Doing things yourself is supposed to save money. So starting a job by spending money on rental equipment might seem like a step in the wrong direction. But before you bypass your local rental center, consider how much time and strain you can save with the right tools. You might find that spending $50 to avoid 10 hours of backbreaking labor is a bargain. The right equipment also lets you tackle jobs that you would otherwise have to pay a pro for. And don’t forget the fun factor. Some of the tools we tried are more fun—and a lot cheaper than an all-expense-paid trip to Vegas or Disneyland.
We rented the most popular outdoor power equipment and put it through its paces so we could give you tips based on actual experience. Overall, each machine did its particular job as advertised. Here are our favorites.
A boom lift can take you to new heights to trim trees, paint your exterior or apply siding and soffit material. Even if you climb ladders like a monkey, this machine will still save you tons of time. Plus, it’s much safer than working on a ladder. If you rent it for a week, expect to pay about $800. Make sure the rental fee includes a safety harness, or rent a harness separately.
A typical boom can hoist you 37 ft. into the air and pivot 360 degrees. Picking the right parking place is critical. You’ll need firm, level ground, 20 ft. of clear overhead space to raise the bucket and 5 ft. of clear space around the sides for the outriggers. Since you’ll be towing it into position with your truck (it’s too heavy to move by hand), plan your route to minimize lawn damage. Then unhitch it from your truck and drop the outriggers. Protect grass or asphalt by placing large scraps of wood under the outriggers. Hook up your safety harness, hop into the bucket, and take a few minutes to familiarize yourself with the operating controls. There are fast and slow icons on the controls. You’ll want to use the slow buttons until you get used to operating the boom. The battery-powered boom will run for about eight hours before needing a recharge.
Be careful when using a chain saw from the lift. Position the bucket so you don’t hold the saw any higher than necessary or lean outward from the bucket. Cut slowly and make sure that falling branches won’t land on the machine or slide down the boom. Wear complete protective gear, including hard hat, goggles, chaps, leather gloves and steel-toe boots. If you’re unsure of how to trim a tree, call in a pro. And stay away from power lines!
Digging postholes for a fence or footing holes for a deck is usually the most time-consuming, backbreaking part of the project. The solution is a power posthole digger—but not just any model. “Two-man” diggers that are supported by hand are hard to handle. They toss you and your partner around, especially in hard soil. A one-person trailer-mounted model (shown above) is much easier to use. Just move it into position, start it up and tip the auger into the soil. The weight of the machine keeps it drilling straight down with minimal guidance from you. But you’ll need extra muscle to move it to the next hole, especially if you’re on a hill. Use your lawn tractor or truck if you’re working solo. Or, remove the auger to lighten the load and move it by hand. Always block the wheels on hills before drilling. It takes longer to move the unit than it takes to drill holes. If you’re drilling on a flat surface, plan on eight holes per hour.
Digging a trench for cable or gas lines means hours or days of hard labor. But a power trencher can do all that digging for you in a fraction of the time. This trencher can dig down 24 in. (other models can dig to 36 in.) and is self-propelled, so you don’t have to pull it. Steering it around curves is still a workout, however. Also be aware that rocky soil and tree roots can jam the trencher and cause the tires to dig ruts in the grass. So don’t try to power your way through a jam. Shut down the unit, clear the jam and then restart. On hills, start at the top and work your way down. However, before you start ripping up your yard, call 811 to get all the utility lines marked (go to call811.com for more information). Be sure to call at least a few days ahead.
Tip: Reserve the machine you want a few days in advance. Popular equipment is in scarce supply, especially on weekends.
A typical electric leaf blower throws out about 70 cu. ft. of air per minute (cfm). A commercial-grade backpack unit throws out an enormous 465 cfm. With all that extra power, you can clear leaves faster, of course. But a backpack blower will also do things a smaller blower can’t: It will peel wet leaves off the ground, blast out debris that’s stuck in cracks and move a mountain of leaves in one pass. And with the gas engine strapped to your back, you can do it all more comfortably than with a handheld model.
There’s no need to pay a pro $150 or more to grind out a stump. With a rented stump grinder, you can do it yourself in a few minutes. For a stump that’s no more than 18 in. in diameter, rent a light-duty grinder that’s mounted on a trailer. For bigger stumps, rent a heavy-duty self-propelled monster like the one shown here ($80 for two hours). Make sure you remove any rocks around the stump to avoid breaking the teeth on the grinding wheel (the rental center will charge you big bucks for broken teeth). Work the grinding wheel side to side and advance slowly over the stump. Then repeat the process, digging deeper each time. In most situations, two hours is plenty of time to pull the grinder home, chew up the stump and return the grinder.
A typical front-end loader makes quick work of moving piles of gravel, sand and dirt. But it won’t fit through most fence gates or other tight spots. Worse yet, the wheels dig into your lawn every time you make a turn. Instead, rent a walk-behind, track-style machine with a loader attachment. Unlike other loaders, this one is easy to master—you’ll operate it like a veteran after only a few minutes of practice. This version (the Toro Dingo) fits through a 35-in. opening and runs on grass-friendly rubber tracks. The bucket can move tons of material in a four-hour rental period. Follow the safety directions for the maximum bucket lift height, or the unit can tip over (don’t ask how we learned this). The bucket is great for moving gravel or soil but not for digging. If you want to dig holes, rent a backhoe attachment instead.
If you’ve left “the back 40” unmowed for too long and Mother Nature is taking over, don’t waste time—and possibly wreck your lawn mower—by mowing down the brush. Instead, rent a machine designed specifically for clearing tall weeds and saplings (up to 1-1/2-in. in diameter). This self-propelled monster knocks the brush over and whacks it to bits with its machete-like blade. It moves quickly, even at its lowest speed (1.8 mph), so you can clear a large area in a few hours.
If you only have one tree to fell and cut up, it’s certainly not worth investing in a $350 chain saw. And you’ll be sorely disappointed if you attempt the task with a small, underpowered chain saw. So rent a pro model for the entire day for only $65. It’ll have more power, cut faster and tire you less.
If you want to cut saplings and brush without mowing down everything else, rent a commercial-duty trimmer with a brush blade. It will slice through saplings up to 1-1/2 in. in diameter. The shoulder harness carries the weight of the gas motor.
Just tap the blade against the base of the sapling. Don’t swing it like an ax—that can destroy the drive shaft. To avoid bogging down the machine, make repeated jabs rather than a single cut. If you have a large area to clear, rent the trimmer for a whole day.
Get What You Pay For
You can rent most power equipment for two- or four-hour periods or by the day. Here are some tips to help you make the most of the rental period:
- Ask about the cost of a trailer. It’s usually not included in the rental price. If you use your own trailer, make sure it’s rated to handle the weight of the machine and that your truck (and hitch) can tow the load.
- Remember that the rental period includes your drive time to and from your project. If the machine requires a trailer, also factor in time to unload the machine and reload it when the job is done. That can eat up 30 minutes or more of your rental time.
- Ask about delivery services. Having the rental center deliver and pick up the machine may cost $85 or more. But since the rental period won’t include drive time, loading or unloading, you have more time to actually use the equipment. Delivery service may save you money in the long run.
- Make sure the rental center staffers show you how to start and use the equipment. Then try it yourself before you drive away. That way, you avoid learning and making mistakes during the rental period.
- Be ready to use the machine the minute you get home. You can waste a lot of money letting the rental equipment sit idle while you mark posthole locations or clear rocks away from tree stumps.