Drought and recession are changing the way many contractors work.
All across the United States, those who do hydroseeding and hydromulching are finding ways to address such challenges as drought and recession. Now more than ever, using quality hydroseeding materials and equipment is critical to these companies’ success.
Working on the Railroad
Reel Neet in Olive Branch, MS, offers erosion and sediment control services, including hydroseeding, inlet protection, building retaining walls, providing sediment logs and flocculation, and installing silt fence, straw, and matting. The company also does stormwater reporting.
While Reel Neet started out as a division of a lawn service company—work that the company still does—hydroseeding is its strongest market, says Bobby Thomas, Reel Neet’s president. “We’ve landed jobs where we’re doing the erosion control plus the seeding on the job,” he says. The company uses HydroSeeders from Finn Corp. in its hydroseeding work.
Reel Net focuses on commercial work and road and railroad projects. One of those projects is for the railroad company Norfolk Southern. Reel Net is working on a 400-acre area where Norfolk Southern is making a rail spur to unload and load containers on the railroad.
“We helped them clear it and installed all of the silt fence and BMPs before we started moving dirt,” says Thomas. “We’re doing all of the erosion control—installing the silt fence and sediment logs, treating water to clean it up before we discharge it, and then the seeding with Flexterra.”
Flexterra from Profile Products is among the tools that Reel Neet uses in its daily operations. Flexterra Flexible Growth Medium and Flexterra High Performance Flexible Growth Medium are hydraulically applied biodegradable erosion control products containing recycled wood fiber, crimped interlocking manmade fibers for added strength, and naturally derived biopolymers.
“I think it’s more economical to do the Flexterra than matting,” says Thomas. “It’s a lot better system, and I think it does a lot better job than matting does.”
Thomas particularly appreciates using Flexterra during the dry spells. “A lot of the bids call for watering after doing the seeding, but when you use Flexterra, you hold a lot of the moisture in the material,” he says. “We’re spraying it now at the job for Norfolk Southern. We’re having 100-degree days here. We sprayed it on one Friday and came back the next week around Tuesday and there was still some moisture in that material.”
On the Norfolk Southern project, Reel Neet is dealing with 2:1 slopes on the job.
“Those slopes are probably berms 60 to 75 feet tall,” Thomas says. “You can hardly stand up on them—you just slide down on them.”
The job’s first phase, which began January 2011, is expected to be completed in October, when the rail beds and tracks are installed, and totally finished by August 2012.
In conjunction with spraying Flexterra, Reel Neet employees also are using the GreenArmor System from Profile Products, which combines Enkamat turf reinforcement mat manufactured by Colbond Inc. with Flexterra Flexible Growth Medium.
What Thomas chooses to use for erosion control on the job depends on how the land lies and the water flows, but he says that this can change daily when doing dirt work.
“You have to keep vigilant, keep on it, and get recommendations on what you need to do,” he says. “A lot of times you go in on a job and they’ve got it specified a certain way. You can give the engineers recommendations; sometimes they listen to you, and sometimes they don’t.”
Dealing With Drought
Finn equipment is also the choice for Guaranteed Hydromulch in Colleyville, TX, where the company’s new Finn T-330 Titan HydroSeeder is creating greater efficiencies on job sites. The Titan is one of four Finn machines in Guaranteed Hydromulch’s fleet, which also includes a T-330 and two T-120s.
The HydroSeeders feature variable-speed, hydraulically driven, mechanical paddle agitation independent of the engine rpm, a direct pump drive, a centrifugal pump, a hose reel option, and an ergonomic boom.
Tim Neal, vice president for Guaranteed Hydromulch, calls his Finn HydroSeeders “Cadillacs” upon which he depends to do hydroseeding and revegetation work for his commercial clients. He’s been running Finn machines since he started in the industry in the 1980s with another company.
“Its performance in production” is the reason Neal’s company chose Finn equipment, says Neal. “They have fewer breakdowns than any of the other machines I’ve used.”
In a recent job on a landfill with slopes about 400 feet high, “the new Titan has made a huge difference in getting the loads on the ground quickly and the distance that we can spray,” Neal says. “We don’t have to drag a lot of hose on the job to get to areas where before we had to drag hose. The turnaround time and production made a huge difference. Instead of spending three days on a job, we were done in two.”
Not only does that free up time to get to other jobs, but saves labor, Neal says. “It turns into a two-man crew instead of three,” he adds.
The learning curve for HydroSeeders is simple, Neal notes. “We can usually have guys trained in about a week as far as the ones in the field moving the hose. For a good operator, you have a few months on it. There are different scenarios on different job sites,” he says.
Neal says he appreciates that Finn has “always been on the cutting edge of engineering, staying in front of everybody, coming out with the new ideas.
“I’ve never had a problem with any of the Finns ever breaking down,” he adds. “It’s not the cost of the breakdown—it’s losing the production of that machine when it’s down a day or two.”
Making every moment count is especially important in this economy, as well as with the weather challenges, Neal says. With the drought that has hit Texas, several job sites have either put hydroseeding on hold or are not watering what’s been applied.
“That doesn’t make a lot of sense, but some people are getting it seeded so they can get their certificates of occupancy,” he says. “A lot of it is people who aren’t doing anything are waiting until the fall—it looks like we may have a lot of that this year.”
In the meantime, work continues in areas where Neal’s company is able to pull water out of ponds and lakes for temporary irrigation.
And while the previously slow work in the landscaping industry is starting to show a small uptick, Neal’s company began pursuing other areas when it had to shift gears, with pipeline work becoming more common.
Oil Field Work
In south Texas, employees of Schmidt Land Services of Jourdanton quarry road base material, build frac tanks, and do full-service hauling. Much of the company’s work supports the oil industry.
It also does hyydroseeding, which comes into play in dealing with the steep slopes upon which the frac tanks are located. Chad Tovin, who performs field supervision for the company, notes that the many mud pits made for drilling also require backfill.
“There’s a big flat area that’s torn up, and we hydroseed that,” Tovin says. “On the flat ground, you can use whatever kind of seed you want. Most ranches want something good for the cattle, but on the tank dams, we have to use Bermuda because it’s the only thing with a root structure that helps with erosion.”
For its hydroseeding work, Schmidt Land Services uses the AgiGator from Kincaid Equipment Manufacturing. The mulcher-seeder machine comes in sizes including 550, 750, and 900 gallons.
“We use the biggest, baddest boy they make,” Tovin says.
The AgiGator features an industrial-strength epoxy tank lining, a urethane exterior coating, bypass valve for pressure control, simple controls, a steel gear pump, and mechanical agitation for heavy slurry mixing and fast loading of mulch and BFMs. It can be filled from a pond or nurse tank.
|Photo: RBI INC.
Native seed was applied near Utah’s Jordan River.
Standard features for the 750- and 900-gallon machines include a hydrogun and a tower platform that allows spraying close on both sides (this feature is optional on the 550-gallon model).
Tovin says he chose the AgiGator because of its durability. “It’s construction-tough,” he says. “Every day, we’re wearing it out. We spray quite a bit, and that machine doesn’t shut off. It’s double on pumping sides, it’s doubled on horsepower, and the machine itself is pretty well built.”
Tovin says he likes the shooting distance he can get from the AgiGator. Sometimes when doing work for oil field clients, his company is not permitted to clear enough brush to allow workers to drive around a tank.
“The frac tanks can be up to 600 feet long,” Tovin says. “When you can’t drive down the back side of it, you can pull the hose reel out. This machine is capable of spraying 120 feet. It makes it a lot easier to reach out to the areas you need to get to.”
That’s useful as well when covering up drill mud. “It’s real soft,” Tovin points out. “You can’t drive in the middle of it because you’ll bury your equipment. We can get to it from the outside and never have to get in the middle of it.”
Tobin also likes the AgiGator’s diesel motor, which he can run a day and a half on a tank of fuel without shutting it off.
Tovin has two employees who run the AgiGator. The learning curve is relatively easy, he says. “It takes some common sense,” he says. “We’ve done some extensive training, and they’ve got some hours on it now.”
Schmidt Land Services is having Kincaid Equipment build another machine that will incorporate changes the company wants for seed application, including being able to take water from a pond.
“Normally, we’ll fill right out of the frac pond,” Tovin says. “We’re in a remote area, and we have to use a submersible gas-powered trash pump to suck the water into the machine. If the machine is outfitted right, it can suck up its own water, and that’s one less piece of equipment to carry.
“There were a couple of things we added to the machine we already have, and we wanted it to come that way from the factory. One was being able to suck the water. Another was a shade roof for the guys. You stand up there and spray for 10 hours in a day and it will wear you out.”
Schmidt Land Services built a collapsible metal roof that can be raised on the job. “It gives you a spot to get out of the sun,” Tovin notes. The company also added water jug holders to keep employees from having to climb up and down to get a drink.
Like many companies that do hydroseeding, Schmidt Land Services has had to face the challenges of drought.
“You have to have water to make stuff grow,” Tovin points out. “We’ve got a couple of tanks set up in a test spot; we’re running a water truck on one and actually watering it with a truck, which is a fast way of doing it. The problem with that is getting [the seed] to hold on those berms until it takes off, until it roots in. They put off so much water volume, it’s hard.”
In another test spot, the company is using a different fan tip on the hydroseeding machine and hitting the area with plain water. On yet another test site, the company is using a submersible, gas-powered trash pump, tying it into temporary sprinkler systems.
“We’re trying to come up with all of the different variables we can offer, how much they’re going to cost and how we’re going to get the most bang for our buck in the oil fields,” Tovin says.
A lot of clients have slowed down hydroseeding jobs while awaiting rain. “We’re trying to come up with some answers,” says Tovin. “If they’re going to spend the money to put seed down, which a lot of them already have, why not spend a little bit more money to water it and establish the grass so it will hold its own regardless of the drought?”
He adds, “They’re drilling so much down here and they’re doing it so fast that if they just say ‘hey, we’re going to wait until it rains,’ we can never catch our tail. You can’t go back and reseed all of that that fast. Nobody’s going to spend that kind of money to do it. We’re trying to come up with some solutions that will be inexpensive as far as watering.”
Being located on the Gulf Coast, Tobin knows that sooner or later, a hurricane will blow in and knock out the weather pattern.
“We know we’re going to get rain,” he says. “If we can still keep doing our jobs selling hydroseeding, it’s worth it to us to figure out how to water it.”
Another challenge with which Schmidt Land Services is dealing is the type of seed used. “We plant what the oil companies tell us to plant. We do our own recommendations,” Tovin says. “I’ve seen these pipelines come through, and although we haven’t done any pipeline jobs yet, they’re planting these with the wrong mixtures. It would be great if it grew, but it doesn’t grow in south Texas. It‘s stuff that comes from up north and it can‘t take the Texas heat.”
Heat is a challenge not only for the seed, but for the workers as well. Workers have mandatory breaks.
“The grass is one thing; humans can only take so much of it, too,” Tovin says. “If you’re not used to it, it can be pretty bad.”
Native Seed, Less Irrigation
Hydroseeding, in conjunction with several other erosion control methods, is part of the day-to-day work done by RBI Inc. a landscape construction company in Draper, UT. The company does a great deal of reclamation work for highway projects as well as post-construction erosion control, including hydroseeding and installing erosion control blankets.
RBI obtains its seed from Granite Seed Co. in Lehi, UT. “We buy 100% of our seed from them because they’ve got an extremely extensive seed inventory that’s geared for this region, but we also use other suppliers for erosion control products like the blanket and mulch,” says Ken King, vice president of RBI. Most of the company’s hydroseeding projects use native seeds, King says.
The company recently hydroseeded a trail area along the Jordan River in Utah after the general contractor finished grading and establishing switchbacks to handle the elevation change to complete the trail.
“They had done dirt work in disturbed areas, and we came in after the fact and did the hydroseeding of species that were determined to be native to that area,” King says. “On that particular job, there were also some steeper slopes where we added some erosion control blankets, where hydroseeding would not quite provide the same degree of protection that the erosion control blanket provides.”
Drought has not had much of an effect on his company’s hydroseeding operations because of the use of native seed, King says. “It’s not normally irrigated. We actually had a really wet winter and spring, so a lot of projects we did last fall and spring did really well because we had plenty of soil moisture.”
What may be more of a challenge is the economy. “We are basically 100% commercial,” says King. “There is increased competition, because people who used to work in the landscape construction industry on the residential side are being forced into the commercial side and have driven prices down in the past couple of years.”
The low bidding has made it more difficult to sustain his company’s previous work volume, King says. Good business relationships with general contractors working on government jobs such as light rail projects are mitigating that challenge, he adds.
“By having good relationships with general contractors we’ve worked with in the past, we’ve been able to pick up work that we didn’t necessarily have to be the low bidder on,” says King.
Robb McGann, president of Hydroplant Hydroseeding in San Diego, CA, is focusing on business strategies that tap into opportunities for hydroseeding in the wake of the weak homebuilding market.
McGann’s company focuses solely on hydroseeding. “We do all forms of hydromulching, hydroseeding, and bonded fiber matrix. If it’s something hydraulic, we do it,” he says. The company’s clients include large homebuilders in San Diego, such as McMillin Homes; military bases; the San Diego Parks and Recreation Department; and some of the major landscape firms in San Diego County.
The ongoing droughts in California have affected a major portion of Hydroplant Hydroseeding’s business.
“The landscape industry is probably 80 to 85% of our business,” McGann notes. “The drought has really changed the picture of what we hydroseed and how we hydroseed.
“Several years ago, we were buying a lot of grass seed for lawns and so forth, but that has died off to almost nothing,” he adds. “I don’t know if it’s because the recession and the drought, but we do very little turf seed. It’s beginning to come back a little bit, but it has really impacted that part of our business.”
What little work is left for the time being in landscaping is encompassing a trend of yards with less lawn, McGann says.
“We relied a lot on the homebuilding industry, not just for the erosion control aspect of it, but also for the landscape aspect of it,” he says. “What little that’s going on in landscaping is just so narrowed down in scope, it’s going to be challenging.
“What used to be large front yards are now very scaled-down yards with drought-tolerant plant material, gravel, and decorative hardscapes, compared to using a lot of greenery, such as a lawn.”
While opportunities for doing landscaping work have diminished, McGann is noting an uptick of work in erosion control and soil stabilization to help clients meet stormwater regulations.
“All along, the regulations for stormwater have been in place,” he says. “They’ve ramped them up. We used to do that work October through April, but now we’re doing jobs year-round.”
McGann relies on Rantec Corp.’s Super Tack, a guar gum-based tackifier, for the company’s hydroseeding work. He’s been using the product since his company’s involvement in post-fire stabilization after the 2003 Cedar wildfire in California as well as 2007 fires.
While the projects themselves were a challenge in meeting time schedules—getting the water trucks out, traffic control plans in place, workers lined up and mobilized—getting the product delivered on time to work within the tight schedule was not a problem, McGann notes.
It was the positive experience using Super Tack for those jobs that convinced McGann to incorporate it into his company’s operations. In fact, he was able to observe its performance from his own front yard.
“Where I live, the fire came through my area, and we did a lot of work on the major roadways by my house, so I was able to watch the product for two years on the ground,” he says. “It performed really very well for two years and it gave me the confidence that it was something that we could use, have it perform well for our customers, and keep them out of trouble with the stormwater people.”
Despite the economy and the weather conditions, hydroseeding companies have a strong and growing presence in his region, McGann says. “When I started here nearly 30 years ago, there were only five of us doing hydroseeding in this region,” he says. “If you look at companies with 3,000-gallon hydroseeders, there are probably 35 now. The market is saturated.”
Going forward, McGann sees the call to make the most of his operations and instill efficiencies while providing top-line products to his customers.
“When things get going again, it will be different, but I don’t think it will be the same as it was prior to the recession and the drought, because they are both big impacting factors in this region,” he says.
Carol Brzozowski specializes in topics related to stormwater and technology.