Hydroseeding Professionals: A Growing Niche in Erosion Control

March 1, 2001
When it comes to erosion control, one of the growing niches is hydroseeding, which welcomes even entry-level participants. Smaller projects can be handled by a single worker with a smaller machine, which sells for under $5,000 used to $25,000 new. Then as the company grows, the operator will need to invest $20,000-$150,000 for larger machines, manpower, and administrative support. Actual hydroseeding is mostly seasonal, but equipment repair and maintenance in larger operations can take a chunk out of the off-season, not to mention the catch-up on paperwork and the search, acquisition, and setup for new products for the next year.Since it is a specialized niche, a newcomer can become adequately skilled in a relatively short period of time. The challenge is to maintain field workers who are conscientious. The liability for splatter or overspraying damage, shorting materials, or inadequate adaptation of materials to the onsite conditions can be an unwelcome surprise. Fortunately, having the right machine for the right job helps the seeder succeed.Secondary Income EarnerFor James Allen, owner of Gulfcoast Hydroseeding in Gulfport, MS, hydroseeding is a great way to earn a secondary income. He keeps his actual investment down by owning used machines. “I’m a firefighter, so I’m on call for 24 hours, then free for two days,” Allen explains, adding that he got introduced to the business by another firefighter, Joe Martinelli. “He’s from Massachusetts, and hydroseeding is big up there. He just went back home, so I own the company now, and I hire help according to the project.” In 1999, sales reached $55,000.Allen and his former partner started with a used Bowie 350 at the end of 1996 with the goal of supplying residential lawn needs. “We do what we can to get a stand as quickly as possible. We’ve had people mowing grass within the first month of application.” Germination in this land of heat and humidity takes about a week, with a hazing of green apparent the second week and patches of grass by the third week. But Gulfcoast Hydroseeding soon outgrew the smaller hydroseeding machine. They added a used Finn 90, then sold it last spring, replacing it with a used Finn T-170 that first saw service in Alaska. “The bigger machine is great for bigger jobs. It’s mounted on a tandem Ford 900, and we can spray 18,000 square feet at a time. We know we can do a lot of edges. What takes just three tanks with the big machine takes 14 with the smaller one. Keeping the smaller one makes it possible to get on home lawns and do smaller jobs. Besides, we don’t have to worry about breakdown because we always have a backup unit.”He likes the big machine for roadway work, where they can get by with a shorter hose and keep moving. “We did some ditch work where we were unable to use the big machine. That’s when we mixed loads in the big tank, pulled it back to the work site, and filled the smaller unit’s tank.” The water source was 2 mi. away, so this strategy saved them 20 to 30 minutes per tank on the smaller machine. And that job took 45 smaller tanks.Coastal SuccessJules Schwerin, owner of Jasco & Sons in Mount Pleasant, SC, has been hydroseeding for 25 years. “We had a landscape irrigation company, but I retired from that and started this company. We have four full-timers and do about $500,000 a year.“Our slogan is ‘Here comes the grass.’ We give customers a finished grade and the required seed, then hydromulch over that. We also have a 2,000-gallon water tank we use in the summer to moisten the soil before we shoot, to lower the soil temperatures.” This strategy ensures maximum germination.He then points out that construction regulations in his area on the coast stipulate that any disturbed earth must be hydroseeded. “After the infrastructure is in place, the site must be hydroseeded and be showing green grass for them to get permits to build their development. A $20,000 lawn establishment event can hold up a $20 million project until the site’s showing grass, so we also follow up with waterings. We use an extreme amount of biochemicals and bionutrients to make the grass seed crack open quicker so we can cover the ground more rapidly with grass.”Their equipment lineup includes a retired 6×6 Army truck capable of going into swampy areas or onto wet easements. “That 6×6 carries our 1,100-gallon Bowie seeder, then we have a 500-gallon Bowie for residences, another 1,100-gallon Bowie mounted on a gooseneck trailer, and a 2,500-gallon Bowie seeder for big jobs and roadwork. All of our trucks are crew-cab 4x4s, and they can get us anywhere we want to go.” Schwerin prefers that all four hydroseeding machines be the same brand because of parts interchangeability.“We maintain our equipment well. We repaint the seeders once a year, and each day we hit all the grease points and check the oil before the machines leave the shop. I like the shredder bar in particular. It shreds the mulch and helps with the automatic mixing. We can load the machine and be back on the road in 12 minutes with the 2500 and in eight minutes with the 1100 models. With the big machine we can cover 30,000 square feet per tank and about 7,000 square feet with the 1100, depending on soil conditions, of course.”They’re right on the coast, so sand or rock-hard marl is typical. “The sand sucks up the moisture and lowers our square footage, that’s why we own a water truck to moisten the soil and lower the temperature. We can cover 40,000 square feet per 2,000-gallon load of water,” Schwerin points out.A 35-hp Kubota tractor helps with the roll seeding, and a 40-hp John Deere is used for grading and pulverizing. One day after they’ve roll-seeded, another crew comes in and hydromulches the site. “This is where we mix in more seed, fertilizer, lime, and bionutrients,” Schwerin emphasizes. This extra care helps Jasco & Sons do 80% of the hydroseeding work in the Charleston area.He believes in consulting with his crew and working out the type of mulch, type of tackifier, and so on for the project. “They are the ones out there in the field. When you bring your people into the decision-making process, they are happier workers because they’ve helped make the decisions that concern them.”Schwerin confesses that he also doubles as an undertaker. This prompted a local wit to comment that Schwerin was the only person in the area who could plant the owner as well as the owner’s grass.New England Hydroseeding SpecialistsIn Massachusetts, Brian P. King, owner and founder of North Shore Hydroseeding Inc., reports business includes $350,000 in hydroseeding plus another $150,000 a year for fertilization. His crew of three work within a 30-mi. radius of headquarters. “We have two T-126 Finns, which we got three years ago. Before that we had an Easy Lawn 900-gallon machine. We went to the larger seeder because we do a lot of golf course work and we need something to handle volume yet not be too big to get into areas with our erosion control work.” Easy Lawn now produces larger 1,200- and 1,500-gal.-capacity machines as well.“With hydroseeding,” he continues, “we’ll go 400 pounds of mulch per load, and when erosion control is the concern, we’ll boost that to 500 to 600 pounds per load.” About 25% of his hydroseeding is for erosion control as opposed to establishing fescues for aesthetic reasons. At the same time, care in doing the job right is a key to this company’s success.Regarding equipment that helps speed the work, King stresses, “You have to have an electric hose reel. We’re pulling hose out 200 feet, and by hand it takes 15 minutes, but with an electric hose reel it takes just two minutes. The biggest thing about hydroseeding is turnaround time. You’ve got to be efficient or you’re defeating the purpose of hydroseeding.”
Loading the truck for the day’s workThe larger seeder is good for big jobs and roadworkAnother key is follow-up. About 80% of King’s hydroseeding jobs include a fertilization follow-up, which adds 50% to the annual volume in a land where hydroseeding starts in mid-March and ends in October. “We’ve seeded as late as December 23 on home developments,” he adds. “Rye might pop in the fall and early winter, but blues and fescues take forever to germinate.” He uses the off-season for meeting with regular customers, taking business and sales classes, and reviewing the manuals – all giving King and his associates a lot of confidence going into the hydroseeding season.In Wilmington, MA, Jim Dipietro has been hydroseeding for eight years and, with a crew of two, handles some $500,000 a year in projects. “We get down into Pennsylvania and up to Vermont. We try to specialize in large-acre projects, including landfills, roadsides, and park department work, but we also hydroseed for homeowners and local builders. We have a 3300 Bowie, one tank truck, a support truck, and 200 feet of hose.”He believes in letting the project engineer spell out the specs, but he notes that 1,400 lb./ac. of wood-fiber matting is typical when hydromulching. “We need the mechanical paddles and the volume that the big machine supplies. Our machine can do an acre per load, and with our heavy poly Weber 2-inch hose, we don’t have to worry about hose repair. All three of us will be on the hose together: one spraying, two moving hose.“The biggest thing is that the site needs to be prepared before we hydroseed,” Dipietro emphasizes. “When we encounter surface rock or hard-packed ground, we consult with the customers and let them know what has to be done before we hydroseed.” Customers appreciate the seeding professional’s help in ensuring a successful project.Dipietro also has hydroseeded in the fall and early winter when it’s too late to expect green-up before spring. “We can hydroseed in the fall because the tackifier will keep it all in place for spring green-up. Otherwise, come spring, the contractor would have to rework the ground before we hydroseed. Most off-season seeding is done to complete a project in a timely manner, but we don’t give the same guarantee we do during the growing season because it’s too much of a gamble when spring is six months off.”From Nursery to HighwayAs with other hydroseeding businesses, Lee Nollau’s company started in a related venture, then took on hydroseeding. In his case, Nollau’s father, Walter, started Nollau Nurseries in Smithton, IL, back in 1936, then moved into highway seeding and mulching in 1959. Today that phase of the company accounts for more than $1 million a year, with seven full-time employees and union laborers as needed. “Our first machine was a 1,500-gallon Finn, the second a 2,500-gallon Bowie, a third modified to 3,000 gallons, and the latest – new in 1998 – also a 3,000-gallon Bowie. To do highway work in Illinois, we are required to have as a carrier 1,000 gallons of water per acre. I look for distance of spray and good agitation. The need is to keep the material mix in suspension. We have to stay on the pavement and shoot to the far edge of the right of way. With high fill and deep cuts, you need that extra diesel pump power to get the material to the desired area.”A challenge with hydroseeding machine maintenance is the materials used. “Fertilizer eats the paint off and rusts the metal, so every two to three years we have to sandblast and refinish the inside and outside. We wash them out after every job, and this care helps double the life of the machines,” Nollau explains.Changing Professions in the Pacific NorthwestSkip Schiffman, founder of Brookside Hydroseeding in Bremerton, WA, has been in business a decade. This former electrical wholesaler says when he told his family he was tired of inside sales, his landscaper brother-in-law suggested he consider taking up hydroseeding. “‘What’s hydroseeding?’ I asked, so he told me,” Schiffman recalls. He quickly learned it was a hungry market, with only four firms in the region. Still, he had to control costs when setting up shop, so he started with a Reinco 800-gal. machine. “It was an antique, one that a landscaper wanted to get rid of. It was really primitive, older than I was.” He kept the machine less than a year, replacing it because it kept plugging and breaking.“I was in the middle of a driving range on a golf course, and it just wasn’t cutting it. So I went to town, and the only machine in the area for sale that day was a brand-new Bowie 500.” That was nine years ago. Schiffman beefed it up to handle erosion control projects. “We could put in five bales of mulch, versus three bales in the standard model. I ran it for eight years, kept it immaculate, then sold it for $3,000 more than I paid for it.”A hospital in Alaska had contacted Schiffman, asking him to name his price. They needed a hydroseeding machine immediately but didn’t want a new model. “I named my price, and the person on the other end of the phone told me the cashier’s check was in the mail.” Then the hospital flew him and his son Tyler up there to teach the grounds people how to run it.Now he has a Finn 1,500-gal. model, which he reports takes care of the $150,000 a year in work he and Tyler get. “We do a lot of erosion control work and are experts with blankets. We deal mostly with rocky ground with two-to-one or steeper slopes. We do work that other companies turn down, and we charge a bit more.”He bought the Finn because he wanted a bigger size, yet he wanted a machine with a reputation for low maintenance. “I also like it financially because it doesn’t break down. This machine is all hydraulic, and seldom do parts break.” At the same time, their work in projects calling for Soilguard may necessitate the move to a gear-driven pump to handle the thicker slurry. “The centrifugal pump makes hydroseeding a one-man operation. With a gear-driven machine you have to have two people on every project because you need someone to operate the pump. We’re using this model to keep down the need for employees.”Before he started hydroseeding in 1982, Greg Maurer was a professional forester for 15 years. “Too many timber sales I was administering had contractors unable to find hydroseeding services. The project locations were within mountainous logging areas and were difficult to access and dangerous to navigate. I purchased a used, custom-made, 2,000-gallon hydraulic seeder and mounted it onto a used logging truck.” After an hour of driving lessons in a local logger’s storage yard, Maurer progressed to cautiously learn how to safely and efficiently drive a 5×4 vehicle among construction and logging equipment while hydroseeding steep cuts and fills along marginal logging roads.In 1993, Greg and his son Matthew partnered to develop Precision Hydroseeding Inc. in Aberdeen, WA. The company has progressed to gross nearly $500,000 annually. Matthew has taken on a lead role in the business, and another son, Darren, now works with the company. Two more employees are hired on a project basis.The Maurers have a Finn T-330, their 2,000-gal. custom, and a 200-gal. Baby Bowie. “The Bowie is for small residential jobs that a single person can accomplish. The T-330 is for high production rates or difficult-to-access areas where we extend out our hose lays. The first project utilizing the T-330 was a pipeline easement where we laid out 1,400 feet of hose.”In this case, Matthew was the sprayer, and all went well – until Greg engaged the pump. “The pressure knocked Matt off his feet, and I saw a fountain of spray rising a hundred feet in the air in the distant corridor,” Greg recalls. They quickly learned how powerful this new machine was.For Greg, professional certification provides credibility. In fact, he reports that Precision is the only hydroseeding firm in Washington that has Certified Professional Erosion and Sediment Control specialists doing the work. He is certified through the International Erosion Control Association and the Soil Conservation Service. “Professional certification is particularly useful in dealing with contractual changes when we’re doing jobs for contractors with a project owned by a public agency. The documentation and rationalization necessary to substitute a better product or service becomes a matter of getting the respect of your governing agency. They are more receptive to recommended changes when they’re dealing with a certified professional.”Size Helps With Long Water HaulsWater truck in actionWhen it comes to sizing machines, another consideration is the water source. Justin James of James Ranch Landscaping in Durango, CO, has been hydroseeding for 25 years. For him, the season generally runs from the end of April to the end of November. “About 98% of what we do are government projects, including roadsides and some mine work through the Superfund, where the specs are tightly spelled out, the water source is critical, and it’s usually a long haul to water.”Capacity, speed, and agility in difficult terrain are prime considerations when buying hydroseeding equipment. James has a Finn 1,500-gal. model for hydroseeding and two 3,000-gal. Bowies for hydromulching. “While our HydroSeeder is getting another load, we’ll go ahead and mulch that area we’ve just seeded. One job, for example, called for 4,000 pounds of mulch per acre, and on a good day we were able to get 5 acres seeded and mulched in 10 hours with six people.”Because he works in sites that reach 12,000 ft. above sea level, all motorized vehicles are turbocharged. Severe elevations also mean extra care with the hydroseeding units. There are areas in Colorado where the frost-free season is a scant 14 days in the middle of summer. “When we’re working that high, we drain the pump, clean it out, and put in antifreeze at the end of each working day.”Getting Longer Life From SeedersAs with other successful seeding pros, Sean Gassman, owner of Fairway Greens in Garland, TX, takes care of his Bowie 500 to ensure maximum life. “I had a friend who worked three years previously in the business when we started this company 10 years ago. He bailed out after three months, and I was brand-new.”Undaunted, Gassman took his then-five-year-old machine and sought contracts. Now also president of the Hydro Turf Planters Association (with 50 members after just 18 months in existence), he is pleased with the ruggedness of his machine. “I’ve had it sandblasted and rebuilt twice. Every five to six years I sandblast it, replace the bearings, and repaint it. As the mechanics rebuild, I have them replace anything that needs to be replaced, including bolts, chains, gears, and other parts that are wearing out.”This work is handled by Hydro-Mulcher Repair Service in Crandall, TX. “You can rebuild a machine for a quarter to a third of the cost of a new machine, yet you pretty much have a new machine – except for technology improvements.” Those, he points out, can often be add-ons.He also states that smaller machines need not be limited to any job. “It just takes longer to do some of the jobs because you need more tankloads. That’s when we use another 500-gallon Bowie, and those two work together faster than a single 1,100-gallon model.”But, Gassman emphasizes, machines can be too small for commercial hydroseeding. “Plastic machines just take too long. A jet-agitated model would take several loads to cover the same ground and can easily quadruple application time. With this extra time, labor will kill your profitability.”Hydroseeding pros, regardless of where they operate or the size of their businesses, have learned that having the right machines for their work is critical to long-term success in an industry that presents a lot of challenges.