Chipper Vacs Make Fall Cleanup a Snap

How much do you hate raking? You might think this is the only question you need to ask if you're contemplating buying one of these combination chipper-and-leaf-vacuum machines, called chipper vacs. But you may want to consider several other criteria that might make your love/hate relationship with Mr. Rake pale in comparison.

Do you need a compost pile? Do you have to keep a compost pile now that your local collection service has stopped taking green waste? Is your compost pile too big or too cold, and thus too slow? A chipper vac starts looking like a pretty wonderful machine when the answers to those questions come back affirmative.

In one relatively easy operation, a chipper vac lets you clean up your garden, shred the waste into a fraction of its original volume, and bag the resulting mulch. It's not much more complicated than mowing the lawn.

Make no mistake: You'll still do some raking. It's often easier to pull leaves that are stuck in a border or around tree roots out onto the lawn than to make the switch to the chipper vac's hose attachment. And all but the biggest machines have some trouble with wet leaves and uneven terrain, so you have to do some fluffing to make sodden mats easier to pick up. But if you have lots of trees and lots of lawn, you might even start to enjoy the little bit of raking you'll be doing.

Chipper-Vac Basics

All chipper vacs have a flywheel that's mounted either vertically or horizontally. On most of these machines, the fan blades on one side of that big chunk of spinning metal create the airflow that sucks up lawn debris. Leaves shred as they pass through the flywheel housing. A combination of fixed or swinging knives or hammers mounted on the blades and/or the housing (depending on the model) chops up the debris.

Material stays in the housing until it's reduced enough to be blown out the discharge chute; on some models (the Troy-Bilt model, for instance), you can put different-sized screens in the housing to create mulches that range from finely shredded to coarsely chipped.

Most chipper vacs also have a chipping knife (some have two) mounted on the other side of the flywheel. The knife chips small branches and limbs; models with big engines usually have a slightly bigger chipper capacity: Their engines are capable of chipping hefty branches, if the knives are sharp.

Shapes and Sizes

The most common type of chipper vac looks like a lawn mower with a chipper chute and an oversize debris bag. This is the type that Troy-Bilt pioneered, a category that's getting more players with more bells and whistles-features that might matter to you, and features that might not, depending on the particular characteristics of your landscaping.

Another category includes other types of machines modified to function as chipper vacs. Big walk-behind leaf blowers are simply modified to move air in the opposite direction, in instead of out. But with this and similarly adapted machines, you generally have to cart the material to it rather than rolling it over the material to be shredded.

In addition to the walk-behind models, one trailer-type chipper vac, which may appeal to gardeners with large properties, works with a riding mower. EasyRake's Regenerator line includes a trailer-mounted chipper vac that attaches to a mower deck with a custom boot (or connecting housing). Hoses from the boot conduct leaves through a shredder flywheel on their way to the trailer bin. The six models in this line all have a 3-inch chipping capacity and an optional hose kit. (For more information on the trailer-mounted model, contact EasyRake at (800) 777-6074.)

Is bigger better? "You have to choose a machine according to the type of trees you have and the size of your yard," said Greg Beltran, manager of the Troy-Bilt factory store in Rancho Cordova, California. "Bigger spaces need bigger machines."

Bigger certainly means more expensive, but neighbors can get creative when they see a common goal. "We know of a group in Davis, California, where all the neighbors in a cul-de-sac got together to buy one of these," said Steve Moger, a sales supervisor at Golden Eagle Distributing Corporation (a Crary Bear Cat distributor) in Rocklin, California.

Heights and Hoses

Height adjustments are critical with these machines. Properly set, a chipper vac can pick leaves off bark or gravel. But any vacuum can only pick up items that it can get a sufficient volume of air underneath. That's why lifting fine, dry pine needles is such a tough task for these machines.

The suction on the hose attachment is generally not as powerful as the suction at the chipper-vac snout. A hose attachment, however, is handy for things like picking leaves out of ivy. If you have the type of yard where you may frequently need a hose attachment, select a machine that has both an easy hose connection system and a unit that generates sufficient suction. Don't buy the hose kit if you can't get a demonstration before you buy, or ship it right back if it doesn't perform well at the types of tasks you had planned.

Wheels and Drives

How much maneuvering will you have to do in your garden-- Most models have four fixed wheels, but several kinds have pivoting front wheels that give heavy machines much greater maneuverability. With light machines, it's generally not an issue, because you can jockey them around by pushing down on the handle and pivoting the machine on the two rear wheels.

Big chipper vacs are heavy. If you want a big machine or have a hilly yard, buy a self-propelled model. The biggest machines offer several forward speeds and a reverse gear. A self-propelled chipper vac should have, at minimum, a

5-horsepower (hp) engine; one distributor insisted that an 8-hp rating was as low as he'd want for a powered drive.

What Chipper Vacs Can't Do

"These products are for routine yard-cleaning rather than tree-trimming. They're not as heavy-duty as a full-on chipper shredder, but small limbs are no problem at all," Mike Zeidler at Concord Garden Equipment, a California Troy-Bilt dealer, told me.

Think of them as an everyday product, and you'll rarely encounter problems. Sometimes, however, the unexpected happens, and in places with heavy leaf drop, the machine may jam. "If you try to feed too much, you'll jam it up, but that's true with any chipper or shredder," said Chris Randall, service technician at Golden Eagle.

When you shop for a chipper vac, consider certain features relative to weather and leaf load. For instance, many of these machines don't operate well with wet leaves. If you have many deciduous trees and think leaves may cause clogging, select a machine that's easy to clean out. Some manufacturers make the flywheel housings easily accessible; others make it torture to get to the clog.

"The biggest problem with these machines is that people misuse them; they're not really vacuums-they need turf. They're great on grass, but not so great on cement," says Ron Burchfield, territory manager for Scotsco, Inc., in Sacramento. Beltran agrees: "They're not designed for hardscape vacuuming, where you'll end up with a small dust storm. On dirt, you'll end up looking like [the Peanuts comic-strip character] Pigpen."

The Obvious Stuff

Remember: Chipper vacs are serious tools and should be treated with respect. Read the manual, wear proper clothing and eye protection, and keep children clear of the machine. When your chipper vac jams, shut it off, make sure it has stopped completely, disconnect the spark plug, and only then clear the clog.

Blowers Rehabilitated

The manufacturers who arm the mow-blow-and-go gardeners have made a breakthrough. They finally realized that if their popular cleanup machines can blow, they can also suck-by reversing the end of the motor that the pipe fits on. The Mantis leaf blower vacuum is typical of new hand-held leaf blowers that companies such Echo, Poulan, Ryobi, and Toro are also promoting heavily. I confess to a strong hatred of leaf blowers and applaud those communities that have banned them, but I have to admit that the vacuum wrinkle does give the category a redeeming quality.

The Mantis BSV that I tested is as loud as a leaf blower, but it picks up the debris instead of kicking up a dust storm and blowing it into my neighbor's yard. Though I wouldn't buy one to do my whole yard, it worked well to get into planting beds, odd patio corners, gutters, and other places heretofore unreachable. It isn't all that comfortable to carry for a long stint, and it doesn't really do all that much shredding, but it's at least as powerful as a shop vac and completely portable.

Now, if the manufacturers could come up with a backpack-mounted professional version of the vacuum for the home gardener, perhaps more communities would consider banning blowers. You'd still have noise pollution, but your allergies might clear up, and you wouldn't have to wash your windows as often. Hold the good thought.

Blowers Rehabilitated

The manufacturers who arm the mow-blow-and-go gardeners have made a breakthrough. They finally realized that if their popular cleanup machines can blow, they can also suck-by reversing the end of the motor that the pipe fits on. The Mantis leaf blower vacuum is typical of new hand-held leaf blowers that companies such Echo, Poulan, Ryobi, and Toro are also promoting heavily. I confess to a strong hatred of leaf blowers and applaud those communities that have banned them, but I have to admit that the vacuum wrinkle does give the category a redeeming quality.

The Mantis BSV that I tested is as loud as a leaf blower, but it picks up the debris instead of kicking up a dust storm and blowing it into my neighbor's yard. Though I wouldn't buy one to do my whole yard, it worked well to get into planting beds, odd patio corners, gutters, and other places heretofore unreachable. It isn't all that comfortable to carry for a long stint, and it doesn't really do all that much shredding, but it's at least as powerful as a shop vac and completely portable.

Now, if the manufacturers could come up with a backpack-mounted professional version of the vacuum for the home gardener, perhaps more communities would consider banning blowers. You'd still have noise pollution, but your allergies might clear up, and you wouldn't have to wash your windows as often. Hold the good thought.

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