For C&R Excavating, rotating lasers have become their go-to instrument for use in one of the technology’s most basic contexts: leveling.
Laser technology, as it applies to construction, has been around for decades and, in that time, has become increasingly refined. Today's lasers can assist in everything from measuring elevation and distance to machine control to construction stake-out to alignment and much more.
For C&R Excavating, rotating lasers have become their go-to instrument for use in one of the technology's most basic contexts: leveling. Using such a laser, the Gilbert, Ariz.-based company ensures that every swimming pool they excavate for in the Phoenix metro area — and they do more than 200 a year — is perfectly level in advance of the trades that will follow them. An older but proven technology? Yes. Irreplaceable for C&R? An equally emphatic nod to the affirmative.
Founded in 1986 by Connie & Rick Kendall, C&R Excavating has its roots in the pool cleanup business, one of the final steps in a swimming pool installation process that includes excavation, followed by plumbing, steel, electrical, shotcrete, deck, tile, cleanup and then finish. Kendall was later joined by sons Mark and Brandon, who, after several years working alongside their father, felt the company needed to head in a different direction.
“Cleanup is very labor-intensive; we wanted to get into the excavation part of the pool installation process,” said Mark Kendall. “So, in 1999, my Dad sold us C&R, we purchased some equipment to begin digging pools — mostly residential projects but also some commercial work — and that's been our focus ever since.”
C&R grew to as many as 26 employees and was on pace for continued expansion when the economic downturn of 2008 hit, forcing the Kendalls to let almost the entire staff go. With just Mark, Brandon and Rick handling excavations and Mark's wife Jennifer doing the company's bookkeeping, C&R struggled to keep the business afloat during the recession, a period when one install a week (versus five or six in busy times) was common. Eventually, however, things started to turn around, homebuilding in the area picked up, and the company was once again headed in the right direction.
When the Kendalls were first considering getting into the excavation side of the business, a colleague who was retiring showed them how he was doing his work at the time. While his methodology was effective, it was also sorely outdated.
“He was a seasoned veteran in this industry and, for all the time he'd been excavating for pools, he used a water level,” said Mark Kendall. “It's one of the oldest approaches to leveling, using a bucket of water, a length of hose and gravity to indicate the level condition. Because we really didn't know of any better way to do things, we did the same — for a while. It's a cumbersome process which forces you to constantly have to wait for water in the hose to settle down before you can get an accurate measurement.”
Realizing there had to be a better way, they used a surveyor's transit for a while, which, while it was a definite improvement over the water level, was still not the answer. That came when they spotted one of their competitors using a rotating laser.
“Seeing how fast and accurate it was,” said Mark Kendall, “I turned to Brandon and said: 'We've got to get a laser.' Shortly afterward, we contacted Brad Conover, sales rep for Branco Machinery, the authorized Topcon dealer for this area and were quickly using a rotating laser. We've upgraded models through the years and today are using a Topcon RL-H4C rotating laser. It's made a world of difference for us in that facet of the business.”
On the Level
As it is in all areas of construction, being level in pool excavation is key to success in that and subsequent areas of the process. Everything from drainage to pool deck installation to placement of utilities is dependent upon C&R's work being level.
“Most often, we work off a plan provided for us by the pool company,” said Mark Kendall. “We come on site and pound small sections of rebar spaced about 1.5 to 2-feet apart — and set back 12-inches from the layout line — around the circumference of the pool. Then, one of us will take a measuring stick to which we've attached the laser's receiver and place it atop each piece of rebar for a reading. The rotating laser sends out a signal that is picked up by the receiver and a tone tells us if the bar is either high or low. We adjust it accordingly to match the pre-determined elevation and move on to the next one.”
The RL-H4C, the newest laser currently in C&R's inventory, gives them the performance they demand, providing ±10 arc-seconds of horizontal accuracy. Ensuring the laser is level, once a finicky manual process, is now done automatically by the instrument itself, which offers ±5 degrees self-leveling range. Even battery life is no longer an issue. The Topcon unit provides C&R with up to 60 hours of use through its Ni-MH rechargeable battery, and can also operate on AC power if desired.
Though the Arizona desert seems to many to be an idyllic setting, over time, exposure to the hot, dry environment can be demanding upon both people and machinery. Brandon Kendall said the Topcon lasers, in use on every project they do — in temperatures that regularly exceed 110 degrees Fahrenheit — have never failed them over the years.
“We've had no problem with the heat at all,” he said. “However, we have noticed that, if we set up the laser on a customer's patio, as we normally do, any sliding glass doors will cause a reflection which can affect the signal. To counter that, we simply place something behind the unit to block the reflection. But we've even used the unit in heavy rain, and it seems to be unaffected by it.”
One of the characteristics of past Topcon rotating lasers that C&R really appreciated was their ability to withstand the rigors of daily jobsite use. Brandon Kendall said the team recently got a chance to see proof of that durability firsthand.
“Despite having warned one of Mark's son's friends against leaning one of our heavy trimming shovels against a wall near the laser, he did so anyway. Of course, Murphy's Law said it was going to fall on the laser — and it did. Even though it smashed the protective glass on one of the sides, we were blown away when we started the instrument up and it still worked perfectly. We took it in to have Branco look it over, it checked out fine, they replaced the lens and we put it back to work. That's well-built in anybody's book.”
Kendall said Branco Machinery has been a great asset, for both in getting them into laser technology and through their excellent level of support. “We haven't had any major issues with any of the Topcon gear,” said Mark Kendall, “but Brad Conover has always been there for us, assessing our needs and handling regular service issues. They're a good ally to have.”
With the rebar installed to the appropriate depth, C&R's crew affixes a series of flexible form boards to them that will both offer a guide for excavation and serve as a finished grade indication for the surrounding deck material. “Accuracy in elevation is key and we get that without fail,” said Kendall. “There were times with the water level when, after hanging the boards, we'd see that a couple of the stakes were off. Something like that happening is no longer a concern with the rotating laser.”
While free-form pools were once customers' design of choice, Mark Kendall said that more than 90 percent of their work today consists of excavation for straight, rectangular pools. On a basic “play-pool,” one that is about 400 sq. ft. (37 sq m) of surface area, pool depths can vary from 3-ft. to 8-ft. (.9 to 2.4 m) and occasionally deeper.
“Once we have the bars and boards in, we run a string from one side to the other which will help us verify those depths using a tape,” he said. “For example, if we know that it is a horizontal distance of 12-feet from the 4-foot depth to the 5-foot depth, we also know that, at mid-point, the depth will be 4.5 feet, and so on.”
He added that, again, those figures are dependent on C&R having achieved good, reliable, level measurements early on and the rotating laser gives them that degree of confidence.
“The Topcon unit is easy to use, durable, reliable and, most importantly accurate,” said Mark Kendall. “We are back to doing about 200 pools a year now, only with a very small workforce. Tools like this help us maintain that pace and remain competitive in the industry.”
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