Conquering the Limits of Time and Space With Compacts

Sept. 1, 2002
“As development of cities and suburbs went on, we forgot about access to construction sites.” That’s how John Perkins, who has been doing grading and excavating work for nearly three decades, describes the situation facing him and many other contractors these days. It’s also why, five or six years ago, he sold off all but one of his high-capacity wheel loaders, his lowboy truck-trailer rig, and all of his dump trucks; slashed his labor force; and invested in compact track loaders.
This rubber-track all-surface loader can tread over sensitive terrain without doing harm.Today his company, Perkins Landscape Contractors in Minnetonka, MN, owns two ASV rubber-track loaders and counts just two employees: he and one other operator. In the process, Perkins eliminated the headaches of managing a fleet of bigger machines and a large crew of operators and laborers and freed up his weekends. He also developed a special niche for his services–working in areas where large equipment can’t operate efficiently, if at all, and where hand tools would eat up precious time and labor budgets.Just as important, his revenues and profits have remained healthy.“Even though I’ve downsized, I still have the capacity to do larger jobs that come along,” he says. “If that includes a 10,000—cubic yard earthmoving project, I hire dump trucks and temporary help and rent whatever attachments I may need for my track loaders.”Perkins relies on two ASV compact track loaders–an 83-hp, turbo-charged model 2810 and a super-compact 30-hp RC 30–to serve his customers, most of which are municipalities and schools.He notes that these machines offer a number of advantages compared to large grading and excavating equipment:The Right Size for Tight AreasWith his compact track loaders, Perkins can drive down narrow paths and alleyways in between trees, shrubs, and fences and work close to houses and other buildings where large equipment can’t go. Once on the job, he can work in tight places faster and more easily than big machines or hand labor can.For example, he’s often called to clean out drainage ditches in residential areas. “In the past, larger tractor-loader-backhoes or trackhoes would be used for this work,” he says. “But now, with houses all around these sites, the only way to get in to these ditches is through backyards.”A recent streambank erosion control project provides another example of how a small machine can deliver big performance. The job, located in an established, upscale residential development, required reshaping 150 ft. of the eroded banks of a creek and armoring the site with riprap. In all, it meant moving about 200 yd.3 of dirt and rock in and out of the site. Working in the flowing creek with a trackhoe would threaten water quality with sediment pollution. Meanwhile, using a trackhoe at the top of the steep bank would tear up soil and vegetation getting through the 8-ft.-wide passageway that provided access to the site.Instead, his larger compact track loader fit easily in the limited space to reach the top of the bank. There, using a 6-ft.-wide blade attachment, he pulled material up the slope, where he stockpiled it. He also used the machine with a bucket to place the riprap at the bottom of the slope. Meanwhile, the smaller compact track loader hauled the spoil to dump trucks and brought in the rock. Another time, Perkins used his smaller compact loader to install about two-ddozen 10-ft. evergreen trees as a sight and noise screen behind a house in a 25- x 15-ft. area. The job required hauling the balled and burlapped trees, each of which weighed about 800 lb. or more, and topsoil from the street over a 4-ft.-wide pathway to the backyard. The loader was used to transport the trees, auger the planting holes, backfill them, and grade the site.“Without that machine, the job would probably have required four men close to four days to wrestle the trees in on small carts, haul the dirt with wheelbarrows, and dig the planting holes with shovels,” Perkins says. “Using the loader, two guys did the job in just one day.”Great FlotationPerkins reports that his 2810 ASV tracks over the ground exerting less than 2 psi of pressure. That allows him to operate on turf, including very sensitive golf greens, without damaging the grass or rutting soft surfaces.Such flotation really pays off since he works in and around Minneapolis and St. Paul, the largest metropolitan area in the Land of 10,000 Lakes.He recalls one job where he was crossing a swampy area during a ditch cleaning. “A city inspector tried walking out to where I was cruising along on top, but he sank in right up to his knees.” He has used his compact track loaders more than once to make quick, easy work of what could be a very messy situation with heavier equipment. That includes the time he was hired by a municipality to clean out and reshape the bottom of a pond that had turned into what Perkins calls a “muck hole.” Using his 2810 ASV compact track loader with a 0.25-yd.3-capacity bucket, he dug out about 100 yd.3 of the muck, hauled it over a slippery access ditch to dump trucks, and replaced it with about 75 yd.3 of topsoil.“We probably made 400 or so trips in and out of that site, and two weeks later you couldn’t tell that we had even been there,” he says. “We didn’t do an ounce of restoration work.”A Wide Selection of ToolsIn addition to such attachments as an auger, a backhoe, and a grapple, which he owns, Perkins can rent many different types of other attachments, adding to his ability to tackle a wide variety of work in confined spaces.His attachment inventory also includes one for laying large rolls of sod. That tool, plus the agility of his larger compact track loader, has paid big dividends. On one baseball field renovation job, he used this equipment to prepare the area and install more than 10,000 yd.2 of sod. “In the past, using 10 guys with hand tools to install small strips of sod along street curbs and gutters, we could lay about 5,000 yards a day,” Perkins says. “With the compact track loader and attachment, five guys were laying as much as 1,200 square yards of sod an hour. We sodded the whole outfield in 10 hours. Starting on a Monday, we used the track loader to prep and regrade the site, install crushed rock in the infield for drainage, and lay the sod, and the field was ready for play by Friday.”Big EfficiencyPerkins isn’t alone in his praise for compact equipment. Indeed, a number of other types of smaller equipment–skid-steer loaders, small wheel loaders, and compact excavators–are being put to productive and profitable use on grading and excavating jobs in small, challenging places.Pound for pound, these scrappy machines can more than hold their own against their bigger brothers in making the most of your money when space and time are limited. Dan Rafferty, product sales manager for Takeuchi, puts it this way: “You want to have the right machine for the job. If you bring in a 75,000-pound excavator just to dig a 5- by 5-foot hole, 5 feet deep, your efficiency goes right out the window.”There’s no officially recognized definition of compact construction equipment. In general, these machines are small enough and light enough to be hauled on a trailer by a pickup truck. However, within this category, they offer a wide range of power and performance capabilities–from those with the size and maneuverability to slip through a fence gate in the backyard or under a doorway, to brawny machines able to excavate basements and septic systems, load 10-wheel dump trucks, and carry pallets of brick or sod. Thanks to a diverse array of attachments, compact equipment can handle just about any type of digging or grading work that comes your way. That includes the simple jobs, such as cutting out driveways and backfilling foundations and trenches, as well as more complex tasks, such as drilling vertical post holes on slopes or angling a bucket to put in a drainage ditch or dig around culverts, sewer lines, and tree roots.What’s more, these compact loaders and excavators do it in style, offering the comfort of enclosed heated and air-conditioned cabs to keep out the weather, six-way adjustable suspension seats to smooth out the ride, and stereo sound systems to keep up on the latest news, weather, and sports. They also include advanced ergonomic features, such as pilot controls and easy-to-see controls, gauges, and instruments, that leave you less stressed and still productive at quitting time.For more capacity, you can move up a notch or two to loader backhoes and midsize excavators when space for the big excavators, dozers, and other dedicated machines is short.Big BenefitsStill, despite the ability of compact equipment to save time and extra work in confined areas, not everyone appreciates the value of thinking small, reports Keith Rohrbacker, product manager for construction equipment with Kubota Tractor Corporation.“Selling compact equipment to people who have experience with these machines is a lot easier than selling to those who use only big equipment,” he explains. “In fact, some operators of big machines chide those who run the smaller units, until they actually operate the small machines and can see for themselves just how good a job compact equipment can do.”The need for compact equipment is expected to remain strong as a growing population drives up land values, shrinking the size of home sites, and as already-cramped, but aging, urban sites are redeveloped.“Sales of compact equipment are growing at a much faster pace than [sales of] large equipment because of downsizing of construction projects,” says Mike Fitzgerald, loader product representative for Bobcat Company. “In the suburbs, residential developers are building new houses with smaller yards, which require smaller equipment. In the cities, the number of renovation and repair jobs calling for compact machines exceeds the number of new construction projects where big equipment has the advantage.”But other factors are also bolstering the demand for compact equipment.“There is less tolerance today than in the past for the inconveniences caused by large equipment,” observes Dan Shackelford, a spokesman for Kobelco Construction Machinery America. “For instance, local governments are charging more and more for permits to block traffic lanes. Noise is becoming an important factor too. Compact equipment operates quieter than bigger machines.”With most compact loaders and excavators priced roughly between $20,000 and $50,000 and their ability to be transported with small trucks and trailers, compact equipment is a more affordable option than the large machines for many who want to start a grading or excavating business.“Compact equipment represents a smaller upfront investment and can provide a quicker return on that investment when doing smaller projects,” says Brad Lemke, new product development manager for ASV. “That can be very important for a contractor just starting out.”Don’t let the smaller digging, lifting, hauling, and loading capacity of compact equipment fool you either. “The production of compact equipment may not be as high as [that of] larger machines, but the small machines can do the job at a relatively lower cost per hour,” reports Kelly Moore, skid-steer loader product manager for Gehl Company. “And don’t forget: If you can’t get a large machine on a job site, it won’t produce at all. Compact equipment is easier to operate, especially in confined spaces. As a result, it may require less time to train an operator [than it would for] a larger, more complex machine.”Hourly operating costs of compact equipment are lower too; however, smaller equipment also generates less income per hour than bigger machines. Maintenance, servicing requirements, and schedules of big and small equipment are similar, but costs of oil, grease, filters, and time required are less with compact equipment. That is, if the machines are maintained properly.Improvements in the machines themselves have also strengthened the demand for compact and midsize equipment.“Today’s skid-steer loaders, compact excavators, and small wheeled loaders are more efficient and deliver more power and work than their predecessors,” says Patrick Bright, Gehl compact excavator product manager. “This is largely the result of compact diesel engines and high-efficiency hydraulics.”“Because the market for compact equipment has grown so much over the past 10 to 15 years, manufacturers are able to offer more choices in power and performance features even on the same-size platform,” adds Fitzgerald.The ability to use compact equipment with many more different types of attachments also tends to make these machines more attractive than big equipment for many contractors by opening up more opportunities to make money.“When you’re spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on a bulldozer, a scraper, or a wheel loader, you want that machine to spend most of its time doing its primary job,” Fitzgerald notes. “Low initial cost and attachment availability make it much easier to justify the use of compact equipment for a variety of different jobs.”It’s a similar story with midsize equipment. Chris Giorgianni, backhoe-loader product manager with Komatsu, notes that performance of backhoe loaders has been strengthened with such features as higher-capacity buckets to move more material in less time, increased hydraulic speeds to improve productivity during backhoe operations, advanced hydraulic systems to boost operator efficiency, and higher auxiliary hydraulic flows to expand the range of attachment choices.Weighing Your OptionsThis compact loader switches between skid-steer and all-wheel steering.The A300 provides low ground disturbance, reduced tire wear, faster travel speed, maneuverability , and versatility.The experts offer a variety of factors to consider in deciding which type and size of compact and midsize equipment best suits your needs. “Ask yourself which machine fits your application and keeps you most efficient,” suggests Rohrbacker. “That’s the real target.”“It’s important to match equipment performance and capabilities to your job needs because that’s what drives your operating costs,” says George Mac Intyre, marketing manager for Case Construction Equipment. “For example, an excavator that’s twice as big as you need could overflow your dump trucks, wasting time. You could also waste time if the excavator is too small for your dump truck. Either way, it costs you money.“If you’re replacing a machine, consider how well it performed. If it met your needs satisfactorily, you might want to replace it with a similar-size machine. Sometimes contractors buy a machine one size smaller than they really need to be most efficient. Rely on your dealer to help you make the best choice, and demo the machine of the job to see how well it meets your needs. Your dealer can also help you determine the best deals if you want to finance your purchase and compare the advantages and disadvantages of buying, selling, and leasing the equipment.”Don’t forget to put your prospective purchase to a practical test. “Obtain a free demo of the equipment you feel is best suited to your job to confirm your expectation,” advises Bob Lessner, compact-wheel-loader product manager for Komatsu.You’ve never had more or better choices in compact and midsize equipment, either. They include:Skid-Steer LoadersWhen it comes to taking on just about any type of digging, grading, or other material-handling job in small spaces, it’s tough to beat the speed and agility of the granddaddy of all compact equipment–the skid-steer loader with its ability to spin around within in its own length.“It’s a cliché, but the all-purpose skid-steer loader really is the Swiss Army knife of compact construction equipment,” says Mac Intyre.These machines come in several basic styles: Short-wheelbase models feature maximum maneuverability, while long-wheelbase machines provide a smoother ride. A conventional radius lift path combines efficient digging and excavating performance with fast cycle times. By contrast, skid-steer loaders with a vertical lift path are designed more for lift-and-carry work and offer a longer reach for easier loading into trucks.Compact Track LoadersEquipped with dedicated rubber-track systems, these machines offer the size, power, and versatility of skid-steer loaders plus more traction for digging, both on dry ground and in slick, wet conditions. They also give you a smoother ride over ruts, rough terrain, and obstructions and the ability to float over soft or muddy ground.“The tracks distribute the weight of the loader over a larger area,” explains Lemke with ASV. “The low ground pressure reduces damage to lawns and allows you to work in conditions where wheeled equipment would get stuck. The increased traction allows you to fill your bucket faster, and the heavier undercarriage of compact track loaders lowers the center of gravity and increases their stability.”The higher price tag of most compact track loaders compared to comparable-size skid-steer loaders reflects this added performance.All-Wheel Steer LoadersEarlier in 2002, Bobcat introduced the first compact loader to offer a choice of skid-steer operation for maximum maneuverability in tight quarters or the smooth-riding, ground-friendly, and tire-saving performance of a wheel loader just by flipping a switch. It’s designed to maximize productivity for contractors who operate on both rough and finished grades. It minimizes ground disturbance and the need to repair marks left by skid-steer turning on soft surfaces and extends tire life when operating on asphalt and other hard pavement.As with a compact track loader, the sticker price of an all-wheel steer loader is higher than that of a skid-steer loader of similar size and power.Bobcat offers this table to compare the merits of its line of compact loaders:AWS = All-Wheel Steer
CTL = Compact Track Loader
SSL = Skid-Steer LoaderGOOD BETTERBESTRough-terrain operationSSLAWSCTLRated operating capacity SSLCTLAWSLow ground disturbanceSSLCTLAWSTire/track life costCTLSSLAWSTravel speedCTLSSL/AWSSSL/AWSBreakout forceSSLAWSCTLMuddy conditionsSSLAWSCTLPushing/grading forceSSLAWSCTLPurchase priceCTLAWSSSLCompact ExcavatorsUp until the past few years, compact excavators featured a conventional design in which a counterweight, extending behind the center of the machine, offset the weight and effort exerted at the end of the boom. As a result, the rear of the house or upper structure extended beyond the width of the tracks, hindering operations when space was limited. Now more and more compact-excavator manufacturers are adding short-radius models with zero tail swing to work faster in confined areas. These machines also can be used on road and street projects to reduce lane closures.“The amount of tail swing with a standard-style excavator dictates how large a machine can fit into any give space to work, limiting the horsepower and bucket size to work in tight spots,” explains Kobelco’s Shackelford. “What’s more, when you’re operating a standard excavator, you have to be aware of what is behind you at all times. This slows down both your swing rate and productivity in order to prevent accidents. An excavator with zero tail swing frees you from worrying about hitting an obstacle with the tail of the excavator and damaging the machine and obstacle.”Many excavator manufacturers consider any machine weighing less than about 8 tons to be a compact. Reports from the Association of Equipment Manufacturers show that the 3- to 4-ton machines are the most popular weight class for compact excavators, notes Rohrbacker with Kubota.“Most compact-excavator operators have found these figures to be about the right size and bucket capacity to do most of their jobs,” he says. “Many contractors use compact excavators to dig no deeper than about 6 feet. Even the smallest excavators can dig close to that depth. In selecting an excavator, the best size is usually determined by the amount of production you need or the amount of space you’re working in.”Bright with Gehl recommends sizing a compact excavator so that most of the time it’s working at about 60% of its maximum digging depth. That will make the most efficient use of time by minimizing the need to reposition the machine when working. “That’s more important than power and performance,” he says.He lists other factors to consider:Will the job site require rubber or steel tracks?Do you need a tilting upper structure to easily dig a flat-bottomed trench when working on sideslopes?Does your work call for a machine with extendable tracks that let you get through a narrow gate and that can then extend outward for more optimal stability when working?Do you need a cab with entry and exit on either side when working close to walls or other structures?Compact Tractor Loader BackhoesAvailable for almost as long as skid-steer loaders, the first model was manufactured by Terramite in 1965. They’re used in tight spaces to excavate water, sewer, and gas lines; to install septic tanks; and to handle landscaping and loading tasks, among other uses. Depending on make and model, handy features and options include center-mount steering, a high-capacity frontloader bucket, extended-reach arms, dual front curl cylinders, four-wheel drive, four-wheel steer, and an enclosed, heated cab.Productive CombinationsA growing number of grading and excavating contractors are pairing compact loaders with compact excavators on the same job site to get even more work done in less time. For example, while the excavator is trenching in footings or utilities, a skid-steer loader or a compact track loader could be hauling the spoil away and loading it in a truck or backfilling behind the excavator.Earlier this year, JCB unveiled its Micro 700 Dumper as a companion for compact excavators to haul dirt through narrow spaces or over poor ground conditions. It features a 0.4-yd.3 dump body–mounted on a tracked undercarriage–and a useful capacity of 1,433 lb. Powered by a 9-hp engine, the tracks retract to reduce the machine’s width to 30 in. and extend out to a little more than 41 in. to provide a stable platform.Loader Backhoes

Loader backhoes have long

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