Make the Most of Multitasking

Nov. 1, 2002
Ask veteran grading and excavating contractors to name machines that have had the biggest impact on their business over the past 25 years, and chances are they’d rank two pieces of equipment very near, if not actually at, the top of their list: the hydraulic excavator and the compact loader, such as a skid-steer or a track machine.
In fact, on many job sites, hydraulic excavators–both big and small–have shoved aside traditional equipment, such as the crawler tractor, as the preferred choice. Meanwhile, the compact loader’s skill in working effectively and efficiently in tight spaces has enabled it to carve out a whole new niche in the grading and excavating market. The digging, grading, and loading performance of these machines explains part of that growth in popularity. However, their ability to use a wide and ever-growing array of attachments has played an even bigger role. Excavators and compact loaders have become versatile multiple-tool carriers capable of accomplishing more work in more ways and in less time than conventional single-task machines. And that’s paying off, not just in basic earthmoving work, but in opening the door to other opportunities for boosting productivity and profits by saving time and by reducing overall equipment and labor costs.“In years past, a contractor typically used a truck-mounted or crawler crane with a clamshell bucket, or maybe a shovel or hoe, to dig and move materials and a crawler tractor with a blade for grading,” explains Bob Peterson, president of Allied Power Products Inc. in Beaverton, OR. “Contractors today use a hydraulic excavator with various types of tools that attach to the boom to do almost everything on the job site that involves moving materials.”Hendrix Manufacturing Company in Mansfield, LA, has been making dragline buckets for more than 50 years and has sold 53,000-plus units, ranging in size from 0.25 to 65 yd.3, around the world. In the 1980s, however, the company added excavator buckets to its line. “At one time, small dragline buckets were a big part of our business,” reports Gus Hall, the company’s vice president of engineering. “However, because of its speed and versatility, the hydraulic excavator has just about eliminated that market.”Attachments have also fueled the demand for compact loaders. Depending on the tool mounted on the front or, in some cases, the back of these machines, they can be used with a dozer blade to grade dirt, a breaker to bust up concrete, a backhoe to excavate footings, a bucket to load trucks, a trencher to install irrigation lines, pallet forks to transport materials, a vibratory roller to compact sand or gravel, a broom to clean up streets and sidewalks, or a snow blower to keep trucks and the job moving in the winter–among other tasks.The type of work that today’s excavators and loaders can tackle seems limited only by the imagination of the people who dream up the attachments. Dozens of manufacturers offer these tools. One estimate puts the number of companies making just one type of attachment–hydraulic breakers–at about 30. ceattachmentsinc. Inc., a distributor of attachments for compact loaders and excavators based in Cedarburg, WI, counts more than 800 different types, models, and sizes of tools in its warehouse.While some excavator and compact loader manufacturers make their own brand of attachments, most are developed and produced by companies that specialize in these tools. “Unlike the major equipment makers, shortline companies focus all their energy on engineering and manufacturing attachments,” says Jerry Sechler, vice president of sales with Loftness Specialized Equipment. Based in Hector, MN, the company makes such tools as snow blowers and grass- and brush-removal attachments for tractors and skid-steer loaders.Usually an idea for a new tool comes from an inventor or a contractor, he explains. The small size of attachment manufacturers can shorten the time needed to convert that idea into an actual product. For example, Loftness recently introduced a new compact-loader attachment, called the Timber Ax, for cutting grass, brush, and smaller-diameter trees when clearing sites and clearing biking and hiking trails through woods. It can be used by itself on smaller projects or to supplement big equipment on larger jobs.“A contractor could use a skid-steer loader equipped with a Timber Ax to clear out the brush and smaller-diameter trees in clearing fire lanes, power lines, or pipelines,” Sechler points out. “Then an excavator could be used to knock down the big trees.”The company began developing the product last November, followed by field testing this past winter and spring, he reports. Production began in July.The increased flexibility of attachment manufacturers in responding to the marketplace can also mean more choices for adapting equipment to meet local conditions or operator preferences, notes Terry McKay. He’s marketing manager with Black Cat Blades Ltd. in Edmonton, AB, which makes construction blades for loaders, excavators, scrapers, dozers, and graders as well as snowplow blades for trucks.“One of our strong advantages over OEMs [original equipment manufacturers] is our ability to modify our products to suit specific applications,” he states.Consider buckets. Often OEMs don’t offer bolt-on cutting edges for the types of attachments his company makes, McKay explains. While a bolt-on edge could be a disadvantage in a high-impact application where it could work loose, it could be an advantage in an application where the cutting edge is subject to heavy wear. In that case, a bolt-on edge could be replaced in an hour or two, compared to the several days required to rebuild a standard bucket with a worn cutting edge.Or take the case of dozer blades. Typically operators of the larger dozers tend to favor either the right or left side of the blade when cutting. As a result, one side might wear faster than the other. “We can make the right or left side of the blade thicker than the other to compensate for this uneven wear,” he says.Nose around trade shows and visit with equipment dealers and you’ll find many ways in which the latest tools of the trade can pay off by increasing the versatility of excavators and loaders.Easy Tool ChangesWhile attachments have enabled contractors to make the most of the performance built into excavators and compact loaders, the key to making the most of the attachments themselves has been the speed and ease of changing attachments offered by the quick coupler. At one time, replacing an excavator bucket with another attachment, such as a breaker, meant a time-consuming process of pounding out pins holding the attachment in place, hooking up the new tool, and driving the pins back in place. Depending on the type and size of attachment, that might have taken the better part of an hour. However, the quick-coupling device allows you to make the switch in a matter of just a few minutes without leaving the cab.Quick couplers have been around for some time, notes Hall. However, they didn’t become popular in this country until the late 1980s. “Once contractors saw how much time and effort they saved, the quick couplers sold themselves,” he says. “They made it practical to use one excavator for a number of different jobs rather than using several different excavators or other pieces of equipment to accomplish the same task.”With the quick coupler, for instance, you can disconnect a bucket and use the lifting eye on the coupler as a hoisting device. Since the bucket is not on, you gain more hoisting capacity. On one particular job, for example, Hall notes that this ability eliminated the need to rent a lift crane to lift heavy pipe sections.Smoother Buckets and BladesBlack Cat Blades offers several ways to improve the quality of work when using excavator buckets and dozer blades. One is a bolt-on serrated cutting edge for producing a smooth finish. Similar to conventional teeth, the points of the serrations provide more pressure for penetrating into hard-packed soil. Unlike teeth, however, the serrated edge has no legs or straps protruding beneath the bottom of the bucket. “It’s tough to produce a flat finish using a tooth bucket,” says McKay. “That’s not a problem with the serrated cutting edge.”The company also offers different bits to achieve a similar effect with dozer blades. They include level-cut or flat-fabricated end bits that are designed to produce a smooth finish.More Efficient Bucket WorkStill the primary digging tool, buckets have become even more useful thanks to devices that enable you to adjust the angles at which they work. Helac Corporation in Enumclaw, WA, makes the PowerTilt, which fits between the boom of a tractor-loader-backhoe or excavator (from 1.5- to 35-mt machines) and the bucket or other attachment, such as a breaker, a compactor, or a brush cutter. The gear-driven device can rotate tractor-loader-backhoe tools as much as 180º from left to right and excavator attachments up to 134º. It saves time and money by minimizing the need to reposition the machines, observes Ron Hurst, Helac’s sales manager. Available in eight models for use with OEM pin-on and quick-hitch—style buckets, the PowerTilt can be used in a variety of applications. For example, it can be mounted with a trenching bucket to excavate a flat-bottom trench and bevel the sidewalls to prevent cave-ins in loose, unstable soil. What’s more, you can do that even if the machine is working on a slope without repositioning it or having to install trench liners. Teamed up with a grading bucket, this tool can be used to clean water drainage channels, contour retention ponds, and reshape golf course bunkers. Other uses include flatwork, where it can offer better control of cutting depth and width to minimize base soil disturbance, and to reduce fill amounts and compaction requirements and digging under and around underground pipes on utility repair jobs in congested areas.“You can use the PowerTilt to cut a 5% grade right to the stakes regardless of how the excavator is sitting and without having to build a work pad,” describes Hurst. “You can also use this tool with a hydraulic breaker to get better access to rock in the bottom corners of a narrow trench with perpendicular sides, eliminating the need to dig a much wider, V-shape trench and to remove that much more material.”These benefits translate into greater efficiency, he notes:Saving Time. “The PowerTilt can pay for itself in time savings,” Hurst says. “Many contractors figure they can save an hour a day with this attachment by not having to reposition their excavator very frequently.”Attracting More Work. “Even if you can’t charge a higher rate than competitors who don’t have this attachment, you may get more jobs because you can work more efficiently,” he relates.Saving Labor. The ability to precisely control the attachment angle can produce a more consistent, finished look with minimal hand smoothing.Saving Space. You can use this attachment with a wide bucket to dig. Then, by tilting the bucket, you can meter the discharge of spoil into a narrow, confined area to reduce size of the cleanup area.Extending Track Life. Repositioning an excavator less often can reduce track wear, Hurst points out.Replacing Other Equipment. “You can use an excavator with a bucket to clear trees and stumps on small adjacent lots, and then use the machine with a blade and the PowerTilt to grade the lots and eliminate the need for a dozer,” Hurst says.An Easier Way to Dig DeepAllied Power Products, producers of Columbia Winches and Hoists, recently introduced a unique tool that gives new life to two-line clamshell buckets or grapple systems while offering new uses for hydraulic excavators.This patented approach, called the One-Line System, uses an actuator and a single hoist line with any conventional cable-operated bucket or grapple to duplicate the functions of a two-cable system. That’s good news for owners of two-line machines who are having difficulty finding operators with the skills to run this equipment. “Twenty-five years ago, probably thousands of guys could properly operate the two clutches and two brakes on a conventional crane to work the bucket,” notes Bob Peterson. “Today that number is declining almost by the hour. Anyone who can climb up into the cab and push control levers forward and pull them back can operate the One-Line System.”What’s more, this system enables just about any hydraulic excavator to reach straight down into deep holes, the way traditional two-line systems can, in a variety of construction and industrial applications, he adds.“Hydraulic excavators offer a fair amount of reach but not a lot of digging depth,” Peterson continues. “Also, you can’t use them under relatively low obstacles. The One-Line System gives you a way around those restrictions. If you’re operating under a 6-foot-high ceiling and you want to dig 20 or 30 feet straight down, you can.“It can be used with just about any type of clamshell bucket or grapple and on any machine big enough to handle a bucket. The concept is not based on a special bucket or rake but on how we make that tool work. In some cases, it may require contractors to rethink the way they do a job.”At a project in New Jersey, a One-Line System was used with a conventional, midsize, two-drum cable crane and a grapple to clean out debris from behind a dam. At another job site, a Washington contractor used the system under a highway overpass to clean out around a bridge pier. Peterson reports that, in and around water, this approach offers another advantage over hydraulic excavators: There are no hydraulic lines that could break and pollute the water with oil. The company keeps an excavator equipped with the One-Line System at its plant in Beaverton to demonstrate its use. Details of the system are available on-line at Five Tools in OneHelac offers a multipurpose attachment for tractor-loader-backhoes and hydraulic excavators with operating weights up to 30,000 lb. The attachment combines the functions of a trenching, grading, or clamshell bucket; a grapple; and a hydraulic thumb. Available in two models, the 24-in.-wide PowerGrip has a full trenching-bucket profile with a heaped capacity of 7.5 ft.3 It features a jaw with serrated edges that opens up to 120º for a maximum opening length of 41 in. and operates independently of the bucket curl cylinder. There is no crossbar inside the bucket or on the jaw to restrict handling and unloading material. Depending on the model, it provides up to 9,500 or 15,000 lb. of holding force.“The jaw’s holding force is significantly greater than [that of] traditional designs that use hydraulic cylinders,” Hurst observes. “Equal force is applied to both sides of the jaw. That prevents the jaw from twisting when clamping onto irregular objects. Also, this attachment can be used with extendable-dipperstick backhoes, where it can be very difficult to install a thumb.”A New Way to Lay Concrete PipeWhen used with a hydraulic quick coupler, the new patented Hendrix C-Hook cuts labor costs and improves safety when laying concrete pipe.“Because it’s a good, positive way to handle pipe, the C-Hook eliminates the need for a man in the trench,” says Hall. “Laying concrete pipe becomes strictly a two-man operation.”Four models are available for use with 20,000- to 275,000-lb. excavators to handle various-diameter sections of 8-ft. concrete pipe up to about 45,000 lb., he reports. An optional boom extender on three models allows the placing of lightweight PVC, HDPE, and DIP lengths of up to 20 ft. The C-Hook is not designed for use with heavy-duty steel-pipeline projects.A Wide Choice of Breaking and Compacting ToolsIndeco in Stratford, CT, offers 24 models of heavy-duty and whisper breakers in the 180- to 16,000-lb. energy class to demolish rock, concrete, or other materials on aggregate, highway, pipeline, and demolition jobs. They’re designed to fit all sizes and makes of major brands of excavators, tractor-loader-backhoes, mini-excavators, skid-steer loaders, and stationary boom-mount systems available in North America. Features include dual shock absorbers to minimize recoil, automatic variable speed and power for most efficient energy production, and a quick-change, field-replaceable lower-tool bushing insert.The lower bushing on breakers helps align the tool steel. Over time, however, it wears under the stress of striking as many as 500 times per minute, explains Ryan Murphy, marketing manager for Indeco. “With only handheld tools, you can replace this particular bushing insert easily on the job site in minutes without dismantling the breaker,” he says. “This insert not only minimizes downtime and service costs but helps extend the life and productivity of the breaker.”Indeco also makes four models of hydraulically driven, boom-mounted plate compactors to fit mini-excavators, skid-steer loaders, tractor-loader-backhoes, and excavators from 9,000 to 150,000 lb. They transmit centrifugal forces from 3,400 to 32,750 lb. at up to 3,000 vibrations per minute to consolidate granular and semicohesive soil materials and produce the high densities required for foundations, footings, and pipe trenches.New Compact Loader AttachmentsIn addition to the dozens of attachments available for skid-steer and compact track loaders, Cedarburg, WI—based ceattachmentsinc. offers three of the latest types:The trench filler is designed to save time and labor when backfilling trenches without tearing up turf. The skid-steer loader straddles the trench while it moves forward, and the attachment augers spoil back into the trench.The silt fence installation tool mounts on the cleaner arm of a skid-steer loader trencher attachment. As the skid-steer loader travels backward, the tool draws the silt fence fabric into the trench, where two blades bury the material, anchoring it in place. “One skid-steer loader operator can install 40 feet of the fabric per minute,” says Ron Peters, product specialist with ceattachmentsinc. “Afterwards you install stakes and attach the fabric to complete the fence.”The culvert cleaner offers an alternative to using shovels, high-pressure water, or a backhoe to unplug partially filled culverts under roads, driveways, and sidewalks. It features a round broom, which fits in one end of the culvert and pushes dirt and debris out the other.Snow-Removal AttachmentsOptions for using loaders–from the smallest skid-steer models to the largest wheel loaders–range from brooms, plows, and ice scrapers for cleaning sidewalks and driveways to blades and blowers for much larger areas.Kenco in Ligonier, PA, manufactures one-way plows with replaceable cutting edges and heavy-duty frames for clearing roadways and parking lots. Two models are available in widths of 10 ft. and 13 ft. For maximum versatility in removing snow, the company also offers 10-ft.- and 13-ft.-wide angling blades. These tools can be actuated hydraulically to form a U or V shape, to angle right or left, or to operate as a straight blade.Loftness Specialized Equipment, which has been making snow-blower attachments since the 1950s, now has a line of 50 models for tractors and wheel loaders. They range in width from a 4-ft. unit to a 9-ft. triple-auger industrial model.Tool TrendsThe growth in the types and performance of attachments for construction equipment shows no signs of stopping.“Attachments save time and work,” says Peters. “With fewer and fewer people willing to do hard manual labor, the market for attachments should continue to grow.”The increasing popularity of high-flow hydraulics on skid-steer and compact track loaders also favors development of new attachments.“That’s opened another door for us, especially in the area of timber and brush clearing, where restrictions on burning and herbicides limit options for removing vegetation,” relates Sechler with Loftness Specialized Equipment.Jamie Adams, sales and marketing administrator with JRB Company Inc. in Akron, OH, which manufactures attachments and quick couplers, expects to see more use of quick couplers and more refined coupler systems in the next few years. Earlier this year, his company introduced a new arm-lock coupler, which is designed to reduce loss of bucket breakout force on small to midsize excavators. Instead of pinning the coupler to the boom arm, this coupler is part of the arm itself. “It minimizes pin center-to-center offset to almost eliminate any reduction in the machine’s breakout capability when using a quick coupler,” he says. Also, he reports, JRB is developing a new mechanically actuated coupler for situations where hydraulic lines aren’t desirable.Noise ordinances in cities and other sensitive areas are leading to quieter hydraulic breakers and demolition attachments for excavator and tractor-loader backhoes, notes Murphy with Indeco. This includes specialty tools for bigger equipment that use hydraulic flows of 50 gpm or more and pressures of 3,000 psi and higher to crush or sheer steel and concrete. “These tools have been around since the mid-1990s but are just now starting to gain popularity,” he notes.Making Good ChoicesFaced with the wide selection of attachments currently available for excavators and loaders of all types, finding the one best suited to your job can be a challenge. To help narrow your choices, Murphy suggests focusing on the attachment that offers the best return on your investment. “You want a reliable tool that will deliver the work you need,” he says. “You don’t want a disposable asset.”In part, that means comparing specifications and performance ratings of the attachment–weight, production capacity, hydraulic flow requirements, and the like–to the capabilities of your tool carrier and the type of work you’ll be doing.Buy from a reputable dealer or manufacturer who will back up the attachment with strong service and support after the sale, advises Hurst with Helac. “Envision how you’ll be working with a particular attachment so that it will interface with other equipment you may be using. Get with a knowledgeable salesperson who knows attachments and can steer you in the right direction and away from potential mistakes.”Peters explains that ceattachmentsinc. was established two years ago to help contractors save time and effort in selecting the best compact-equipment attachments for their needs. The company works with more than 1,200 dealers throughout the United States and overseas to distribute an extensive list of attachments for skid-steer loaders, compact track loaders, and compact excavators. “Our goal is to become the one-stop shop for compact-equipment attachments,” says Peters. “No one offers a larger number of quality attachments for virtually all brands of compact equipment needed to finish any job. They’re in stock and ready for immediate shipment.”If the number and types of choices involved in selecting just the right attachment seem bewildering, one thing is clear: These tools hold the key to converting a great digging or loading machine into an even more valuable master of many tasks.

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