Contractors trying to cope with zooming fuel costs have short-term and long-term options. They can immediately take steps to operate their heavy equipment as efficiently as possible, though many contractors already are squeezing every last ounce of efficiency from machines and crews. For the longer haul, they must weigh the dollars and sense of updating fleets with new generations of equipment that feature fuel-sipping technology.
Neither option does much to ease bottom line pressures. Operating choices today for contractors range from painful to slightly less painful.
Richard A. Juliano, vice president for federal and state relations at the American Road and Transportation Builders Association, said association members seem to have adopted a realistic attitude toward the crisis.
“Members see this as an unprecedented situation that is not going to go away in the foreseeable future,” Juliano said in early July as oil prices topped $145 a barrel. “It is the world we have to live in, literally, and they are just trying to do the best they can.”
The world for heavy equipment owners was shaped to a significant extent by federal standards for fuel emissions, not fuel efficiency. Adopted by the federal government in 1994, the increasingly stringent rules for what a piece of heavy equipment can emit from its exhaust pipe are being phased in over 20 years — 1996 to 2015.
Sweeping Tier II and Tier III standards called for new powerplant designs that would more thoroughly burn fuel. Tier 4 standards — which begin to take effect this year — call for another 90 percent reduction in particulate matter and nitrogen oxide, but let manufacturers rely to a larger extent on treating exhaust gases.
In response to the federal mandates, engineers produced significantly cleaner versions of the industry-standard diesel engine, which is more thermally efficient than a gasoline engine and generally produces higher compression ratios and more torque. Yet while the new diesels coming online more completely consume fuel, they do not always consume less fuel. Fuel efficiency, when it occurs, is a bonus.
Which begs the question: If manufacturers were faced with a regulatory straitjacket for fuel efficiency as tight as the one for emissions, would some equally remarkable engineering breakthroughs occur?
“I’m not aware of any fuel efficiency guidelines being considered,” said Tom Withers, marketing communications manager at Deere & Company, “but fuel efficiency tends to go along with every development. For a manufacturer to be competitive, it has to develop engines that provide the same performance or improved performance. When you develop a new engine, you have goals to meet relative to it all.”
The Competition Factor
Engine and equipment manufacturers have plenty of reasons to want to be competitive in 2008. According to Environmental Protection Agency statistics, almost a third of an estimated 2 million pieces of diesel-powered construction equipment operating in the United States today were manufactured before the emissions mandates were in effect. Consequently, the older machines are due to be retired, even if reluctantly. Replacing them means millions of dollars in sales of new equipment.
So manufacturers have begun to pitch competitive new models, this time emphasizing lower fuel consumption. One of the more dramatic new offerings is the Volvo L220F hybrid wheel loader, which has an “integrated starter generator” coupled to the drive train between the engine and the transmission.
The ISG unit is connected to a ramped up battery and takes over total power generation when the wheel loader’s diesel engine might otherwise be idling. It also provides a short electrified boost in power as the engine initially engages so that increased torque is delivered to the wheels at lower rpms.
The bottom line: a promised 10 percent reduction in fuel consumption. If that double-digit gain isn’t sufficiently promising, consider this statement from Winston Leonard, Volvo Construction Equipment’s marketing communications director in the United States: “The second level of Volvo’s hybrid development could result in fuel savings of up to 50 percent.”
While such reductions are startling to think about, fuel-saving possibilities from re-engineered powerplants are not infinite. Stefan Salomonsson of the Volvo engineering team concedes that reality.
“With the engine you can only do so much to gain in fuel efficiency,” he said. “Volvo always looks at the whole machine with all its components, weight included, to be as fuel efficient as possible.”
John Deere’s Craig Olson would agree with that approach. The marketing communications manager for the construction and forestry division said Deere “measures productivity by tons moved per gallon burned.” An example of how the company has tried to engineer that equation to its advantage is the lower deadweight of its articulated trucks. Steel alloy in the frames is a weight-reduction agent.
“The empty weight of our articulated haul trucks is a ton less than our competitors,” Olson said. “After all, half the time you are driving the truck empty. So potentially, the bigger the truck, the bigger the savings.”
The company claims 10 to 30 percent lower fuel consumption for its trucks over rival models.
Deere’s whole-machine approach to productivity gains has, in fact, produced a whole new breed of machine — the 764 high-speed dozer. The rubber-tracked dirt-mover combines the function of road grader and crawler-dozer, producing less pounds per square inch of ground pressure than a grader and delivering a finished grade twice as fast as a conventional dozer.
Olson said getting the job done faster is the 764’s fuel-saving asset. “Speed is its middle name. The higher the speed, the quicker you’ll get the job done.”
Olson also cited industry-wide innovations, such as “smarter hydraulics” that surge intermittently to power equipment functions more efficiently, and cooling fans that shut down when unneeded. “Gone are the days of just having the fan sit out in front of the engine flailing the air all day long.”
For its part, Caterpillar continues to decrease fuel consumption in its latest ACERT engines. One of the Peoria, Ill., manufacturer’s more dramatic answers to greater productivity per gallon of fuel burned is its AccuGrade machine control and guidance systems. The systems are integrated into earthmoving machines and combine a digital data network, in-cab guidance features and automated blade controls. Sensors guided by lasers and GPS input take over much of the precision control work.
The result of all this high-tech calibration, as shown in a side-by-side test with non-AccuGrade-equipped machines in 2006, is startlingly quicker completion of a project and as much as 40 percent savings in fuel consumption.
Detroit Diesel engines, which powers both off-road equipment and equipment-carrying flatbed trucks, is tweaking more economy from its units. Besides offering a free software update for standard Series 60 truck engines, which promises to boost fuel savings by 2.5 percent, the engine manufacturer is marketing a brand new unit, the DD15.
The new engine features a Motor Control Module that squirts fuel into the combustion chamber according to such variables as speed, grade, acceleration and altitude. The fuel adjustments occur in fractions of a second and, combined with a turbine powered by exhaust gases, are supposed to reduce fuel use 5 percent in the DD15 compared to its Series 60 predecessor.
Shiny new machines are made more tempting by these fuel gains. But any contractor, regardless of the size of his fleet, is daunted by the thought of investing hundreds of thousands of dollars for a new piece of equipment. So operating what he already owns to best advantage is his first impulse.
Various companies suggest cost-cutting suggestions as a bridge to lower fuel costs. Incremental fuel-cost relief is what Komatsu offers in some everyday tips for running its excavators.
For example, Komatsu said that reducing the angle at which an off-road truck is parked next to a loading excavator can save fuel. Having the excavator’s boom swivel 30 degrees to dump its load instead of 90 degrees means a 4 percent gain in productivity and a three percent cut in fuel use, according to Komatsu. With larger excavators burning up to 20 gallons of fuel per hour, a three percent fuel reduction has value.
Komatsu engineers also note that excavator operators that keep bumping hydraulic levers in a futile effort to lift more than a system can handle are just wasting fuel. They calculate that if these bump-happy operators would lay off the levers just one of 10 working hours a day, over the course of a year some 225 gallons of fuel would be saved.
Yet a third suggestion from Komatsu is that excavator operators dig a long lower slope in stair-step fashion. Excavating the slope in two stages, instead of dragging a bucket from bottom to top in one motion, shortens the cycle between dumps and burns 8 percent less fuel, according to Komatsu engineers.
Such industry tips are helpful and contractors have from necessity discovered other efficiencies. Experience has shown them, for example, that in some job situations motorized scrapers burn more fuel loading their bays than do large agriculture tractors with pull-behind scrapers.
The Impact on Contracts
The pressure of rising prices will continue to force experimentation upon contractors, leading to innovation. Richard Juliano of American Road and Transportation Builders hopes the same pressures force some new thinking in project owners.
“I think what we as an association are trying to do is to educate public and private customers of the reality of the costs of contractors these days, and of the need for these customers to come up with realistic budgets for projects,” he said. “Public officials have to realize that, because of rising fuel costs, the dollar is not going to go as far.”
Unless overall project estimates are adjusted upward, general contractors either will have to work for marginal profits or, more likely, simply pass on bidding. The latter will mean that needed commercial and infrastructure projects across the country will not be contracted, to the eventual regret of customers and their constituents.
Christian Klein in the Washington office of the Associated Equipment Distributors has a whole different take on the impact of the fuel price crisis.
Klein estimates that 6 to 7 percent of money that Congress authorizes for infrastructure ends up being spent at equipment dealers, with contractors buying new machinery to gear up for projects. To keep the money flowing from Washington to states and general contractors — and a portion of it on to equipment distributors — new authorizations are necessary from each Congress.
Next congressional session, discussions on a new highway bill reauthorization will gain traction, a process that often is interminable. Klein notes that this time around the process will be overshadowed by the soaring price of fuel.
“One of the big problems facing Congress is that there is not enough money in the Highway Trust Fund to meet the needs out there,” Klein says. “The big push is to try to get more money into the program and the best way to do that is a fuel tax increase.”
Increase the fuel tax?
With high fuel costs already complained about every day by their constituents, representatives in Washington shudder at the prospect of raising fuel taxes for any reason. The political will to further tax their constituents patience may not be there, Klein fears.
Consequently, the fuel price dynamics that hurt contractors now may hurt them down the line as well with fewer infrastructure projects being authorized by Congress.
“The downstream impact of higher fuel prices could be significant,” Klein said. CEG
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