We all know what happens when water is allowed prolonged contact with iron or steel; it’s called oxidization, better known as rust. left unchecked, rust will eventually reduce the strongest steel humans can currently produce to a pile of red dust.

Hydroseeding slurries contain water. To that, we add a caustic substance, full of ammonia and salts, called fertilizer. To protect the tanks’ interiors from this double-barreled assault, they’re coated with coal-tar-derived epoxy paint, the same stuff that’s used to protect oil-drilling rigs out in the ocean.

Subjected to a daily pounding by slurry, this coating eventually strips off. So, at least once a year, someone has to climb into the tank to grind off rust spots and touch up the coating, a process that costs about $500 to $700 per year. That’s in addition to the daily cleanouts that are supposed to take place. Cleaning a tank out at the end of each workday adds years to its life.

There is a way around this, and that’s to use stainless steel tanks. These are much more resistant to corrosion, and have no coatings, because they aren’t needed.

“We have to sandblast and paint the carbon-steel tanks on some of our hydroseeders every eight to ten years,” said Bob Arello, owner of Hydrograss Technologies, a hydroseeding company in North Oxford, Massachusetts, and Sarasota, Florida.

“On the other hand, we haven’t had to touch our stainless-steel tank models, and we’ve had them for more than nine years. That sure has increased our return on investment (rOI).”

But here’s the catch: stainless-steel tanks are much more expensive, adding thousands of dollars to the cost of a new unit. Some contractors think the extra cost is worth it; others don’t.

“If you have a stainless-steel tank, you can be very lazy and non-diligent about cleaning it, and it won’t be the end of the world,” said Lincoln. “But a lot of people have a misconception. They think that stainless-steel tanks won’t rust. They’ll rust, but they’re just not nearly as prone to it.”

Some smaller hydroseeding units have polyethylene tanks. But for larger machines, poly’s just not practical. They won’t support the weight of people climbing on top to load mulch and fertilizer.

Larger tanks

Until about a decade ago, tank size limited efficiency for large-scale jobs, such as mine and fire reclamation projects. The largest tank available was 3,000 gallons. The industry has responded, making 4,000- and even 5,000-gallon tanks available, making it more cost-effective to be able to tackle such projects. Siteworx’s Apex machine was introduced into the market with a 5,000- gallon tank. “As we expand our product line, we will introduce smaller versions of our unit,” said Middendorf. “We have a number of new innovations on the drawing boards.”

“One of the most recent jobs we’ve performed was restoring approximately 600 acres of vegetation after fires ravaged the hills of Pocatello, Idaho, in 2012,” said John Larson, the owner of Apex Curb and Turf, Clarkston, Washington, and the designer of the original unit.

With winter looming, the crews had to get the job done in as few as nine days. “We had our 4,000-gallon and 5,000-gallon machines on the job,” Larson said. “These tanks allowed us to cover a wide area of land with minimal stops to reload.”

Larson also said they applied mulch consistently over distances as far as 450 feet into the canyons, which was critical on a job with such challenging terrain on a tight deadline. The project was wrapped just one day before snow fell.

What’s new?

Hydroseeding manufacturers continue to respond to the changing needs of their customers, and of the marketplace. “We’ve upgraded our 1,500-gallon machine to a bigger engine and a bigger pump, for more distance and to handle even heavier slurries,” said Dean Myers, president of Bowie Industries, Inc. in Bowie, Texas. “We’re also introducing a 450-gallon machine, for small-area touchups.”

Denser mulches have tightly packed bales that can be hard on drive systems. In response to this, last fall, Bowie started incorporating extra-heavy-duty bearings and heavier drive trains across all models, no matter what size.

Epic has a brand-new high-output unit, a 3,300-gallon machine designed for mounting on a large truck. “Our C330 has been redesigned with the engine mounted between the cab of the truck and the front of the slurry tank,” said Clouser. “Moving the engine to the front removes it from the wet end of the machine. It keeps corrosives from getting all over the engine and the electronics.”

The newest model from Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania-based Turbo Technologies, Inc., the HM-400- TE, coming in March, was designed specifically with the landscape contractor in mind. “It’ll be our first 400-gallon machine,” says president ray Badger.

It’s a belt-driven, mechanical agitation machine with a Bowie gear pump and a Honda 13-horsepower engine. The most notable feature is the one-and-a-quarter-inch inner-diameter hose. “The smaller hose is easier for one person to handle,” said Badger. There’s also a staging platform, “a place to set materials so they’re right there when you load; you won’t have to keep going up and down to get more.”

“We’re seeing a trend toward more customization of our larger tank models, such as our 4,000-gallon (3,975-gallon working capacity) T400, specific to the customer’s work environment,” said James Loneman, midwest regional sales manager for Finn Corporation in Fairfield, Ohio.

“We’re getting a lot of requests for mounting on tracked haulers for going off-road, particularly by the pipeline industry. The energy sector also wants more water-truck features for dust control purposes. We can add a lot of our standard options, such as flusher spray bars.”

He’s seeing more demand for larger tanks. “We’re seeing more customers getting out of mid-sized machines and going to 3,300-gallon units.”

TurfMaker Corporation will be introducing a new 2,200-gallon machine. It should hit the market by spring. Currently, their largest model is a 1,200-gallon unit, but Lincoln says a 4,000-gallon tank is on the radar.

Just as an investor diversifies his stock portfolio to minimize losses in any one sector, you, too, can diversify the type of work you do. And you can count on the manufacturers of hydroseeding equipment to keep diversifying as well, improving their machines to keep up with your ever-changing needs and types of projects. Keep sowing those seeds!

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