by Steve Turner
With the huge numbers of ash trees being removed due to the emerald ash borer, many people are experiencing sticker shock when they get estimates to perform the work. I hear it so often, “How come it costs so much to remove this tree?”
The biggest reason is insurance – our industry is a high risk business and we have to pay high premiums just to operate. Our workman’s compensation insurance is up there with coal miners or iron workers. We have to pay close to 25 percent of what an employee earns just for this insurance, and additionally, most companies will have a million dollar liability policy to cover any property damage that may occur in case of an accident.
Also, employees earn skilled labor wages, and the equipment required to be competitive is expensive and needs continuous maintenance or replacement.
Factors that affect the removal cost
So how do tree care companies determine what it costs to complete a job? We estimate time and the cost of disposing the debris. Most companies are charging between $65 and $125 per man hour. While this seems like a big difference, it’s really not because the ones who charge a higher rate often have more equipment and better-trained employees. This allows them to work faster and more efficiently than those with less.
When we are estimating a job, we are looking for things that are going to slow us down removing or trimming the tree, and looking to see how close can we get our equipment to the work site. The most common obstacles are structures, wires, fences and other trees and plants. If we are in tight areas with lots of obstacles, we have to remove the tree in smaller pieces and lower most or all of it to the ground with ropes and rigging devices to avoid any damage. This takes a lot more time than a tree we can let fall into an open area and cut apart on the ground.
Access to the job site is important and the less accessible it is, the higher the price will climb. Sites with limited or no access will take longer to remove the debris and get it to the chipper. The closer we can get the chipper to the work area without causing damage to the lawn the better. Jobs where everything must come through a 36-inch gate or are on the bottom of a steep slope are difficult and often require extra men to keep the debris from backing up under the work area.
Trees that span more than one yard can be tricky. We need to have written permission from the neighbor to access their yard or we have to lower all the debris back to the yard we are working from, which requires more skill and time.
Jobs with no backyard access or those that have large trees over many obstacles, especially houses, will often require the use of a crane. This technique is becoming popular because it reduces the amount of cuts and rigging that has to be done in the tree, which reduces the chance of accidents. If we use a crane, we can attach it to large sections of the tree and make one cut to release it and raise it over the house to the front yard where it can easily be cut up on the ground close to the chipper. So a tree that might take over 100 cuts and lots of rigging with little room for error can be removed in just a few sections and be placed in a more accessible area relatively quickly and safely.
If both the climber and crane operator are skilled in these techniques, a job that would have taken days can be done in hours. This will save the homeowner money and the company is able to reduce the amount of workman’s comp and hourly wage in exchange for the cost of the crane rental. Not all companies are skilled in these techniques and it would be wise to discuss their experience when considering them to perform the work. They will need to accurately judge weight and engineer the proper rigging in order to avoid tipping the crane or losing a load.
The condition of the tree is critical
Another important factor in quoting a tree removal is its condition and structural integrity. Can the tree be climbed or will it have to be done with a bucket? If it can’t be climbed, can we get the right equipment close enough or not? How long has the tree been dead; is it brittle or not? The worst thing you can do is delay removing a dead tree until the bark starts to fall off. If you wait a year or two after it dies it will surely cost you more, assuming it can’t be felled into an open area. Trees that have been dead for more than a year are very hazardous to climb and in many cases impossible to safely remove without the aid of aerial equipment or cranes.
Dead wood does not flex, it just cracks or breaks. When we cut a piece off and it swings down into the trunk or another branch, it explodes into pieces which can cause damage to nearby structures that would normally be out of harm’s way. I have seen pieces of dead trees fly well over a hundred feet upon impact, and trying judge where this debris might go is difficult.
The only advantage that dead trees have is that they weigh much less than live wood since they don’t have all that water in them. If a dead branch were to hit something it would do far less damage than if it were live. Nevertheless, don’t make the mistake of delaying the removal of a dead tree. If you don’t have it taken down in the first year it will cost you more, as well as creating a more hazardous work environment and increasing the chances for accidents.
Winter time is a good time
If your budget is tight, schedule the work for the winter, since most companies will give discounts for off-season work. It is faster to remove trees in the winter because we don’t have to be concerned as much about lawn damage or flower beds. This allows us to remove larger pieces with less rigging, saving us time and you money. Winter is also the best time to prune your trees because insects and disease organisms are dormant and the tree will have plenty of time to seal the wounds before they are active again in the spring. Winter is a slow time for tree companies and most would welcome any additional business at that time, so be smart and take advantage of a good thing for both you and them. The only drawback to winter tree work is scheduling around the weather – sometimes jobs can be delayed due to snow or very cold weather. The shortened daylight can also turn a one-day job into two, but in the end the work will get done and you will likely have more money in your pocket.
Steve Turner is a Certified Arborist from Arboricultural Services in Oakland County, Michigan.