Choosing Sweeping Equipment
Care & Feeding of Your Back Pack Blower
Power blowers are a standard piece of equipment for those in the sweeping business. In fact, most contractors would say they're downright indispensable. A number of makes, models and types of blowers are available, each more or less suited for different situations and uses. Today, in response to increasing legislation and pressures of population density, there are even some noise-dampened models. Here's some general information designed to help you sift through what's out there and how to pick the best one for your application, as well as some tips on using and caring for it after you buy.
The best way to pick the correct blower is to consider your usage and do some upfront investigation. Think about how much power and performance you really require, the service life you're willing to settle for (higher cost often equals more value), how quiet you'll need the machine to be, and how much room you have available for transporting and storing it. Also, keep in mind you probably won't be using your blower on a dedicated, continuous basis, but rather using it as part of a sweeper route where you're putting it down to perform other tasks.
The range of blower products on the market is diverse. Size, quality, performance and price are all variable. For our purposes, though, most blowers can be categorized into four groups:
Compact handhelds. These are smaller, single-piece blowers with handles rather than a harness. Depending on what you pay, power can range from a wheezy puff, all the way up to 307 cubic feet per minute (cfm) of volume at 166-mph. Some models are also built to be very quiet. The thing about handheld blowers is that they're fast, flexible and easy to use. Often, they're quicker from truck to task than a backpack, which can be a factor with some types of sweeping accounts. They're also a great choice when the operator is responsible for a number of tasks rather than just running the blower. Many handheld units are fine for blowing around cars in parking lots and other lighter duty work. They also make excellent backup machines so you don't have your sweeper sitting, or have to skip some of your route, just because your backpack blower won't start.
Quiet backpacks. Backpack blowers are more powerful, free the operator's arms, and have larger fuel tanks and air filters for longer duty cycles. Engines come in a range of sizes, but the best are over 40cc. Blowing power is usually on the upside of 400 cfm of volume at 190-mph. Harness quality and comfort varies, so be sure to take time to try it on before you buy. These types of backpack models are built especially to control noise. If you have noise restrictions to worry about, or are working in areas that are sensitive to neighborhood complaints, a noise-damped unit is probably the best choice.
Performance backpacks. About what you'd figure backpack blowers that work harder and don't worry so much about noise. Performance goes up the best offer over 450 cfm of volume at 195 m.p.h. and throttle response is quicker. Most sweeping contractors like these more powerful blowers because they're strong and can finish the job faster. Better units have breathable nylon backpads that stay cool, and harnesses that are padded and adjustable. On the other hand, this class of machines makes more noise than most quieted models. However, some contractors prefer larger blowers because, with their extra power, they can be operated much of the time at a lower, quieter, more fuel- efficient throttle setting, yet still have added power when it's needed.
Big-bore backpacks. These are the large-displacement, heavyweight blowers; the biggest backpacks made. Engine sizes start at 50cc and go up. Big-bores are for big, tough blowing jobs - huge areas, wet matted leaves, etc. Some models may reduce cleanup time by as much as 50%. One thing for sure: they blow a ton of air, hard. Big-bores can move bricks across asphalt, no problem. However, for most normal sweeping contractor situations they're more than you need.
Some operational tips
Make common sense your companion on the job. Using a blower is pretty much just like operating any other two-cycle tool. Fuel it, prime it, fire it up and go. There's nothing especially tricky; you just have to use clean, correctly-mixed fuel and keep the air filters clean.
Most operating do's and don'ts for blowers involve courtesy and good sense. Things like paying attention to noise. If you can, avoid or minimize use near residences when people are sleeping. When you have to do so, keep the blower at the lowest rpm possible to do the job. Refrain from blowing debris up against houses and other residential property, or dust and other debris onto parked cars and pedestrians. Operate the machine so you don't litter the next parking lot or adjacent building areas. A handy reference: Put yourself in the position of the bystanders, 'blowee' or tenant next door and consider how you'd react to what you see or hear.
Another concern is how you transport the blower from job to job. According to blower industry reports, as much damage is done to blowers while they're being transported as by actual use. To avoid any unnecessary damage, mount your blower on your truck by its pack frame or suspend it from its holder. Then, tie it down with webbing and Velcro®. If you're in a dusty area, tie a nylon bag over the motor once it cools. Don't just heave it into your sweeper, or lay it in a truckbed on top of grass clippings and shrub trimmings. The benefits: Your gear won't break. It'll run better and more safely. It'll look cleaner and more professional to your customers. And, since it'll look newer and stay in better shape longer, the operator will treat it better (it's simply human nature).
When not in use, the best way to store blowers is much like the truck mount. Hang the unit up away from traffic by its pack frame or handle. Make sure the air tube is secured and protected. Cover the engine with a clean bag. If you'll be storing it for awhile, or for blowers you keep around as backup units, remember to add stabilizer to the gas.
Make maintenance an everyday exercise
A key thing about maintaining a blower is to make sure you're operating it within the specifications provided by the manufacturer (they're in your owner's manual). There are sound engineering reasons for these specs, especially now in the age of low-emission engines, and if you change the exhaust, throttle configuration, fuel or whatever, you defeat them. Performance will drop, and the warranty will often become voided.
For your fuel mix, use high-octane gas and the best quality 50:1 oil. Consider using low-smoke or smokeless oil. Keep tune-ups current and be sure you're using the correct spark plug. Blowers run under load all the time and are air-cooled, which create higher engine temperatures. Plus, new low-E engines are less tolerant of the 'almosts' that used to be easier to get away with. Put too hot a plug in and you'll get preignition big time. Your owners' manuals will list the correct plugs for the machines. Always follow the recommendations.
In addition, there are several smaller things to watch:
Fuel filters. With backpack blowers, fuel tanks are on the bottom of the unit, so they feed fuel up to the motor. As a result, a clean fuel filter is essential to performance. Check and clean and/or replace the filter on a regular basis.
Air filters. Sweeping contractors are especially hard on blowers because their primary job is to clean up parking lots, which are dusty. In the sweeping industry, the air filter and clean air intake need special and continuing attention. Otherwise your blower will ingest dust, which is very wearing to the piston and cylinder, and will rapidly cause smoke and loss of power. Eventually you'll get rattling at idle and even piston failure.
Busted parts. Because in most sweeping applications the blowers are continually being transported, inspect them often for broken or loosened parts.
Air tube. If the air tube is scraped along the ground, it will become worn at a slant. If that happens, the blow pattern is affected, resulting in a loss of efficiency and corresponding productivity. Take care to educate your operators to keep that type of wear from occurring. If it does, recut the tube to 90 degrees.
Cylinder fins. Make sure they stay clean so they can cool properly.
Air intake. Clean it regularly. You may have wondered: Since the intake is up on the back of the machine, operators can't see when something is sucked against it, restricting flow. When this happens, most operators cut the power to try to see what's happened. When you do that, the airflow is reduced and the obstruction drops off, leaving the user wondering why performance went down in the first place. Now you know.
Some maintenance jobs should be handled in the field. These include air and fuel filter checks, and cleaning of the cylinder fins. However, other maintenance should be left for the servicing dealer or your qualified mechanic. These typically include checking of the spark arrestor, fuel line and pickup tube, carburetor insulator block, and anti-vibration system. Most strap and harness repair can't be done in the field, either.
Correct maintenance and following common sense care techniques can significantly increase the expected useful lifetime of your blowers, just like it will that of your sweeper fleet. If you have questions, call your blower manufacturer for advice and answers. Many also offer tips and techniques for dealing with community concerns.
Our thanks to Shindaiwa public affairs for providing us with much of the information used in this article. Shindaiwa, Inc., located in Tualatin, Oregon, is a division of SDK of Chiyoda, Japan. The company manufactures and markets higher-end chain saws, grass trimmers and edgers, brushcutters, hedge trimmers, blowers, sprayers and sweepers for landscaping, tree care and construction markets. You can reach them at 503-692-3070, and can view their products online at www.shindaiwa.com.
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by Mason E.J. Sage
Let's say you just got a big cleanup job, I mean a really big job, like sweeping the sand off the Sahara, for instance. And, you find you can only take one backpack blower with you to get all the sand and cigarette butts out of the corners. The questions are, what model of blower would you choose, and how would you take care of it to make sure it stayed in good shape?
We all know that sweeping contractors always have at least one backpack with them when they go to work. Some claim to even sleep with theirs, but I always knew that just meant they were nodding off on the job. One thing is for certain: Sweeper operators depend on their backpack blowers almost as much as they do on their sweepers. Choosing the right blower is an important decision.
Here's what some seasoned sweeping contractors in different parts of the country are using for blowers, and some of the tricks they've learned that maximize the useful lifetime of their machines.
Our first three interviewees, including Larry Morton, owner of Supervac of Pensacola, swear by their Echo-brand blowers. Morton says he's used Echo backpacks in his business since 1978, and currently uses the low noise PB46LN. "Echo's the only make we use," he says, "though I've looked at some others."
According to Morton, an Echo blower is like a Timex, it just keeps on tickingor, in this case, blowing. "We run them until they wear out, which is usually three or four years of seven-day-a-week use, and they are relatively inexpensive," he explains. Of course, Larry takes care of them, too. "We've had problems with our blowers in the past," said Morton, "and it turned out to be because our drivers were mixing their own fuel.
"These days, my mechanic mixes the fuel five gallons at a time. Now that we have one person doing the fuel mix, we've probably cut our blower problems in half. Before, all our drivers had 2-gallon cans they carried around in the truck with them. When the can would get close to empty, they'd eyeball how much was left and then pour in more oil and fuel. It would never be measured exactly. Before you know it, they had a tank full of oil and the blower wouldn't run right. The tendency was always to run them too rich, using too much oil. Now that we mix it in five-gallon containers, and start mixing with an empty can, it has eliminated probably 50% of our problems. The only other problems we ever have are with spark plugs and fuel filters. Keep those changed, and the machines will run a long time."
Ray Keane, of Illinois-based Riteway Sweeping, also goes with Echo. "Yeah," he says, "I've tried all kindsI'm convinced that Echo is the best out there. They are a good blower." He said that in the 23 years he's been in the sweeping business, he, too, has learned the value of using fresh fuel, a quality oil and then mixing them right. Equally important, he says, is keeping the air filter cleaned once a week. In his climate, he finds he's getting about two years worth of work out of one of the Echo PB400s.
Tim Hofman, operations manager of California-based Day and Night Power Sweeping, 'echoes' the above choices. He said the system they have developed of choosing the type of blower to use may make a difference in how long the machines last. "Our operators make recommendations to our head mechanic as to what type of backpack they want to use. Then that's what we buy. It might be that the employees take better care of the blowers because you're giving them the brand of equipment they want to use."
Bill Whittington, of B & W Maintenance, also based in Illinois, has been in sweeping for 8 years. He's had very few problems with his backpack blowers and, according to him, that's because he pays a little more in the beginning to get a better machine. "We prefer to use blowers made by Stihl," he explains. "They are a little more expensive than the rest of them, but I've tried other brands and they just didn't seem to give us as much wear-time as the Stihl blowers. We use the BR-420 and BR-320 models."
The availability of good local service is another reason Bill goes with Stihl. "We run our blowers seven nights a week, and when they do go down it's important to use a brand where you know you can get good dealer service locally. That's a factor for us, since it's very easy to get service from our local Stihl dealer."
Bill also had another good piece of advice: "On all our sweepers, we carry a backpack blower and, for backup, a handheld blower. I don't want to get into a situation where we have a $60,000 sweeper missing some accounts just because a rope broke on a backpack blower. If a blower chooses not to run, they have a spare on the truck with them. Having both along is cheap enough insurance. Also, some guys prefer the handheld over the backpack, at least in some situations. If they are doing a small shopping center with just blower trash, the handheld unit is much quicker, easier and lighter. If they are on a bigger job that requires a little more blowing action, they can strap the backpack machine on. Stihl makes both models and they complement each other very well.
"In terms of operational procedures, we make sure the operators check the can every time before they fill, and at the end of the night we dump the dregs into our sump. I want fresh fuel every day. I also require our drivers to start both of the blowers every night before they go out."
Karl Stauty, of Virginia-based Commercial Power Sweeping, runs 14 sweepers and has a different preference. He was on the lookout for a bigger, higher horsepower blower, and noise can be a problem in their area. So, he says, he tried Echo, Stihl and Solo. Now he prefers the latter, hands down. "Today, we use Solo exclusively," said Stauty. "The Solo model 470 machines are light, operate about 3 hours on a gallon and a half of gas, and are exceptionally quiet. They are also very user-friendly as far as controls, and have nicely padded back straps. I feel that the better quality blower we use, the better job our drivers are going to do at the customers' sites. Through the years, I've purchased quite a few different brands, and gotten feedback from my operators on each. My operators are very happy with the new 470. They really like the low level of vibration, quiet operation and how easy they are to use. Plus, they come with a one-year commercial warranty, which is unheard of."
Stauty also believes that proper maintenance is the key to the exceptional durability in his Solo blowers, or in any brand. And, he emphasized "proper." For example, in fuel mixing, he says, "Everyone always seems to think a little extra oil is good for the unit, when it's just the opposite if anything. Too much oil in the mix can build up carbon deposits behind the rings, and has a tendency to foul plugs. You can't run them with too little oil, either; with today's blower technologyproper fuel mixture is a key." Karl also emphasizes paying close attention to the air filter. "We service the air filters once a week, no ifs, ands or buts" he exclaims.
Stauty said he's so sold on the Solo brand of blower that he's become a distributor for them, as a way of getting a better deal for himself and others in the sweeping industry. If you want to contact him on the topic, you can reach him at 757-238-2575, or via email sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.
There you have it, five opinions from five top-flight contractors from across the United States. Does your experience agree with theirs? In our next issue, we plan to compare specifications for some of the leading blower makes and models. If you'd like the model you use to be considered for the mix, please let us know. Write to the address shown on page two of this magazine or email editor@ ameriproof.com. After all, if you get the job sweeping up the Sahara, we want you to know which backpack blower to throw, er, place gently, into your sweeper's storage box!
Mason E.J. Sage has written humor and technical articles for a variety of venues. Sometimes, as in this article, he writes both at the same time. You may reach him via email sent to email@example.com.
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This article is reprinted from American Sweeper magazine, Volume 8 Number 1, 2000.
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