Green Electric Technology in the Arboriculture Industry
By Mayatte Patrick-Hughes – Tree Surgeon Based In Walthamstow, London

This article explains my experience with electric chainsaws, both corded and battery operated or cordless types and other tools within arboriculture, presenting ecological models using electric tools instead of petrol chainsaws and petrol or diesel woodchippers. I am focusing on the city and domestic work or private gardens as this is my experience and it is the area which electric tools can compete with traditional petrol ones.

This is because urban and domestic work is mostly concerned with crown reductions and smaller trees in general as opposed to felling lots of bigger trees which would be more common in a rural setting. As a high percentage of the population live in cities and thus a large portion of tree surgeons, this case study has a significant relevance to the industry as a whole. There are also other niche areas alongside domestic gardens where electric tools can thrive, these are schools, parks, golf courses and other noise sensitive areas.

Living in London, the UK’s capital city, the Mayor has set been setting clean air and zero or ultra low emission targets to significantly increase emission free electric transportation within both the domestic and commercial sectors. There has been mixed or low success I believe, but overall the targets for reducing Co2 within transportation need a lot more people and businesses to buy into. With the new cordless battery chainsaws and commercial vehicles now available, I saw the opportunity to take this step myself within a very petrol dependent industry. If a tree surgery business with its reliance on fossil fuels can convert to electric then there is scope for most businesses in London to do so.

The other area of interest is best practice in arboriculture for safe working to minimise potential hazards and reduce risks of injury. From my experience since 1999 I have had injuries and near misses whilst working for other companies that I have now eliminated and these can be significantly reduced in the industry overall though the use of electric cordless tools.

Ecological or environmentally friendly are terms used a lot in arboriculture these days but rarely do they mean much more than just the use of biodegradable chain oil for lubricating the chainsaw’s chain. This is an improvement but almost negligible compared to the potentials of converting your business to electric. I have worked for many local authorities and both small and large commercial companies as a tree surgeon, what is common place is that there seems to be little concern or implementation of methods to benefit the environment and people who live in it. Nor concern for the health and safety of the workers. Profit is the bottom line and workers are treated unfairly, usually underpaid for what is a comparatively very dangerous and skilled industry.

Numerous companies compete against each other, quoting for work that is often under quoted to bring in the work which results in underpaid workers who work longer and often underpaid to get jobs finished. Companies advertise over a very large area to try to bring in more work and as a result have to travel much further to both quote for the jobs and do the work itself. This results in longer hours and excessive pollution.

There is generally a disregard to noise pollution and pollution in general with woodchippers turned on excessively and the use of petrol chainsaws when the job could be done equally well with a hand saw or silky saw for smaller diameter wood, such as in crown reductions or cordless chainsaws which are relatively new. This is both ecologically detrimental and a serious issue for health and safety.

Although the industry is continuing to set better health and safety standards, the arrival of newer, lighter and electric chainsaws means that the ecological bar can be raised again by a considerable amount. Many injuries occur to tree surgeons because of the use of chainsaws. This is because of the weight of the tool and the strain to the operator, the vibrations and the overuse when a lighter, more appropriate tool could be used.

Injuries such as tendinitis, carpal tunnel and tennis elbow are common and can be significantly reduced by use of a light battery powered top handed arborist chainsaw and the use of a Silky hand saw. The Stihl model has a battery adaptor to further reduce the weight and strain to the operator where the battery is worn on the climbers harness.

I have found that in most urban work the cordless saw works as well as a traditional petrol saw and in most cases works better. Electric chainsaws are also very quiet with the quietest ones not needing ear protection at all. They are comparable to a cordless drill which you may have at home. This means that communication between the climber and ground workers can be clearer and easier and hazards are easier to notice. With so much noise from both woodchippers and chainsaws it is easy for accidents to happen due to poor communication, both to general public or the workers.

An injury I sustained from being hit on the head from a branch whilst on the ground could have been eliminated it the noise levels were low and good communication possible. I have also seen other injuries or near misses that would have been alleviated though a huge reduction in noise by using cordless chainsaws. It certainly makes the job far less stressful and more pleasant which I believe contributes to better and more sympathetic pruning of the tree.

My ecological model is as follows: Work locally using electric vehicles and tools to improve both the air quality and environment as well as health and safety. To make the working environment more pleasant with low noise and shorter working hours with better pay. To put this into practice requires some changes at least until green technology catches up which it is doing every year.

With the popularity of ultra efficient, about 90% defra approved wood burners or stoves in London it is possible to burn firewood which is carbon neutral as opposed to fossil fuel because the tree absorbed the same carbon whilst growing as you would emit burning it at home. This means that most of the wood which tree surgeons put through a diesel or petrol woodchipper can be cut up for firewood with jut the smallest diameter green waste going through the woodchipper.

This makes it viable to use a woodchipper powered by an electric motor and battery. I have been able to make contacts and either drop off or have this small diameter logs of about 5cm-15cm collected from the work site. Because they are collected by householders locally the logs are not transported a big distance and far less waste needs to be removed in the tree surgeons vehicle which overall makes a big reduction in pollution. For smaller to medium jobs it would be possible to use a small portable woodchipper which can go though the house if need be to be used in the back garden. A larger woodchipper can be converted to be used for bigger jobs on the roadside.

This makes it possible to have a smaller and electric vehicle. I am currently pursuing the option of an electric van with a tipper trailer that between the van and trailer would carry over a tonne. A second vehicle and trailer could be used if there were a significant number of large logs or indeed two journeys if the job is reasonably local. Specialized electric tipper trucks are very expensive comparatively and would only be an option to a few companies with a big budget rather than smaller and local domestic companies. Battery range is not an issue when working locally.

There is certainly scepticism to convert to electric amongst tree surgeons and there will be for some time. Only companies who have converted to electric and fully function will be able to persuade others to follow, although eventually government targets to reduce Co2 emissions will force everyone to change. The eco alternative will have to be profitably and efficient to be successful.