Westar Energy, like many other electric utilities, is always looking for ways to get through more miles at a lower cost when it comes to vegetation management. This was especially important on a recent project in which the utility had to trim 1,900 miles of distribution right-of-way.

Much of the contract included areas that were unreachable with large mechanical trimmers, which were commonly used by Westar’s contractor, Wright Tree Service. The contractor’s central division often relied on two large-scale mechanical trimmers with saw blades mounted on long booms to trim branches near utility lines. Although these machines have helped increase efficiency, the sheer size of the units has limited their use. Because they are so big, they can only be used on rights-of-way in rural areas.

Wright Tree Service

Because of these limitations, the contractor was forced to use slower methods to manually trim many of the trees along the distribution lines on other projects. For most of the trees, they couldn’t use bucket trucks, and instead, they were hand-climbing a lot of the areas that they service in Kansas.

Trimming Trees

When it came to the Westar project, however, Wright Tree Service didn’t want to depend on climbing trees and using bucket trucks, which can be time-consuming and, in some cases, somewhat dangerous. Instead, the central division explored another alternative. One of the company’s Minnesota-based groups was testing a new type of compact tree trimmer to access areas where larger mechanical trimmers were too big to be used.

The VMLogix Kwik-Trim from Loftness Specialized Equipment uses a compact excavator chassis, but instead of having a hydraulic arm and bucket, it’s equipped with a saw blade on a nonconductive hydraulically telescoping boom, similar to the larger equipment on the market. With its small footprint, zero-turn radius and 360-degree boom swing, the machine is designed to maneuver much easier than other trimming equipment.

Wright Tree Service heard about the machine through a fleet manager, who had been discussing it with a sales representative. Because the company also uses mulching heads from Loftness, it was already familiar with the company’s equipment.

In January 2013, the division requested a demo unit, and after 15 days of testing the new machine, the company decided to purchase two units. The benefit of the machine is the compact size as well as the fact that they could buy two compact trimmers for the price of one large one.

After purchasing the two compact trimmers, the company immediately assigned them to the group whose territory included the Westar rights-of-way. Although the compact trimmers’ 53-ft boom extension is shorter than what larger mechanical trimmers offer, they have been able to reach the vast majority of branches that must be trimmed.

In fact, the only circumstance in which Wright hasn’t been able to use a Kwik-Trim along the distribution lines is when a branch overhangs the primary wires. If the branch were to be cut by a mechanical trimmer in this case, it would fall onto the line and cause an outage. When they run into that situation, there isn’t any other way around it other than sending up a worker to climb the tree, says Travis Platt, project manager for the central division.

Reaping Benefits

Since purchasing the two compact trimmers, Wright Tree Service has experienced tremendous time savings. If the conditions are right, then the Kwik-Trim can do as much work in half a day as two workers up in a tree can do in a week, Platt says.

By using compact trimmers instead of doing the traditional routine clearing, Greg Williams, central division manager, estimates that the company achieves about 30% to 35% time savings. On the Westar project, it has worked out well because about 80% of the work done with the Kwik-Trims is not accessible by the larger mechanical trimmers.

Another benefit of the machine is that on the Westar project, it has sped up some of the production on the easements and clearing of their lines. Another contractor is also using the machine on a different contract, and while it has its limitations, it has a place in Westar’s vegetation management program.

In addition to time savings, Wright has experienced other benefits from the compact trimmers including increased safety. Now that crew members are using equipment to trim branches from the ground, they spend less time exposed to potential danger working in the trees. The less time they spend climbing trees, the less chance they have of getting hurt, Platt says.

Furthermore, the compact trimmers have proven to be easy to transport. Thanks to the compact size and light weight of the machines, Platt’s group has been hauling the Kwik-Trims on a trailer behind a Ford F-450. He says it takes less than half the time to load and unload them compared to larger mechanical trimmers. They also can maneuver the smaller trailer a lot better.

When using the compact trimmers in residential areas, Platt has also experienced better reception from homeowners. Because the machines are on tracks, they have a light footprint and, therefore, are gentle on grass. In fact, he says they can be used in people’s backyards without gouging the turf.

Although Wright’s central division has only used the compact trimmers on the Westar rights-of-way so far, the company sees much more potential for the new equipment. The contractor has only had the machines for a few months, and right now, it’s focusing on using them solely on the Westar project until the work is done.

The company looks forward to gaining more experience with the compact trimmers and using them to complement the larger mechanical trimmers in its fleet. By using the compact trimmers rather than relying on climbing trees, the contractor can get more work done in less time on the Westar project and increase productivity on future jobs. 

Doug Lehmann (douglas.lehmann@westarenergy.com) is a vegetation management supervisor for Westar Energy.

Companies mentioned:

Loftness Specialized Equipment | www.loftness.com

Westar Energy | www.westarenergy.com

Wright Tree Service | www.wrighttree.com