24 March 2014
Landscapers and grounds maintenance teams can have it tough at times.
No matter how magnificent the place looks, the team will have to tiptoe around, causing as little disturbance as possible. Quite tricky with strimmers, hedge trimmers and industrial-sized mowers.
At retail and leisure centre Liverpool ONE, the grounds maintenance team has overcome this challenge by deploying landscaping devices powered by solar energy. Mindful of the proximity of 300 residents, the team can now use the new, quieter solar-powered equipment to start their work earlier. (The site is fitted with a small compound with recharging units.)
The positive feedback on the use of such equipment at Liverpool ONE, and the greater demand for service suppliers to become more energy efficient, suggests that the use of solar-powered devices will become increasing prevalent. However, Liverpool ONE"s proximity to residential blocks, coupled with the park's size - small compared with the grounds that many FMs manage - means that reducing noise is a priority. Use of such equipment has not become common practice in the industry.
Here comes the sun
Jonathan Tame, technical officer at the British Association of Landscape Industries, sees a reluctance to switch from petrol-fuelled equipment.
"I believe that solar-powered equipment is not appropriate on a professional level. At the moment it is more prominent in the domestic market."
For such a product to be viable, says Tame, it needs to be able to convert solar power to a battery that can be carried. In his view, "the technology hasn't got that far yet."
Angus Lindsay, group head of assets and fleet at landscape maintenance contractor The Landscape Group, sees encouraging signs for solar-powered equipment, but admits work still needs to be done if operators are to see it as a practical alternative.
"We have been trialling some new electric machines this year. The equipment works well and is more robust than people give it credit for, but it is not suitable for every piece of work we do. For example, with verge work it would be quite arduous. Heavier-duty tools are needed.
"The biggest problem has been the batteries. They just haven't held much charge."
For teams at national parks, getting back to the charging point - even with a quick charge - may not be feasible.
"Manufacturers may need to look at onboard charging units on the back of vehicles, using the vehicle's engine to power them," says Lindsay.
Seasonal hedge trimming happens in early autumn or spring, says Lindsay. In Britain, there is an obstacle. "We are not in the kind of country where you get lots of sun."
And price is also a key factor, at least until the equipment becomes cheaper to manufacture.
"You are looking at double or treble the price, a substantially extra amount to pay," says Tame.
"A common problem heard from contractors is that the manufacturer's claims of battery life do not always stack up. You may need to buy another battery to see you through the day, as the charge time in some cases is up to eight hours. A solar panel could cost up to £1,500, on top of the price you pay for the actual equipment," says Lindsay.
Should the technology reach the required level, FM, grounds maintenance and landscaping teams could all benefit from safer working practices.
Says Lindsay: "You don't have to carry petrol with you, which is always potentially dangerous.
"We have been using them in a park in Stroud, which is a peaceful place. They are good anywhere that is close to the public or near residential areas."
Electric equipment reduces health and safety risks for the operator, explains Tame.
"As well as a reduction in noise levels, this equipment reduces handheld vibration, which could cause damage in the long term. The tools are also lighter."
Lindsay notes that security is another added benefit. "The landscaping industry is subject to a high level of opportunist theft from depots or from the backs of trucks," he says. "With these machines, you can separate the (expensive) power packs from the operating head."
Tame believes that while solar-powered equipment has yet to become viable, use of battery-powered equipment over petrol-based equivalents will lead the way for some time to come.
"Suppliers such as Makita and Pellenc now supply increased power of 36V, which should increase the use of the machine."
Lindsay says that grounds maintenance teams can take heart from developments in other sectors. "Look at the construction industry - joinery, stonemasonry, portable, cordless drills - that technology has come a long way. They have been geared up to industrial specification, which is the norm now. There's no reason why the technology won't move quickly to our industry."
Solar-powered grounds maintenance equipment solves problems of noise and provides considerable energy use reductions. But until battery life is prolonged it is hard to justify the significant capital outlay.