A new age of practical aerators

August 29, 2016 -  By
Aerators have evolved from their clunky origins thanks, in part, to hydraulic technology.

Aerators have evolved from their clunky origins thanks, in part, to hydraulic technology.

Aerator technology continues to advance, providing landscape pros more efficient machines.

After decades of being heavy, slow and difficult to maneuver, aerators are finally being made with the landscape contractor in mind.

“This wasn’t the case even 10 years ago when aerators were designed for two primary customers: the dedicated turf care professional and the DIY rental customer,” says Linda Beattie, marketing manager for Classen, an equipment manufacturer based in Southampton, Pa. “With more and more clients requesting aeration services from their landscape contractor, units are being designed to be quicker, more user friendly and easier to transport.”

Aerator technology has improved in the past few years, allowing the machines to cover more ground quickly and efficiently while putting less strain on the operator. Many of these advancements are possible through the use of hydraulic technology in the new reciprocating aerators, which offer in-ground turning capabilities that eliminate the need for operators to disengage the tines from the turf by lifting the machine to prevent turf damage. Improvements are also being made in size and design, as contractors request sleek, compact units that can operate in tight spaces.

“Lawn care operators are looking to reduce fatigue from traditional units, and they obviously want to improve productivity, efficiency and the quality and quantity of the holes for their customers,” says Pierre Pereira, sales director at Billy Goat Industries, a manufacturer of specialty turf products based in Lee’s Summit, Mo. “The move right now is toward reciprocating technology, which allows the operator to do in-ground turning, reducing fatigue caused by lifting traditional drum-style aerators. There have been some attempts at improving aerator technology in the past, but they have been mechanical in nature and now there are more hydraulic designs.”

New technology

Manufacturers are producing aerators with hydraulic, cam-driven, reciprocating technology in place of traditional, mechanical drum aerators. Nathan Brandon, owner of Pure Green in Franklin, Tenn., purchased his first hydraulic aerator about three years ago and says the machine, which does not rely on weight to operate, allows his crews to do high-quality work even in dry conditions. The primarily turf care company serves 90-percent residential, 10-percent commercial clientele.

Brandon currently owns one stand-on hydraulic aerator. He plans to purchase one or two more this fall for his four-man aeration and seeding crew.

“We can do seeding and aeration on non-irrigated properties when it’s dry and still get good results,” he says. “This machine allows us to work faster and do jobs we might not have been able to do before because the soil conditions weren’t right.”

Because dry, compacted soil is tough to penetrate with a drum unit, Pereira agrees that the ability for the newer aerators to work in dry conditions can be a game changer for contractors trying to keep their clients on schedule, even when conditions are not ideal.

“Contractors try to get people to water (before aeration services) but they don’t. So then there are call backs to redo the job because of the quality of the plug in their yard,” he says. “You want a nice 2-inch plug, if possible.”

Newer hydro-drive systems also have improved speed, the ability to aerate hills and, in some cases, the ability to aerate in reverse. In addition, reciprocating aerators are easier to maneuver and use fewer tines to produce more holes per square foot. Some models allow the operator to produce holes of varying density when the machine speeds up or slows down. Another recent development is variable aeration density (VAD) capability. Billy Goat recently introduced this feature into its cam-driven model, allowing the aerator to produce up to 10 times more holes than drum models in a single pass. It also offers the ability to do patch repair and seed bed prep in one pass by slowing down over bare spots. This eliminates double or triple aerating with traditional fixed-pattern aerators.

Size and speed

Brandon says any feature that increases the speed and productivity of his crews is a plus. With his hydraulic aerator, his crews are able to work 50 percent faster than they were able to work with traditional machines.

“The unemployment rate is around 3 percent in Nashville, so finding labor is a challenge for us. Anything I can do to get more productivity out of my guys is huge for me,” Brandon says. “I can now get more work done with two guys than I used to do with three.”

Contractors are also considering the size of the machine when purchasing their aerators, and there is a shift toward the need for compact units that can fit into smaller spaces. Classen recently launched a steerable aerator that measures 27 inches wide, which Beattie says is the smallest machine on the market. The company also offers a walk-behind version with a fold-down handle that lays completely flat over the engine, saving nearly a foot in length and almost two feet in height for transport in a truck or van.

More capabilities equal more parts, and more parts mean more maintenance issues.

More capabilities equal more parts, and more parts mean more maintenance issues.

“While productivity is a broad word, it’s not necessarily about the size of the aerator,” Beattie says. “It’s more about aeration speed and ease of use when it comes to the smaller units.”

Brandon looks for aerators with compact designs because so many of his clients are homeowners with fences and gates on their properties.

“Our Exmark unit can fit through gates, and that’s a big thing for us,” he says. “We can get through spaces that we wouldn’t be able to with traditional units.”

Machine maintenance

One downfall to some of the newer aerators is they have more parts that require more maintenance, Brandon says. His crews have to lubricate the grease points every day or every other day, based on hours of use. Last year, the chain sprocket shifted on one of his aerators, resulting in machine downtime and a costly repair. So Brandon’s crews also check and tighten the drive chains and chain sprockets weekly. Because of this, he recommends contractors follow a regular preventive maintenance schedule and purchase their aerator from a reputable dealer with access to parts.

“The big thing for me is parts availability,” he says. “Having a good dealer on hand locally who has the parts and can get you in and out quickly when you have a problem is important.”

Beattie says manufacturers are responding to the maintenance issues that can put a contractor’s machine out of commission, adding that the most commonly reported issue is chain slippage or chain popping. Classen responded by producing a unit with an automatic chain tensioning system that eliminates the need for manual tensioning. The drive chain is covered to protect it from dirt and debris, but it is still easily accessible for routine lubrication.

“While a drive chain can slip off the sprocket for many reasons, the most common reasons are loose chains and dirt and debris buildup,” Beattie says. “This isn’t just a nuisance issue for the landscaper, it’s a time-consuming repair.”

While there may be more grease points, Pereira notes that many of the reciprocating aerators have fewer tines to service, saving time and money in that category. But whichever type of aerator best meets a contractor’s needs, he suggests visiting a local outdoor power equipment dealer to explore all the traditional and new technology options available.

“There is a lot going on with aeration just in the last few years, similar to what happened with zero-turn mowers in terms of efficiency, productivity, speed and quality,” Pereira says. “The main thing is for contractors to think through the pros and cons of the job they’re doing and get the right machine for them.”

Photos: Pure Green, Billy Goat

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Emily Schappacher

About the Author:

Emily Schappacher is a freelance writer based in Cleveland.

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