The tree service industry is replete with all kinds of characters whose knowledge about trees range from laughable to fanatical. At the top tier of the industry stands the Certified Arborist. There are many tree services that have nothing to do with the International Society of Arboriculture and its certifications. Some of them even do a good job. The odds of getting high quality tree care go up when a Certified Arborist is employed. The certification shows a level of dedication to the industry that may be lacking otherwise.
In order to test to become a Certified Arborist you need three verifiable years in the tree care industry and a Certified Arborist who is willing to sign off as your sponsor. I would say it is not uncommon for people to lie about the three years, but they still have to pass the test. If they pass the test then they are doing pretty well. As far as difficulty I would rate the test as being moderately hard. If you study, you pass (the ISA Certified Arborist Exam Tree List for Arizona contains 46 trees).
A few caveats are in order here. I have met many Certified Arborists whose knowledge of even the basics were lacking, i.e. they couldn’t even make a proper pruning cut. Conversely I have met quite a few tree workers with have no certification who really knew their stuff. California seems to have a lot of these rebels. They know a lot and do a good job, but don’t want to conform to the I.S.A. I think Groucho Marx is the one that said he didn’t want to belong to any organization that would have him as a member. Certified Arborist is really more of an indicator and not a magic bullet. It sure is a good place to start looking though. I am also aware of several companies who lie about being certified. There really aren’t many controls in the tree service industry. If you lie then who will know or care, the tree police, the Lorax, their conscience?
To make sure you get in touch with the right company I would recommend contacting only those who say they are Certified Arborists. This can be verified through the International Society of arboriculture website. I would go a few steps further and check www.angieslist.com and the Arizona Better Business Bureau. These three litmus tests should tell you all the information you need to know. Once you have checked these two websites a couple times you will be able to do the research in about three minutes. Three minutes very well spent if it helps you avoid some of these tree services that follow a business model Don Corleone would envy. If you are really in a hurry then just check angieslist.com. It is an awesome resource.
Make sure any Certified Arborist you hire will be on the job when your work is being completed. This may seem obvious but it is much more common for the Certified Arborist to be nothing more than a glorified salesman who will never be seen from once he convinces you to sign on the dotted line. The ideal would be a Certified Arborist who actually was planning to climb your trees and prune them. That is an exceedingly rare find. Not to beat my own drum too much, but I am one of those rare ”climbing arborists.”
Many people are turned away from arborists who are certified because they think they might be expensive when compared with “Hank’s Chop a Tree and Lawn Service.” You may be pleasantly surprised. Hank likely is lacking in the expensive equipment that makes tree work run smoothly, loading branches into the back of a pickup can be a nightmare. Often this kind of amateur outfit will bid higher because they know what they are in for, or they have no idea what they are getting into. Doing tree work without a chipper and dump truck is extremely arduous. If you want to compare bids between the certified and the non-certified go ahead, I encourage it. If Hank is bidding significantly lower because he doesn’t know what he is doing don’t be surprised if a more legitimate arborist who has paid his dues won’t match his price. Let’s compare apples to apples at least. One of the easiest ways to recognize the “Hank” business model is to look for an ad that says “we top trees.” This is akin to a doctor saying, “we remove the wrong limb.” Avoid the tree toppers like the plague because topping a tree is the worst thing you can do.
On the whole a Certified Arborist will be much more prepared to help the consumer and as a general rule more dedicated to quality and ethical behavior. A Certified Arborist has paid his dues and if you find the right one, who actually has time to spend on your project, (delegation is extreme in this industry) hang on to that arborist. We are not as common as you might think.