Light Footprints, Heavy Loads

Dec. 16, 2014

If you’re thinking about a new purchase of earthmoving equipment, your timing couldn’t be better. Manufacturers have made great strides in the design and performance of their compact products. Whether you’re grading, trenching, digging, clearing, or anything remotely related to earthmoving, you can find a compact product to do the job economically and efficiently. So let’s take a look at the wide variety of products available and how they can fit your needs.

We’ll start with what’s often the toughest task in erosion control projects, the rough earthmoving. These are the times when you have lots of dirt to move and it’s heavily compacted, with plenty of boulders, roots, and all those other nasty materials that require serious ground-moving power. Sure, you could do the job with a skid-steer or a track loader, but not with anything close to the efficiency of a small dozer, says Joel Fritts, small dozer marketing, with Caterpillar in Peoria, IL. “On the skid-steer and compact track loaders, they have horsepower in the same class as a small dozer,” says Fritts, “but due to their target of versatility, they use more of that horsepower for implements and attachments such as hydraulic-powered work tools. On a dozer, the majority of the horsepower and weight is used to push the load on the front of the blade. So the tractor has a lot more drawbar pull capabilities than a compact skid-steer or track loader. That’s nice when it comes to the application of erosion control, because often it’s not only about putting up a silt fence on the outside border of the property; it may also involve cutting some sort of swale or drainage to control the water flow, and at the end of the day that’s what it’s all about: control and water flow and drainage.”

Although other products can do some of this heavy work, the rough earthmoving is typically needed at the beginning of a project, when there are more obstacles on the job site, and a dozer’s wide stance adds stability that’s important when doing slope work. A machine’s weight is also a factor. “If you have to cut a ditch, the dozer has more weight than a compact track loader or skid-steer,” explains Fritts. “When you’re pushing material, or dirt, or things that are in the way at the beginning of a project, there’s a necessity for that weight, and that’s an advantage a dozer would have.”

So the weight is beneficial when pushing more earth, but is it a detrimental in using more fuel? Not necessarily, if the dozer has some sort of fuel-efficiency mode. “On our small dozers there’s a feature called Eco-mode, and it’s standard equipment, so the operator can pick a setting on the throttle control, and this allows the machine to only use the horsepower that it needs to push the load,” says Fritts. “It’s a real benefit in helping customers lower their fuel costs while remaining just as productive, because there are no losses in production with this setting.”

Now that we’ve established the performance advantage, the next question is how to choose the right model for your needs. One of the important considerations is in the undercarriage design. On Cat’s small dozers, the company offers two different undercarriage configurations, the XL and LGP. “You can think of it as your footprint when you’re walking,” says Fritts. “The LGP has a wider shoe and generates more traction on the ground, and more flotation. This undercarriage is steel, primarily because early on at a job site you’re going to be working with virgin material, and it’s usually rough.”

Blade size and control are the next important features to evaluate. On Cat’s model D3K2, the XL has a blade width of 104.2 inches and the LGP’s width is 124 inches. “The blade can be angled, tilted, and pitched forward or back depending on the kind of work customers want to do, so it’s very appropriate for erosion control,” says Fritts. “With our power pitch feature you can cut a swale or ditch and control the earth flow in a number of directions. Our power pitch feature allows the operator to pitch the blade forward for the initial cut. After the cut is started and you load the blade up with material, you can lay the blade back and carry a lot more, and that can make a 10% improvement in your productivity.”

There’s an opportunity for even more productivity if your machine has an automatic blade adjusting system, such as Caterpillar’s Stable Blade feature, developed to help the operator maintain a grade easily. “Operators have told us that when they are trying to grade they sense the machine pitching fore and aft, and that’s what tells them if they need to adjust the blade when cutting a swale or ditch,” says Fritts. “So it replicates that “˜seat-of-the-pants feel’ and works in concert with or complements the operator’s control to prevent him from overcompensating or undercompensating.”

Every equipment manufacturer has focused on boosting productivity by improving the operator cabs, and Caterpillar is no exception. All the dozer’s features are operated from controls on the seat’s armrest. “It’s very ergonomic, and the operator doesn’t have to get out of the tractor and change the blade position by hand or unhook attachments to change them,” says Fritts. “Operator controls have changed a lot, and our mission is to make the controls very intuitive, so it’s easy to do the task without a lot of physical or mental effort.”

Control technology also has evolved over the years. Direct hydraulic control systems have replaced the mechanical linkages between the operator controls and the implement valves. “The benefit to the customer is less effort,” says Fritts, “and better modulation of the implement, and a lot more versatility in what they can do.”

Versatility is a common denominator in the needs of erosion control contractors, and the need is well filled by the categories of skid-steers and track loaders. Let’s start with a look at track loaders and a visit with David Nyby, general manager at Summit Erosion Control, Poway, CA. “For a good portion of our daily work our go-to machine is a compact track loader,” says Nyby. “We have several different attachments, including a trencher, and we typically use that on jobs in excess of 5,000 linear feet where we have decent access to drive through the job. That piece of equipment also has a bucket that we use on a daily basis to load the hopper for our gravel bag machine. We also have a set of forks for picking up pallets and loading gravel bags on trucks. For clearing landscape, we have Brush Hog attachment.”

Smaller size and a wide variety of attachments are major selling points for track loaders and skid-steers, says Warren Anderson, brand marketing manager for skid-steers, compact track loaders, and compact wheel loaders at Case Industrial America LLC, Racine, WI. However, Anderson notes that a track loader offers a unique advantage when it comes to the footprint it leaves on the ground. “The compact track loader really shines because it has one tenth the ground pressure of a skid-steer loader,” says Anderson. “So any time you’re in an area where you want minimal disruption to surfaces, you would want to call in a track loader to do the job. The compact models have about 4.5 to a little over 5 pounds per square inch of ground pressure.”

Even though a track loader is light on its treads, it’s strong in the area of tractive effort, an important feature when you’re charging into a pile to take a big scoop of dirt or aggregate. Another important consideration in your choice of a track loader is the bucket breakout measurement. “Contractors that do a lot of groundwork and digging understand the need for bucket breakout,” says Anderson. That’s the force provided by the bucket tilt cylinders, and even those that do landscaping work and use pallet forks know that when you go to transport a pallet, you like to tilt that load so it’s leaning against the fence of the forks. If you don’t have good bucket breakout at that time you can’t tilt the load back and you’re going to be at risk of the pallet working its way off the end of the tines.”

With the wide variety of attachments available, it’s important to know your track loader’s hydraulic flow, because it’s the source of power for those extra tools. “From buckets to forks to trenchers, augurs, and hydraulic hammers, there’s 300 attachments you can put on this machine, and most of them are rated anywhere from 18 to 22 gallons per minute,” says Anderson. “Our standard flow comes with 24.2 gallons per minute, and it will power at least 80% of the attachments you could put on the front of the unit.”

Speaking of the front of the unit, Case also offers a four-in-one bucket that’s useful for a wide array of tasks. “It lets you go about your daily business of moving dirt or grading and digging,” adds Anderson, “but then it’s useful if you’re in areas where you need to pick up something like a log and move it out of your way. Or if you’re dumping into a wheelbarrow, or somewhere that you don’t want to dump the entire bucket. You just open the clam shell and let the dirt trickle slowly. When you open it up you can actually use it as a dozer blade as well.”

Doing erosion control work often requires digging deep enough to justify the use of a compact excavator. Not surprisingly, Case has a number of models available. According to Katie Holland, brand-marketing manager for backhoes and compact excavators, a unit such as Case’s Model CX55B, with a 37.4-horsepower engine, has the power a contractor needs for tough tasks such as creating retaining walls or swales. “If you see somebody using a compact track loader or skid-steer, you’ll also see them using a mini-excavator,” says Holland.

Most likely, you’ll also see them fitting in tight spaces. A tight radius tail swing is a common feature of mini-excavators, and some achieve zero tail swing. With the CX55B, an independent center swing boom helps in reaching into awkward spots. The CX55B has a maximum dig depth of 12 feet 10 inches, and its reach at ground level is 19 feet 11 inches.

“Digging down to about 13 feet is really nice because not only is it about the depth, it’s about the reach,” says Holland. “So if you need to get farther out to an area that isn’t easy to get to, you have a good reach. For attachments, the lines are plumbed all the way down the arm and have bidirectional and unidirectional hydraulics. So you can run a breaker, hammer, auger, or a thumb.”

Mini excavators come with backfill blades, and the CX55B allows an operator to angle the blade for better efficiency. “Adjusting the angle of the blade allows the dirt to roll,” says Holland. “Instead of pushing the dirt, you want it to roll over so it falls back into the trench, and the design of our blade helps.” The ability to adjust the angle of a tool can also help when digging a trench. “You’re not always just digging a trench,” explains Holland. “Sometimes you have to dig it out a little bit, but you need to get it at an angle and you don’t have the flattest ground possible. However, there’s a nice option from aftermarket companies that make a swivel blade especially for those situations.”

Versatile attachments and buckets from manufacturers and aftermarket products can make a big difference in efficiency, but make sure your machine has the capability to run them independently, notes David Steger, product manager, Takeuchi Manufacturing, Pendergrass, GA. “Takeuchi’s TB290 excavator has multiple auxiliary lines,” says Steger. “If you’re working with various attachments you can control them independently. For erosion control and grading work you could have one bucket to grade slopes and an attachment, or a job bucket, to grasp objects easily. Because these controls are completely independent of each other you can run various attachments very effectively.”

The TB290’s first and second auxiliary hydraulics are plumbed to the end of the arm. It has 15 feet of dig depth and nearly 24.5 feet of reach, and weighs about 19,000 pounds. “This is still considered to be a compact excavator,” says Steger, “and with 24.5 feet of reach it’s very versatile. If you’re grading slopes or digging in a culvert or a drain or setting some pipe, it’s still compact enough to fit in tight areas, and it’s trailerable behind a dump truck, so there’s no overweight permits needed.”

Steger notes that a rubber track is the most common choice among the various undercarriage considerations. However, track options are evolving. “We have a 7-inch-wide rubber track and also a steel track that’s almost 22 inches. The steel track offers more flotation for soft or muddy soils. It almost sits on top of the ground rather than digging in. We also have a hybrid version that has a 7-inch steel track with rubber pads, so you can run on concrete without the risk of damaging the surface.”

Takeuchi recently introduced a new track loader, the TL8, which has a strong focus on versatility. It features a new selectable attachment control system that provides three adjustable attachment settings that allow operators to program attachment specific hydraulic flow rates from the operator’s seat. “The TL8 track loader is used more for grading-type applications,” explains Steger. “It weighs in at about 8,000 pounds, with a 74-horsepower engine. It’s excellent for grading, excavating, digging, and loading material, and it has a universal quick coupler for attachment versatility. If you’re trenching or doing a silt fence installation, you can have forks, or if you’re working with retaining walls, you can reshape a slope. With its 15.7-inch rubber track, you can work in soft ground and muddy conditions and be very productive.”

For contractors who move and load dirt over long distances, Takeuchi recently introduced the TW40 compact loader. “The compact wheel loader market is a niche in the US, but it’s growing,” says Steger. “There are lots of benefits with this design. It weighs a little over 7,000 pounds, so it’s a relatively light machine, and the horsepower is just under 40 horsepower, but look at how we use it. This is a wheeled machine that articulates in the middle for steering, and the drive system is very efficient, so we can use less horsepower and we don’t have to operate any hydraulic functions. For working on sensitive areas, this machine can shine because of the way it steers, so it can operate on sensitive landscapes with minimal damage. It’s also great for moving material fast in loading a truck with the bucket or pallet forks.”

Contractors looking to fit their machines into tight working spaces should be interested in the line of mini-excavators from Kobelco Construction Machinery USA, Houston, TX. Starting with the smallest, the SK17SR model has a compact footprint with zero tail overhang and retractable tracks that adjust to an overall width of 39 inches. There’s also a bucket with a round bottom for increased penetration. The SK17SR has a maximum digging depth of 7 feet, 1 inch, along with a bucket digging force of 3,420 pounds and a bucket capacity of 0.058 cubic yard. Auxiliary hydraulics, pattern changers, and a dozer blade are standard, and it’s powered by a fuel-sipping 15.2-horsepower, engine.

Hitachi Construction Machinery Co., Moline, IL, recently introduced three new compact excavators to join the Zaxis Dash 5 lineup. These new models are aimed at meeting a rising demand for versatile compact equipment, says Greg Bauer, product marketing analyst with Hitachi. “If you look historically at the number of compact excavators, the market has grown significantly, and people are using them more than other pieces of machinery, just because they’re so portable. And fuel economy is important. Machine costs are rising, and people are trying to get more performance out of a smaller machine that they can take from job site to job site with a half-ton to one-ton truck and a trailer.”

For working in tight spaces and digging next to structures such as walls, Hitachi engineers incorporated an independent-swing boom to position the bucket or other tools as close as possible. “It allows you to rotate the boom so it can be right next to a wall and dig very easily, and that’s a good function for less experienced operators to help them get the job done quickly and professionally,” says Bauer.

Maintenance for compact equipment is benefiting from new technology. For example, Komatsu America Corp., Rolling Meadows, IL, offers Komtrax remote monitoring, a service that sends machine operating information to a secure website or smart phone application. Data such as fuel level, operating hours, location, cautions, and maintenance alerts are relayed to the web application. Benefits include increased machine availability, reduced risk of machine theft, remote diagnosis by the distributor, and information tracking to drive business efficiency and productivity. The company recently introduced its new PC55MR EPA Tier 4 Final compact hydraulic excavator. The design focuses on improved operator comfort and lower operating costs. A new auto decelerator and economy mode help to reduce operating costs.

A short swing radius is just one of the features from Volvo Construction Equipment, Shippensburg, PA. The ECR58D and ECR88D short swing excavators feature automatic two-speed travel for superior traction and hydraulic travel pedals for easy and accurate track control. Volvo engineers chose a narrow body design and centrally positioned boom, making the superstructure on the ECR58D and ECR88D so compact that its rear swings within its track shoe. Slew and offset movements are controlled simultaneously by a joystick. For greater flexibility, the excavators are available with a mono-boom (or an optional two-piece boom on the ECR88D) and several arm configurations.

Volvo has also added to its C-Series line of compact track loaders with the MCT110C. At a 2,250-pound rated operating capacity, the introduction of the MCT110C puts Volvo’s tracked models offering at four. Other models include the radial lift MCT110C and the vertical lift MCT85C, MT125C, and MCT135C. All share the same assortment of features, such as a Tier 4 Final four-cylinder engine (74 horsepower, 55 kW) that uses a cooled exhaust gas recirculation (EGR), common rail system and fixed-geometry turbocharger, so a diesel particulate filter isn’t required.

With the rapid growth of the skid-steer and track loader market, erosion control contractors are benefiting from the wide variety of attachments that are available. According to Gregg Zupancic, product marketing manager, John Deere Construction and Forestry, Moline IL, the choices are getting better and better. “Some of the most useful attachments we see in the realm of erosion control include backhoe attachments, because it’s like the excavator bucket on the front of a skid-steer and you can dig down effectively. There are specialty types of buckets for skid-steers, so you can cut a swale. Or let’s say you want to go forward and dig a U-shaped ditch. We have buckets that are half-moon shaped that you can drive forward and scrape off earth, so it’s a specialty bucket that’s geared for erosion control. One of the attachments that I see a lot of customers purchasing is a silt fence machine. It installs on the front of a skid-steer and basically feeds the role of black material that’s put up for erosion control.”

John Deere recently introduced two new skid-steer models (318E and 320E) and two compact track loader models (319E and 323E) with upgraded boom performance, auxiliary lines that are integrated through the boom for improved visibility and protection, and cab improvements to boost operator and machine productivity and uptime and lower daily operating costs.

The boom and bucket speed setting options can have a positive impact on efficiency. If you want very precise loader arm speed and bucket speed you can have it in Precision mode,” says Zupancic. “The average setting is Utility mode, and if the task can be done quickly and you’re not worried about fuel economy, use Productivity mode. It provides the fastest hydraulics for your boom and bucket.”

All told, we’ve covered a wide variety of product categories, but realistically, we’ve barely scratched the surface. With so many models and options, choosing the right piece of equipment may look like a daunting task, but you’ve got help. All of these manufacturers are supported by knowledgeable dealerships, and they can help contractors decide on the right unit to fit their needs. So if you’re ready to add a new piece of equipment, your timing couldn’t be better.

About the Author

Ed Ritchie

Ed Ritchie specializes in energy, transportation, and communication technologies.