Floor Care Equipment: Balancing Price with Performance

February 16, 2004
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The recent spate of positive economic news suggests that the financial doldrums experienced during the past few years are slowly being shown to the door. But that doesn't mean that blank checks are being thrown at floor care equipment manufacturers.

"Margins are shrinking for everyone in the floor care contracting industry," says Whit Beverly, president of Aztec Products in Montgomeryville, Penn. "As such, contractors should consider cost when purchasing equipment. When you can spend less for equipment, you can be profitable sooner."

Cost, however, is different from price. Price is simply the amount on the tag. Cost is the total amount of money you end up spending or saving as a result of the performance of the equipment purchased compared to the price and performance of another piece of equipment.

"While a lot of contractors say they use several criteria when buying equipment, we know for a fact that they buy almost strictly on price and availability," insists Bob Abrams, business manager with Castle Rock Industries in Englewood, Colo. "They buy the lowest-priced piece of equipment that happens to be available the day they need it. Very few buy based on labor savings."

A few contractors, though, who tend to be the higher-end business owners, do their homework, Abrams said. They test equipment and put a pencil to the return on investment and the ability of a certain piece of equipment to justify its price based on its performance.

"These contractors end up buying completely different equipment than the majority of contractors," he said.

Abrams offers the following suggestion: If you pay the rock-bottom price for a piece of equipment, you will get a low-end machine. Conversely, if you pay top dollar, you will get a very good machine. However, if you pay slightly more than a rock-bottom price (about 10 percent to 15 percent above), you can get an extremely good machine.

"These tend to be the best machines for the money in terms of total value," he said.

Quality
"Quality is always an issue," Beverly said. "We keep our machines as simple and rugged as possible to minimize repairs and upkeep costs. In addition, our engines are getting more high-tech to meet required mission levels."

Support
How much of a concern should local support be? According to manufacturers that offer local support, it is very important. According to those that don't, though, it isn't as important.

"A lot of salespeople will try to convince you that you don't know as much as you really do," Beverly explains. He suggests that some salespeople try to scare contractors into buying things they don't need with comments such as, "If you buy from this other company that doesn't have local support, their equipment will break down, and no one will be able to help you.

"If someone told you 15 years ago that you would be buying a computer direct from a manufacturer, you wouldn't have believed them," Beverly said. "Now, though, Dell is the largest computer company in the world for direct sales."

Aztec Products does not offer local support, because it sells directly to end-users, but that should not imply that customers with questions are left out in the cold. "If you do have a problem, we have a customer support center that you can access by phone," Beverly said. "In fact, the people who actually make the equipment are the ones who handle the calls." The company also has a network of repair centers around the country with which it partners.

Beverly suggests that, by giving up local support, buyers can save money by purchasing direct. "Whereas a retail facility might need a service person to come out and look at its machines, a contractor may be familiar enough with the machines to handle minor repairs, belt replacements, etc. on his own," he said. In fact, Aztec purposely designs its equipment to make it easy to gain access for repairs and replacements, he said.

Weight
How much of an issue is the weight of equipment? "Weight is an issue," Beverly replies. "If (a machine) is too heavy, a contractor will have problems moving it around." However, the way weight is used is also an issue. For example, Beverly says Aztec's buffers have all of the weight on the back half of the pad, a design intended to provide twice as much pad pressure as a machine that has the weight distributed across the full pad.

Greg Jodzio, corporate accounts manager for Plymouth, Minn.-based Nilfisk Advance, agrees that too much weight can be a problem. "For example, if quarry tile is not put down absolutely flat, a machine that is too heavy could crack the tile," he said.

Size
While many contractors purchase small machines in order to save money, most manufacturers recommend purchasing the largest machine that makes sense for the floor sizes being cleaned.

"You can cover so much more space with a 20-inch machine than a 13- or 15-inch machine," explains Jodzio. He notes that the production rate on a 17-inch floor machine is 2,000 square feet per hour, while the rate for a 20-inch machine is 2,300 square feet per hour.

"In sum, the time you save over the life of the machine more than pays for the extra cost of the larger size," Jodzio says. Of course, if you're cleaning a large number of small floors, a large machine isn't going to be cost-effective.

If you do clean a number of large floors, riding machines should be a consideration. Rider machines are available with automatic scrubbers that scrub and vacuum. "Some of these are in sizes from 24-inch to 38-inch," Jodzio said. "If you have large areas, these are very cost-effective."

Riders are even more productive than walk-behinds of the same size, according to Jodzio. "A 28-inch walk-behind can do an average of 17,000 square feet per hour," he said. "A 28-inch rider can do 27,000 square feet per hour. One reason is that employees on riders can see everything in front of them, allowing them to work faster. This is difficult to do with walk-behinds, so employees tend to work more slowly." In addition, riders can turn in tighter spaces than walk-behinds, Jodzio said.

Additional Features
The latest thing with burnishers is dust-collection capability, according to Jodzio. The high-speed rotation of some burnishers (2,000-2,500 RPM) can generate dust from the floor finish. "To save time on the extra dusting step, a dust-collection feature can help," he states.

Abrams agrees. "If you are doing dry burnishing, you want a burnisher with good air filtration," he states. "However, if you are doing spray buffing, you want to use a slower, 1,500 RPM machine, and you don't need filtration."

When it comes to wet-dry vacuums, you can buy inexpensive models at Home Depot or Lowe's, according to Jodzio. However, an advantage to commercial models is a bypass motor feature. "The typical shop-vac has a non-bypass motor," he explains. "If it picks up water, the water actually goes through the vac motor. A bypass motor prevents this, making it less likely you will have motor problems later on."

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