From Miniscule to Massive: Equipment is Key for Upstate New York Chipping Companies

- Advertisement -

Companies that generate quality fuel chips — particularly those who provide them to high-profile customers — rely heavily upon their equipment to ensure a good product and an efficient, uninterrupted operation. For two of the larger chipping companies in far upstate New York, that has meant utilizing some of the latest in chipping technology and enhancing the performance of that equipment with yet another innovative tool. The end result of that twofold effort for both Watertown, N.Y.-based Pala Wood Service Co. and Massena, N.Y.’s Seaway Timber Harvesting, has been a dramatic uptick in efficiencies, lower fuel costs and a consistently better product.

Powerful Chips

A central component of both Seaway Timber’s and Pala Wood’s chipping efforts of late has been contracts with ReEnergy Holdings, LLC. The Albany-based biomass company owns and operates eight biomass-to-energy plants in the eastern U.S., including ReEnergy Black River, a 60-megawatt biomass plant located at Fort Drum, just outside of Watertown. The once-coal-fired plant recently underwent a $34 million renovation, enabling it to take in sustainably harvested local biomass from area producers and use it to generate enough electricity annually to power more than 55,000 homes. For Pala Wood, which had all but stopped chipping due to lack of a customer base for that product, discussions with ReEnergy represented an opportunity to get back into the market, according to Bruce Strough, Pala Wood’s current owner.

“We were definitely excited about getting back into chipping,” he says. “Perhaps the most intriguing element of those discussions, however, was a program ReEnergy had in place in which they would purchase a Morbark chipper for their suppliers who would then pay for that chipper through the volume of chips delivered. We were thrilled about picking up this new piece of business, the equipment arrangement was even better than we could have imagined, and the fact that ReEnergy was providing a Morbark 50/48 chipper was icing on the cake. We’d used a Morbark chipper back when we were first chipping and have used nothing but Morbark tub grinders since we started doing mulch. So the comfort level with their equipment was definitely there.”

Upstate Cattle Drive

Today, after endorsing that deal, Pala Wood takes its 50/48 whole tree chipper to jobsites throughout the region, tackling projects ranging from commercial land clearing to clearing fields for agricultural use and more.

“We are currently clearing for an out-of-state rancher who plans to bring cattle to the area for grazing,” he says. “The areas we are clearing are old farmland with 10- to 15-year growth. Because there are so many similar properties around here, that rancher has been aggressively buying them up for clearing. Cutting down that growth gives the grass a chance to regrow, making it ideal for grazing.”

- Advertisement -

To watch Strough’s crews in action is to see a mixture of Morbark orange and John Deere green scattered throughout the site. In addition to the Morbark 50/48 and pair of 1300 tub grinders, the company boasts a 437D loader, a pair of brand-new Deere 648H Grapple Skidders, and a 753J feller buncher — most of which were acquired since landing the ReEnergy contract.

Tracking Success

Working within a short drive of Pala Wood’s operation, Seaway Timber Harvesting is generating a similar product, in many cases, for the same end use. The company, which works throughout northern New York, produces more than 300,000 tons of wood chips annually. Since its inception a quarter century ago, Seaway has grown and, in the process, seen dramatic changes, according to company president and CEO, Pat Curran.

“Seaway Timber’s roots date back to 1990,” he says. “Today we describe ourselves as a forestry management company, and, because of the expertise we bring to the jobsite, we are able to land some of the larger contracts available in the area.”

One of the contracts to which Curran refers is a 300-acre site (of a total 1,000-acre segment) at Fort Drum. To maximize efficiency in the chipping facet of that operation, Seaway Timber recently added a track-mounted Morbark 50/48 drum chipper to its fleet. According to Curran, while beneficial at Fort Drum, the machine has benefits that will be felt far beyond that project.

“On many jobs of this type, we might have a landing in one area and another 1,000 feet away,” he says. “Because timber harvesting and processing are all about efficiency, a company can really suffer in set-up and tear-down time moving between landings. Even if it’s just an hour or so per move, that can add up to major lost production over the course of a project.”

By comparison, he says, with their new track chipper, they simply drive the unit to the pile and, in a matter of minutes, are chipping their next load. “In other areas of our company, we have crushing and screening equipment, and it is all on tracks. So we have a lot of experience with that approach — if we can put it on tracks, we do. A lot of people balk at the added cost of a track unit, but we’ve proven that any upcharge is quickly offset in productivity. This job has three different landings, each about a half mile from the other. Our lowboy dropped the chipper and loader off here, and the next time he will come out is when he picks them up to move them to another site. Mobility has been huge for us and will continue to be so in the future.”

Staying Sharp

Both Seaway and Pala Wood share more than just proximity of jobsites, however. Like most every firm engaged in chipping and grinding today, they each recognize that maintaining their machines’ knives has become increasingly impactful to the bottom line. Customers’ needs for quality in the final product are more demanding than ever, production schedules are equally challenging, and fuel prices, while currently down, have at times been a major drain on the bottom line. Removing and replacing knives in the field or in the shop has long been the accepted way — in fact the only way — to maintain a chipper’s peak performance. However, fairly recently, each company has separately embraced the use of a tool called the Bevel Buddy™ Chipper Knife Sharpener (Precision Sharpening Devices, Inc., Erie, Pa.) a hand-held grinder that has already proven to dramatically extend the life of the knives in their Morbark 50/48 chippers. According to Pala Wood’s Strough, the benefits are far-reaching.

“We were introduced to the Bevel Buddy through our relationship with Morbark,” he says. “As I understand it, they’ve established an agreement to sell the tool through Morbark’s distributor network; as a result of that, we were shown what it could do. I purchased one tool and almost immediately regretted that we hadn’t had this available years ago. It’s made a difference for us on so many levels that it’s even tough to comprehend. From a convenience standpoint, it’s a no-brainer: in the past, when our chipper knives got dull, the operator would have to shut down the operation for 40-50 minutes while the worn set was removed and a new set of knives was installed. Now that operator can simply open the chipper, run the Bevel Buddy over each knife, and, within five minutes, the blades are sharp and he is back up and running.”

Strough adds that the effect of having sharper knives can be felt in everything from production to fuel consumption to the quality of chip they are producing. By way of an example, he cites production during upstate New York’s muddy season, a time when native abrasives in the soil can reduce the useful life of a set of knives to no more than two truckloads of chips.

“By comparison, when we periodically sharpen the knives with the Bevel Buddy, we can get as many as 10 to 12 truckloads of chips before we need to replace them; in a softwood operation — even in the mud — we’ve gotten as many as 20 loads on a single set of knives. You can see that, at 30 to 40 minutes per blade change, that’s an amazing upturn in production. The knives are literally everything on these chippers; keeping them sharper longer means the chipper is not laboring, resulting in a really nice savings in fuel costs. We can easily get two additional truckloads on a tank of fuel now.”

An XL-ent Choice

Proving that you can improve upon an already-successful technology, Precision Sharpening Devices recently introduced its XL-Extended Life abrasives, a change that effectively doubles the life of the Bevel Buddy’s grinding head.

“We measure the life cycle of the abrasive in linear inches, that is, the number of inches of knife edge that can be sharpened,” says Mark Mills, founder and president of Precision Sharpening. “The standard abrasive gives the user approximately 8,000 linear inches of grinding capacity — a lot of service. By comparison, however, the XL abrasive will provide sharpening power for about 15,000 linear inches.”

Those numbers are not just hyperbole or idle market-speak. Seaway Timber’s parts manager Gary Prashaw says they’ve used both abrasives and, based on reports from their grinding specialist, can vouch for the increased longevity of the XL component.

“There’s no doubt that the new abrasive lasts a lot longer,” he says. “With the standard material, we were getting about 200 blades done before it needed replacement. With the new abrasive however, we are getting anywhere from 800 to 1000 blades done — roughly four times the life.”

He adds that they, too, have seen far-reaching benefits since adding Bevel Buddy to the equipment inventory. “For us, as soon as we started to use it, we had blades that held up better on the edge, which, in turn, meant that they stayed productive in the chipper for longer periods of time. Furthermore, they would come back to us in better shape, which means less grinding needed to re-sharpen them. Because we have so many variables built into the operation: type of chipper [In addition to its 50/48 Track Whole Tree Drum Chipper, Seaway uses a wheeled version of that model, as well as Morbark Model 30 and Model 23 Chiparvestors®], types of material being processed, operator technique, etc., it’s tough to quantify any part of the savings equation. However, there’s no denying that blades are lasting longer, costs to replace them —and the downtime associated with it — are also down, and the quality of our chip product remains consistently excellent.”

One additional benefit probably not cited elsewhere is operator comfort (and safety), but that came into play time and again this past winter, says Strough.

“We had the coldest February on record here in Watertown,” he says. “The average daily temperature was 6°F, so you have to know the wind chills were almost always in the -20° range. What would you rather do: take five minutes to touch up the blades using Bevel Buddy or spend 40 minutes in sub-zero temps changing out a set of knives? Our Morbark 50/48 is the lifeblood of our chipping operation — the Bevel Buddy just makes it that much more productive.”