Utilities and municipalities are the biggest, but not the only customers of vegetation management contractors. We asked Geoff Kempter of Asplundh Tree Expert LLC for tips for all types of customers in finding the right contractor. Kempter is the Technical Services Manager at Asplundh, and President of the Utility Arborist Association. “This is not a commodity business,” says Kempter. “There’s a handful of national contractors and several large regional ones. It’s hard for newcomers to enter the business because of the costs of training and equipment, as well as the difficulty start-ups face in demonstrating their capabilities and securing work.” Fewer options should simplify the selection process, right? Kempter says that despite the thin market, customers should carefully vet contractors. Here are the three key considerations Kempter offers.
1. Appreciate the complexity of vegetation management
“Vegetation management of huge plants such as trees is a sophisticated process” says Kempter, “a point often lost on customers”. Tools include everything from handheld loppers and saws, to saws suspended from helicopters. “Vegetation management requires specific equipment, expertise, and knowledge.”
In a perfect world, vegetation management would involve defining a corridor and then cutting down every tree within that corridor, but this is not realistic. Clearance is easy to spec’ and easy to achieve, but dead, dying, or defective trees and branches outside the clearance zone can pose serious risks. “We’re in the prevention business; what we prevent is disruption. Whether the disrupted traffic is utility service or vehicles, a basic clearance-distance approach is oversimplified and only partially effective. You need trained arborists and a comprehensive plan to identify high-risk situations both on and off the right-of-way.”
The Tree Care Industry Association (TCIA) has accreditation programs for utility contractors. You can locate accredited companies in your area using their search tool. The database is currently comprised on smaller, regional companies.
The International Society of Arboriculture (ISA) oversees the ISA Certified Arborist Credential. With over 30,000 certified individuals, it is by far the largest certification program in the industry. Several thousand credential holders have also obtained a “Utility Specialist” certification through ISA; however, these are individual certifications, not company certifications. A Utility Specialist certification covers topics such as electric utility pruning, integrated vegetation management, and customer relations.
2. Assess the costs of vegetation management
NASA cites “Neglected ‘vegetation management’” as one of four causes of the Northeast Blackout of 2003, which affected 50 million customers in the U.S. and Canada, created up to $10 billion in damages, and caused nearly 100 deaths. Message: the true cost of vegetation management is not what you pay the contractor, but the costs incurred when the vegetation management strategy fails.
Kempter says safety should be the first consideration in evaluating contractors, safety for the contractor and staff, and safety for the public. Check that the contractor has safety procedures in place. “But safety has associated costs for training and equipment. The value of a safe operation must be included in the bid evaluation process. It is important to choose a contractor that is capable of creating a culture of safety while also achieving productivity targets.”
“Customers can be sensitive to costs to the detriment of the outcome,” says Kempter. Worse, they tend to see cost only in terms of dollars paid to the contractor. As noted, outcomes have costs, too. The contractor will bear liability for failure, but the customer is not immune from consequences. Utility customers whose power has been disrupted will be angry at the provider, not the vegetation management contractor the provider hired to prevent such outages. The same is true for those using roadways in the face of delays or detours.
Kempter says contracts should be designed to encourage the desired performance that includes dollar costs and such metrics as effectiveness, production (mileage), safety, or community relations. Contracts should also spell out ongoing service, as in rendering assistance following a wind, ice, or other storm events. “The contractor should be dedicated to you in times of need,” says Kempter. Contracts will have boilerplate legalese clauses but also clauses unique to the specific project. Make sure you understand all the content; have your legal department or an attorney review the contract before signing.
“Expertise provides value by reducing incidents and lowering net costs,” says Kempter. “But it’s hard to get customers to be mindful of the money they don’t spend by using a highly-qualified contractor. They tend to focus on what they spend, not on what they save. It’s hard to measure the value of something that doesn’t happen.”
3. Access the contractor’s history, including safety
It is crucial to review the contractor’s history. Most contractors will happily provide references from their list of satisfied customers, so try to talk with a few of the contractor’s customers. Sometimes things emerge in conversations that are minimized or omitted from online results.
The proof of performance is in the frequency and duration of disruption of services where the contractor was assigned responsibility for vegetation management. Examine the safety record. Were there incidents of injury to the contractor’s employees or the public? Confirm that the contractor has successfully completed projects of the nature and scope of what you want done.
Large companies, such as Asplundh and others, have established safety and training programs with professional oversight, and safety records that reflect this commitment. Utilities, municipalities, and others who do business with these firms recognize this and require verification of performance prior to entering into contracts.
When requiring vegetation management for a project, the importance of hiring a qualified, experienced vegetation contractor that has a strong safety record cannot be stressed enough.
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