Komatsus Perform Precision Work for Booming Las Vegas

Sat July 10, 2004 - West Edition

Unprecedented growth and new construction in Las Vegas has helped to further the city’s image of glitz and glamour.

However, before Las Vegas could rock and roll, it had to rise from the rock and sediment that makes up the Las Vegas valley and its surrounding mountain ranges.

Ron Wright, owner and president of Elkhorn Development Inc., has made a life of helping to build Las Vegas. From the first paintbrush he picked up at age 15 to the housing developments his company works on now, Wright’s fingerprint can be seen on many of the city’s signature resorts and casinos, its baseball stadium and, in recent years, many of the homes, apartment buildings and businesses that feed Las Vegas’ population boom.

Since the late 1960s, Wright has seen many pieces of construction equipment come and go. Today, his company relies almost entirely on backhoe loaders for its ground and sewer excavation work, both for the inherent benefits of excavating with a backhoe loader and for the ability to effectively operate hammers in the variable and often rocky conditions his crews encounter.

Elkhorn Development currently runs eight backhoe loaders, including four of Komatsu’s newly enhanced 16,600-lbs., 93-hp (7,530 kg, 69.3 kW) WB140 and 19,731-lbs., 100-hp (8,950 kg, 74.5 kW) WB150 models.

Vegas Showtime: Backhoe Loaders the Featured Performer

Elkhorn Development can be described as a one-stop shop. Wright brings his diversified experience –– How many contractors do you know that have built metal structures in Chile just for fun? –– to his work in Las Vegas.

Wright can just as easily describe the granite countertops and wrought iron railings that he and his wife, Debbie, have designed for one of his company’s homes as he can explain the function of every hydraulic hose on a backhoe.

The lifeblood of his company is the contract excavation work performed in commercial and residential developments for sewers, utilities, drainage and more.

Wright’s crews move quickly and methodically from building to building using backhoes to dig trenches for sewer, utility and power lines. The job includes monitoring grade and preparing each unit for the installation of plumbing and the pouring of the concrete pad each house will sit on.

While Wright acknowledges that speed is key, he cautions anyone getting started against setting their sites on “building the world.”

“There is no other place in the United States that is doing what we’re doing right now [in terms of construction development] in Las Vegas,” said Wright. “It’s an extremely fast, breathing, pumping system. If you don’t do what you say you’re going to do, you can be gone the next day. You’re out. And there are ten guys right there behind you, ready to take your spot.”

Wright also said he monitors quality constantly to make sure it’s at the highest level. “What has really helped us in the last three months has been these brand new machines we’ve rented off the Komatsu fleet,” he said.

Given the working conditions, the lifespan of a backhoe loader in Las Vegas is generally 2,500 hours. After suffering setbacks with other models, Elkhorn Development added three Komatsu WB140s and one WB150 from Charlie Cluff at Komatsu Equipment Company’s Las Vegas branch to its fleet in the fall of 2003.

Wright said the addition of new machines has enabled him to double production levels and increase billable hours.

“When you [the operator] get in a good, sound, decent new rig, you feel good. If you have a reliable tractor that is operating five days a week instead of three, you’re naturally going to have more money coming in. That is what has happened to us.” He continued, “One of my guys averages 15 to 30 hours of overtime every week in these machines.”

Quality and reliability are key factors in selecting machines, according to Wright. “That’s what we look for in a backhoe –– a guy to actually sit in his machine for eight hours every day, have a comfort zone, have good steady power with no dropping off and hoses that stay in place. A machine that the operator can come back to the next day, get in and do the same thing without having to worry about things breaking.”

Backhoes: Versatile and Precise

For Elkhorn Development, the only excavation option is a backhoe. Wright’s crews are often brought in to dig plumbing and utilities after a home’s footings are dug.

Excavators, even the compact variety, aren’t able to hop over the footings – and even if they could, an excavator’s tracks inside of a house layout with precise markings and measurements would wreak havoc.

Wright noted that the combination of a light, wheeled machine with a long reach and powerful, sturdy outriggers that can help position a machine inside those footings meet the job’s requirements.

“The machine has to be able to lift itself into position over all of these things without damaging and crushing the footings,” he said. “My operators, even if there were form boards [for the foundation] on those fittings, can take the machine, hop inside and get the job done.”

This versatility also allows operators to place stone and gravel within footings with the machine’s loader bucket. But the key is precise digging with the backhoe. This includes close attention to trench grades and flow patterns. If the plumbing contractor specifies a 36 in. trench on one end, working down to 27 in. on the far side, the trench must be exact and consistent.

Hydraulic System Increases Lifting Capabilities and Machine Efficiency

These requirements ultimately mean operators need to run the backhoes with a smooth hand –– but technologies like the WB140 and WB150’s HydrauMind hydraulic system can assist in the operation.

HydrauMind is a system that provides increased precision and improves the machine’s lifting capacities and breakout forces. The system consists of a single variable flow axial piston pump and a hydraulic circuit that allow the machine to adapt immediately to operator control input, making bucket control smoother and more consistent.

When that variable flow pump is matched with the closed load sensing system (CLSS), only the amount of oil necessary for ensuring high operating pressure is generated and used, providing increased efficiency, lower fuel consumption and quieter operation.

The newly upgraded line of Komatsu WB140s and WB150s include new Tier 2 compliant engines and increased hydraulic speed in both loader and backhoe operations. And hydraulics are an important feature to Wright and his backhoe operation.

Wright said that the hydraulic flows of the Komatsu backhoes are perfect for his working environment.

“It’s better than other models we’ve used. Komatsu has done a good job at the end of the stick.…The return line allows a better flow coming back and circulating to the machine.”

Breaking Through Hard Rock

With the variety of utility excavating performed by Elkhorn Development, the trenches dug by the backhoes can reach 12- to 14-ft. (3.7 to 4.3 m) deep. In Las Vegas, this leads to hitting hard rock including dense caleche deposits found throughout the area and rocky hillsides that lead up to the mountains.

According to Wright, hammers are a must and he outfits 800 and 1,000 lbs. (362.9 and 453.6 kg) Atlas Copco hammers to his backhoe fleet. Hydraulic flow for both the WB140 and WB150 equals 31.7 gpm (120 Lpm), allowing for continual, more powerful usage of the hammers.

“The guys really like to hammer with these,” said Wright.

One of the “guys” Wright is talking about is Mike Tipton, who along with his brother, Scott, are Elkhorn Development’s backhoe operators, regularly riding the controls on a WB140.

“It [the WB140] has got a great pump for running the hammers,” said Tipton. “It’s fast with the hammers.”

Many backhoes, including the WB140 and WB150, now offer buckets outfitted with teeth, but in an environment where the deposits of caleche can run from 6 to 12 in. (15 to 30 cm) or greater in thickness, hammers are the best option, said Wright.

“Sometimes you’ll try to get underneath the deposit and pry,” explained Wright. “But then your machine is lifting up and you’re putting stress on the machine. The easiest way, especially when you don’t know how large the deposit is, is to hook up the hammer and chisel through it.”

In a recent research visit to one of Wright’s job sites, Ivor Hill, vice president and general manager of Komatsu America Corp.’s Utility Division, witnessed first-hand how his company’s backhoes were being put to use by Elkhorn Development.

“This working environment is exactly the place Komatsu’s backhoes are designed to be,” said Hill. “The combination of fast hydraulic speed for digging, loading and attachment applications will serve these projects well. Ron Wright and his company are truly at the forefront of extreme backhoe usage, and the success of his company in Las Vegas proves its level of expertise.”

Focused on Your Success: Tempering the Environment with Comfortable Cabs

Dry, dusty working conditions, bustling job sites, high productivity requirements by customers, hard rock to hammer through…and these machines haven’t even encountered the summer heat yet.

Needless to say, Wright said he knows that operator comfort and confidence is critical. The success of his company rests on the shoulders of his backhoe operators and he recognizes the morale boost a new piece of equipment can give an operator, as evidenced by his recent jump in production.

And there are practical reasons for many of the cab upgrades featured in the WB140 and WB150 backhoes that helps increase production.

“Cab comfort has improved,” said Tipton. “I’d give it an “A” on comfort. And the visibility is awesome –– better than other models I’ve run.”

“Our guys really like the window set-up,” said Wright. “The windows have actually been the best feature. Other manufacturers have lines that distort your vision. We prefer closed cab backhoes, so this is a wonderful feature. In this climate, the operator can be comfortable and see what he’s doing better.”

Rocking and Rolling: Elkhorn Development Keeps Digging

According to Wright, he and his company believe in taking good care of their employees –– and that often means supplying them with more advanced, comfortable equipment.

Wright is continually upgrading his backhoe loader technology because of the positive impact it has on his business. With new machines, reliable attachments and skilled operators, Elkhorn Development’s backhoes keep working, and working… and working.

His operators and their backhoes typify the Las Vegas construction lifestyle: work hard, work long and provide a quality product through and through –– or be swallowed by the competitive Las Vegas housing construction market.