Building highways or taking on major excavation projects? Then chances are you're using “big iron”—the massive bulldozers and excavators exhibited so impressively at World of Concrete, Con Expo, and elsewhere. But if you're a concrete contractor who just wants to move materials around the jobsite and dig the occasional footing, you probably don't have the need or desire to acquire and maintain those machines. Equipment manufacturers have come up with a broad range of smaller, more versatile units, such as skidsteer loaders, compact excavators, and loader-backhoe combinations, to serve those and other purposes. Meanwhile, contractors have developed a whole raft of strategies to meet their specific equipment needs and business models.
Skidsteers form the backbone of many concrete contractors' fleets, because they're versatile, affordable, and simple to operate. Most manufacturers offer a range of models with different capabilities depending on size, horsepower, lift height, turning radius, and other features. Skidsteers typically are outfitted with buckets to move earth and bulk materials, or forks to move palleted supplies. It's the variety of available accessories and attachments that allow skidsteers to perform so many functions. Grading boxes, wheel saws, pavement breakers, augers, compactors, and even concrete mixers and pumps can be connected to and powered by skidsteer loaders. Contractors who need to use these tools only on certain jobs can buy the most useful attachments and rent others as the need arises.
Compact (or mini-) excavators are rubber-tracked digging machines designed as a smaller alternative to conventional loader backhoes. They're generally defined as having an operating weight less than 6 tons, and weigh as little as 0.9 ton. Among their advantages are the ability to fit and work in tight spots, and the relative ease of operating and maintaining them. Another big advantage is their ability to dig in an offset position. By turning the boom one way and rotating the carriage in the other, an operator can dig right alongside an existing structure. By keeping the excavator tracks parallel to the trench, offset digging also makes for efficient repositioning. For a more detailed guide to compact excavators, see “Buying a Compact Excavator,” in the March 2005 issue of Concrete Construction.
Loader backhoes share some of the versatility of skidsteers and compact excavators, while offering more power and range. Their loader ends can accommodate various fork and bucket configurations, and backhoe booms can be fitted with pavement breakers, augers, and other attachments. Loader backhoes can dig deeper, reach farther, lift higher, and travel faster than their more compact counterparts, so they can be more efficient and practical on larger projects. They also cost more to buy and run, and require more advanced training to operate, but these outlays are easy for some contractors to justify. In situations where capacity and speed are more important than maneuverability, loader backhoes can fit the bill.
Obviously, the need for and use of this equipment will vary, depending on the size of a contractor's operation, the types of projects a firm generally works on, and a number of other factors. In a 2006 survey of Concrete Construction's readers, a substantial majority (64%) of contractors reported that they owned or leased skidsteer, track, or wheel loaders, and a significant portion (38%) owned or leased loader backhoes. About one in five (19%) owned or leased mini-excavators, but these relatively new items may have gained broader acceptance in the past couple of years.
Several contractors were consulted to find out how they select, acquire, and use these machines; how they maintain and manage their fleets; and what they're looking to purchase down the road. There were some interesting contrasts in the ways they addressed these issues.
Gearheads. Some contractors are inclined to acquire and maintain substantial fleets of equipment, confident that their businesses will thrive if employees have the tools they need to work efficiently. They view equipment as an investment that will help give them a competitive advantage.
Steve Lloyd and his wife Kathy run Lloyd Concrete Services Inc., Lynchburg, Va. The company, which was founded in 1985 and employs about 65 people, offers concrete pumping services; forms and pours footings, foundations, and walls; places and finishes interior and exterior flatwork; and creates pattern-stamped and other decorative treatments.
Lloyd firmly believes that providing his crews with the latest and best equipment pays off in productivity. “When I find something new and better, I'm the kind of guy who'll buy it right away. If I think it's going to save money and help us do a better job, I'll get it,” he says.
Each of Lloyd's forming crews is equipped with a full-size excavator and a skidsteer loader. They formerly used rubber-tired loader backhoes to dig footings and foundations, but Lloyd says the team approach really speeds production. “While the excavator digs, the skidsteer can be putting in stone. And if something goes wrong with either machine, the other one can continue to function.”
One way Lloyd tries to minimize downtime is by eliminating the common equipment pool. Each operator is issued his or her own machine to work with and is held responsible for its care, including daily lubrication and oil checks. At specified intervals, the company mechanic handles oil changes, filter replacements, and other regular maintenance tasks. Lloyd also tends to trade in his equipment after three or four years, both as a way to minimize repair and maintenance costs and to keep up with new technology.
Lloyd has developed a close working relationship with a local equipment dealer who supplies everything he needs. “He's taken a huge burden off me, by investigating different machines and even adding product lines that I've needed. I used to buy direct from manufacturers,” Lloyd says, “but then I had the headaches of dealing with them all. Now the dealer takes responsibility for solving any problems that arise.”
Renters. Renting is another way for contractors to meet their equipment needs, and most have probably used the option at least occasionally to obtain specialized equipment or supplement their own fleet in especially busy periods. Some, however, take the concept even further.
Ian Blair, owner of Blair Concrete Services, Wilmington, N.C., employs about 150 people. The company is a turnkey concrete construction operation that builds foundations, floors, and walls, and includes a sister organization specializing in concrete restoration and repair. Like Lloyd, Blair aims to keep up with the latest equipment technology while minimizing maintenance and repair costs. But he has taken a different approach to accomplish that goal. Since founding the company about 20 years ago, Blair has made it his policy to own as little equipment as possible, and instead rent whatever he needs to accomplish a particular project and only for the duration of the job.
“I've never felt a particular desire to own a lot of equipment; I'd rather have a strong balance sheet and cash on hand,” Blair says. “We rent large equipment directly from the manufacturer and find that the rates are really competitive when you factor in our savings on debt service and maintenance.”
Blair believes that renting equipment boosts productivity as well as benefitting his cash flow. He acquires new models for each new project, and thus takes advantage of continuously improving technology. His operators have been pleased by the increased comfort of newer machines and by increased responsiveness in the controls.
Blair Concrete does buy smaller pieces of equipment, such as laser screeds and power trowels, and anything that isn't readily available for rent. Any equipment the company owns, Blair says, is kept working long term. “We'll keep it, maintain it, and rebuild it to get the longest possible use out of it.”
The rental market plays an additional role in fleet management for Chris McDaniel, vice president of operations for McD Concrete Enterprises in Silver Grove, Ky. His company, which serves the greater Cincinnati area, employs from 60 to 70 people to build commercial and industrial footings, foundations, and slabs, as well as some paving and parking lots. Before the current housing slump, McD did a considerable amount of residential work and owned three truck-mounted cranes that they used to set roof trusses. McDaniel now rents the cranes to other contractors.
The McD fleet also includes four loader backhoes and three skidsteers. When not in use digging footers. on McD projects, the loader backhoes get rented out to other contractors. The skidsteers date from the mid-90s and are used mostly for minor excavating, backfilling, and grading gravel. They're also used with fork attachments to move rebar, wall panels, and other materials around the jobsite.
Hiring owner/operators. Robert Dalrymple, president of North Coast Concrete, Valley View (near Cleveland), Ohio, has a field force of 40 employees who perform a variety of services, from concrete renovation and restoration to foundations, slab on grade, curbing, sidewalks, and specialty projects. Dalrymple says he doesn't get excited about buying equipment, and will rent unless he can count on keeping a machine in use at least 50% of the time. “The company has two skidsteers that we use for grading on small projects, including some tight spots and interiors for school renovations. We also have a track loader we use for grading on larger projects. We're looking now to buy a compact excavator, having rented one recently and found that it worked well for us.”
To meet most of its excavation requirements, North Coast works with four or five local backhoe owner/operators who hire on for the time they're needed on a project. Dalrymple finds this an efficient way to keep both equipment and personnel costs under control.
The versatility factor. Contractors interviewed for this article had differing opinions on the value of versatility in the equipment they buy and use. Some said they prefer to use single-purpose tools for most kinds of work. Lloyd says, “I'm not a big attachment fan. I prefer to use the equipment that's specifically designed for what I need done—it will do a better job.” McDaniel finds that “Efficient utilization of a machine depends less on its versatility than on skilled, reliable operators and regular preventive maintenance.”
Others, however, like to use a range of skidsteer attachments to perform different functions. Len Swederski, who heads Swederski Concrete Construction, Spring Grove, Ill., is one of the latter group. His company's work consists of roughly equal parts commercial and industrial foundations, interior flatwork, and concrete paving. His firm operates seven rubber-tired skidsteer loaders and a compact track loader. Swederski likes the skidsteers for their versatility, reliability, and low maintenance requirements: “The oldest of the skidsteers is about 15 years old, but it still works well. We've got auger attachments for a couple of them, and mud buckets for transporting concrete around the jobsite. They all have excavation buckets and grading buckets, including some makeshift grading attachments we made from I-beams. We've also rented other attachments when we needed them.”
They don't do much excavation, but make use of a mini-excavator bought used a couple of years ago. Swederski says he has taken to subcontracting out the fine grading when his company places big floor slabs: “The graders that use laser-guided grade controls are so efficient that the cost of hiring a good sub to do it is offset by the material savings we get when the subgrade is so accurately placed. When you're looking 200,000 or 300,000 square feet of floor, saving 1/8 inch over that entire surface can save a lot of money in concrete.”
What works for you
There isn't one right way for a concrete contractor to manage material handling and excavating equipment; individual temperament, business cycles, and local conditions can all have an impact on strategy. As manufacturers develop machines with new functions and features, contractors should regularly review their equipment needs and carefully consider their options.
— Kenneth A. Hooker is a freelance writer based in Oak Park, Ill., and a former editor of Masonry Construction.