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Watson Construction Saving the Planet - and Money

Fri August 19, 2011 - Southeast Edition
Eric Olson

The way the professionals at Watson Construction see it, if you can do business with equipment that is both environmentally friendly and wallet friendly, why would you do it any other way?

The contracting firm, one of the largest in northern Florida, has put that philosophy on display in a number of ways over the last few years. None has been more daring than its recent purchase of the new Komatsu HB215LC-1 hybrid hydraulic excavator, a midsize machine designed to save its users at least 25 percent in fuel-cost savings.

Based in Newberry, Fla., about 10 mi. west of Gainesville, Watson Construction has built a reputation as a top-flight earthmoving, site work and underground utility construction company under the leadership of its owner, Larry Watson. Along with his general manager Doug Dabney, Watson also made the decision to make his firm one of the South’s leaders in incorporating green technology into its construction practices.

“Larry has taken the position that he is going to be progressive and lead the construction industry along the path to being more green in the way it does business,” said Mitch Blanton, Linder Industrial Machinery salesman, who sold the Komatsu hybrid excavator to Watson. “He has one of the largest construction companies in the area so other people look to him and what he does and how he does it. This is actually a pretty bold step that he has taken.”

In addition to buying the new hybrid excavator, Watson bought Thierry Mingione, chief estimator, a Toyota Highlander hybrid and he parked his full-size pickup truck for a Toyota Prius. He also has outfitted his office’s roof with solar panels to power his operation — a handy apparatus in sunny Florida.

“He is living as he preaches,” Blanton said of Watson. “He did not buy this excavator just to be the first guy to buy one in this area. He really believes in being forward-looking with solar and hybrid technology.”

Watson and Blanton together attended the ConExpo-Con/AGG convention in Las Vegas this spring where Komatsu introduced the HB215LC-1 excavator to a worldwide market. After watching a demonstration of the machine and learning its capabilities, Watson told Blanton that he had to have one. Earlier this summer, Watson became the first to purchase a Komatsu hybrid excavator from Linder Industrial Machinery.

“We were considering the idea of making a purchase and when we saw what this excavator could do, we decided to give it a shot,” said Dabney. “We didn’t absolutely have to have one but we figured with the price of the machine and the projected fuel savings we figured it was a good deal and we had a place to put it to work right away.”

The excavator hit the ground running when Watson and Dabney sent it with a crew to a job site on U.S. Highway 90 in Baker County where it is digging a trench for the installation of a water main. The project involves running a 3 mi. (4.8 km) stretch of pipe and other utility lines between an existing correctional facility and a brand new inmate housing project.

“We are expecting to save at least 25 percent on fuel costs,” Dabney explained. “But, I am hoping that it will, with an underground utility crew, save even more, possibly 35 to 40 percent.

“It is definitely going to be a shallower excavating machine because of the way we are going to use it,” he added. “We are not going to put it on a 15-foot deep sewer cut if we can avoid it because we have larger machines that will move more dirt. Right now we have a smaller than normal bucket on it because we are in the right of way placing a new water main between an existing high pressure gas main and existing fiber optic cables. The small bucket also helps minimize the excavation area since the more we disturb the more we have to restore.

A Refined Technology

The Komatsu hybrid excavator was introduced at last March’s ConExpo-Con-AGG following its initial mass production in 2008. After first being marketed in Japan and China, the excavator was improved and refined for the second generation model, the HB215LC-1, which was introduced to North America earlier this year.

The excavator is powered by a newly developed electric swing motor, a generator motor, an ultra-capacitor (rather than a battery) and a 139-hp (103.6 kW) diesel engine. The hybrid works on the principle that kinetic energy, recovered during the swing-braking phase of operation by the swing moter, is converted to electricity, which is then stored in the ultra-capacitor. This captured regenerated energy can then be discharged immediately in the rotation of the upper structure and to the generator motor to power-up assist the engine as needed during use.

As compared to standard excavators, the hybrid is designed to save an average of 25 percent more fuel, with an equivalent reduction in CO2 emissions.

Armando Najera, Komatsu’s product manager of hydraulic excavators, said that the best explanation for how the hybrid excavator works to save both fuel and money can be found in comparing it to what you hear from a salesman when you are thinking of buying a hybrid automobile.

“I would hope that the salesman would point out that you are not going to get the full benefits from the hybrid by driving mostly highway miles because a hybrid auto works best in stop-and-go traffic,” he explained. “That is because every time it brakes it generates electricity to put in reserve in the battery pack.

“Along those same lines, the hybrid excavator, which is based on swing energy regeneration, will give the customer significant fuel savings as long as it is in a high-swing application. And, in the right application, it could potentially see fuel savings higher than 25 percent, depending on how the machine is used. If it is used in a low-swing application, then you could potentially see savings less than 25 percent, but it may make up for that tomorrow if used in a different higher swing application.”

Watson figures that his new hybrid excavator will easily be able to handle any job he can throw its way.

“Whether it is digging trenches or top-loading trucks, though, we want to get the best use out of it and in order to do that it needs to be in an operation where it is constantly swinging, since that’s the way it generates most of its power,” he explained.

Najera added that unlike battery packs in hybrid autos that have to be replaced midway through a car’s life, the Komatsu hybrid excavator’s battery pack, which in its case is the ultra-capacitor, is built for the life of the machine.

“We actually have more than 700 machines in operation worldwide that have accumulated more than a million hours of actual operating time and some of those machines have passed the 10,000-hour mark while still using their original ultra-capacitor, generator motor and swing motor,” he said. “So, this is mature technology we are talking about, not just the first run of these machines.”

A Long Association

The purchase of the Komatsu hybrid excavator by Watson Construction through Linder is just another in a very long line of machines that Linder has provided for the contracting firm.

Blanton has spent 20 of his 28 years in the equipment business calling on Watson and Dabney and has spent so much time with them that he considers them part of his family. With 98 percent of Watson Construction’s 130 pieces of equipment being Komatsu, that adds up to a lot of face time between Blanton and Watson Construction.

Watson Construction was created in 1977 when Watson had only a small, single truck in his operation. Thirty-four years later he has built his company into one with more than $16 million in annual revenues and 90 employees.

That success has allowed Watson Construction to experiment with green technology applications like hybrid excavators, but if the application didn’t also save money in today’s cost-conscious business world, those technologies would be dead in the water, according to Dabney.

“When all is said and done I would think that the entire industry would be leaning hard in the green direction,” he said. “You can say it is more environmentally friendly but if it ends up saving you money to operate, that is the way you should go.”

With 16 locations in key cities throughout North Carolina, South Carolina and Florida, Linder represents Komatsu construction products; Wirtgen milling machines; Vogele pavers; Hamm compaction products; Kleemann crushing products; Genesis demolition and scrap attachments; Exodus scrap handlers, Allied Construction Products, Etnyre, Esco, Hensley and Superior Brooms. For more information on Linder Industrial Machinery or any of these products, please visit or CEG

Eric Olson

A writer and contributing editor for CEG since 2008, Eric Olson has worked in the business for more than 40 years.

Olson grew up in the small town of Lenoir, NC in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, where he began covering sports for the local newspaper at age 18. He continued to do that for several other dailies in the area while in college at Appalachian State University. Following his graduation, he moved on to gain experience at two other publications before becoming a real estate and special features writer and editor at the Winston-Salem Journal for 10 years. Since 1999 he has worked as a corporate media liaison and freelance writer, in addition to his time at CEG.

He and his wife, Tara, have been married for 33 years and are the parents of two grown and successful daughters. His hobbies include collecting history books, watching his beloved Green Bay Packers and caring for his three dogs and one cat.

Read more from Eric Olson here.

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