Natural Gas Boom Grows Firm’s Earthmoving Business

As new housing starts dipped during “The Great Recession”, one man further grew his business on the strength of the Marcellus Shale natural gas boom.

📅   Mon June 01, 2015 - Northeast Edition
John Bauer - SPECIAL TO CEG


Steele added four new dozers to his fleet in 2014: two 850L dozers and two 2050M dozers from Case Construction Equipment.
Steele added four new dozers to his fleet in 2014: two 850L dozers and two 2050M dozers from Case Construction Equipment.
Steele added four new dozers to his fleet in 2014: two 850L dozers and two 2050M dozers from Case Construction Equipment. The 2050M features adjustable steering and shuttle ratio settings (smooth, moderate or aggressive) to help the operator match machine performance to ground conditions. Several blade functions are now easily manipulated by fingertip controls — includ

With a name like Steele in Pennsylvania, you’d expect Steele Construction Inc. owner Bill Steele to specialize in structural steel construction, or to own a foundry. Instead, he’s recognized as one of the premier builders of timber-framed homes in the state. As new housing starts dipped during “The Great Recession”, Steele further grew his business on the strength of the Marcellus Shale natural gas boom.

“We were lucky enough to get into a gas contract, and now our company is pretty much evenly split between the building of heavy timber frame and moving dirt,” said Steele.

The company specializes in site reclamation at new gas extraction sites: when a well pad is finished, it may only take up about an acre of space – but the surrounding area that was affected by the construction must be put back to its natural state. A recent job site in Derry, Pa., included moving and final grading about 50,000 cu. ft. (1,416 cu m) of dirt, closing in a retention pond built for pad construction and returning roughly 4 acres back into farmland for the landowner.

“Time is money and the gas companies want the reclaiming done within [a tight timeline],” Steele said. “The only way we could do it is with bigger equipment.”

To that end, Steele added four new dozers to his fleet in 2014: two 850L dozers and two 2050M dozers from Case Construction Equipment. The biggest change came with the size of the two 2050Ms (214 hp, 45,414 lbs. [20,600 kg]).

“We went from very small to very big. It was a big step for us and I am happy to tell you it was the best step we ever did. We get on the jobs faster, we get off the jobs faster and we are actually making more money with the bigger dozers,” Steele said.

Right-Sizing the Fleet

The two new 850Ls fit the mold of the dozers previously owned by Steele. These (relatively) smaller machines are excellent support dozers used for everything from site cleanup and final grading to pulling a compacting roller around the site. The lower weight and smaller footprint make them easy to transport and easy to maneuver, according to the manufacturer.

To meet the larger earthmoving demands of well site reclamation, Steele further expanded to the considerably larger 214 net hp 2050M. Outfitted with a 6.3 cu. yd. (4.8 cu m) blade and featuring 81,000 pounds of drawbar pull, the 2050M represents a major increase in the company’s earthmoving power — without making it too difficult for Steele to transport the machine from site to site.

“The roads up there are very narrow, bridges are small. This is the largest dozer we can get into some of these pads,” said Steele. “We still need two permits on this dozer, but we at least can get them across the bridges.”

The 2050M is equipped with Tier IV Interim selective catalytic reduction (SCR) engine technology. Case M Series dozers are the first and only dozers in the industry to use SCR, and the technology is well-suited to the task: Dozers rely on brute force and raw power to move material. SCR lets the engine breathe more freely and run at peak performance without compromising the power or drawbar pull required to move material when it’s needed most. Simply put: all of the engine’s useful effort is put towards the power needed to move dirt. The 2050M provides a 14 percent increase in power and a 10.5 percent increase in fuel savings over Case’s previously largest dozer, the 1850K.

“The engine is well-matched to the machine. I don’t like engines too big for the machine because it’s just excess fuel that I have to dump into them. They’re really well matched and the fuel for that size machine I am quite happy with,” said Steele.

With that efficient use of the engine also comes the power needed to get the job done. After months of operating the 2050M, operators confirmed the machine’s ability to do more than just push through the pile.

“I notice that whenever it gets a full blade it just keeps right on pushing. It doesn’t bog down. It just keeps pushing the dirt,” said Jack Snyder, dozer operator of Steele Construction.

The optional ripper equipped on one of his 2050Ms turned out to be a nice surprise for Steele as well.

“The ripper was a little different than I was expecting but it turns out that it is exactly what we need. We do a lot of ripping of roads, and the ripper saves us a lot of time. Once we rip the road or the parking pads up, almost any dozer can push the stone off, it’s like pushing loose stone.”

The machine also works well on varied terrain. When reclaiming ponds and other portions of well sites, the dozers occasionally work on steep slopes. The 2050M has proven to be extremely stable and capable of retaining its power, even in sloped conditions.

“When we reclaim the ponds, the banks are pretty steep. They seem to stick right on the grades,” Steele said.

Empowering the Operator

The controls and interiors of the new dozers have been completely redesigned over previous models. The 2050M features adjustable steering and shuttle ratio settings (smooth, moderate or aggressive) to help the operator match machine performance to ground conditions. Several blade functions are now easily manipulated by fingertip controls — including blade angle, blade sensitivity and blade shake.

“Actually from the beginning, the dozers are a lot less complicated to run right now. They’re very easy to run, very sensitive. These dozers will turn on a dime. The blades are quick to react to your touch. The wobble sticks are fantastic,” said Steele. “It’s just day and night between our older dozers and these news ones.”

The 2050M’s cab features a cab-forward design, floor to ceiling glass doors and a sloped hood that provides excellent visibility to the blade and ground.

“You can see all your corners on your blade. There is a lot of glass in the machine and the glass goes to the floor so you can see almost half your tracks,” Steele said.

The visibility of the 2050M continues to stand out to the operators. Snyder said, “through your front windows you can see the corners of your blades. A lot of dozers you can’t quite see the corner of the blade.”

The positive-pressure/sealed cab also has been completely redesigned to keep the environment out and to keep the operators comfortable — a request made specifically by the companies hiring Steele.

“One of the things that the gas company requested us to do is go to closed dozers,” said Steele. “We have noticed the guys seem to be much more comfortable. They work longer and don’t mind it. The cabs keep the noise down. It actually works out pretty well.”

“You always get better work if you make a comfortable environment for your employees. We are a family business. Our employees have been with us quite a while and they are important to us.”