Diesel Dilemma

Aug. 14, 2007

His only option was to spit it out.

Fresh off the dentist’s chair, Rick James, executive vice president with Adams Construction Co., Roanoke, Va., knew providing answers to a phone interview was going to be a struggle. It didn’t take long, though, for the words to turn clearer and more pronounced.

The Novocaine may have been wearing thin. One thing was for sure, you could still hear a twinge of discomfort in his voice.

His only option was to spit it out.

Fresh off the dentist’s chair, Rick James, executive vice president with Adams Construction Co., Roanoke, Va., knew providing answers to a phone interview was going to be a struggle. It didn’t take long, though, for the words to turn clearer and more pronounced.

The Novocaine may have been wearing thin. One thing was for sure, you could still hear a twinge of discomfort in his voice.

“We buy several million gallons of fuel a year,” he told Roads & Bridges magazine. “When you start talking about higher fuel costs, it affects an asphalt paving contractor probably more than most.”

Contractors in the road- and bridge-building industry have received very little for the pain induced by the steady rise in diesel fuel costs. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, diesel fuel went up 30% in 2003, 27% in ’04, a killer 50% in ’05 and 15% in ’06. So far the pattern this year is an all-too-familiar one.

“This year is holding steady, but the last couple of months it has gone up significantly,” Bill Buechner, economist for the American Road & Transportation Builders Association (ARTBA) told Roads & Bridges. “We are in line for another big impact of diesel fuel on contractors this year.”

But what is in line in terms of solutions? Could true hybrids eventually take over the paving train, or will most contractors juggle bid numbers and make cutbacks to survive?

“Is [hybrid technology] something that the major manufacturers are looking at? It’s not something they advertise as part of their sales component,” said James.

Pumping options

Adams Construction Co. handles several hundred asphalt paving jobs a year, and fortunately for them, the Virginia Department of Transportation has offered one big coping mechanism for the spike in fuel costs: the fuel adjustment strategy. It essentially allows contractors to pull the stinger out of bid estimates.

“There is a usage rate per pay unit, whether it is a yard of dirt or a ton of asphalt, then you take the adjustment based off the difference of a gallon of fuel at the time of bid versus the time of the estimate,” explained James. “To my knowledge it is one of the most comprehensive in the nation. It helps take some of the risk off the contractor for something we have little control over.”

For a company that has a firm hand on hundreds of pieces of equipment, feeling any degree of helplessness is welcomed like a highly contagious virus. When it comes to pricing fuel for a bid, Adams Construction takes a hard look at short- and long-range forecasts.

“We try and take a look at the best information out there,” said James. “We do track cost on every aspect of our business, whether it is producing asphalt, hauling asphalt or placing asphalt. Fuel is a major component of our business.”

When it takes about 2 gal of diesel fuel to dry and heat rock for a ton of asphalt, contractors like Adams Construction need to harness solutions like a sharp sheepherder. They need to keep them high in number, close and in control at all times.

Aside from checking forecasts, Adams Construction also looks at its capacity to store fuel in large quantities. By covering a third of the state, the fuel-storage option does come into play from time to time, but for the most part, the Virginia road builder buys its gas retail and attempts to bring in the most competitive price in an open marketplace.

Technology has its place, too. James has idle sensors hooked up to a number of dump trucks that roam the jobsite. By using GPS, he knows exactly how long a truck is just sitting at an operation. James also said the newer model trucks come with timers that cut the engine off if it is idling more than five minutes.

Adams Construction also trains its drivers and operators to be more fuel-efficient by holding a kickoff and update meetings throughout the year.

“We do try to explain to them that fuel is a major cost of doing business and try to get them to buy into our philosophy for operating safe and efficiently,” said James.

However, when the demand for fast construction is pushing equipment in the rpm red zone, diesel therapy demands another set of massage fingers. James is having a hard time finding the fast relief to match. Like many states, Virginia has switched from calendar-day contracts to fixed-day contracts.

“Some of them have pretty aggressive schedules,” said the 20-year veteran. “Of course, when you have less time to do the same job, that means you need to work with better equipment and better people.”

Manufacturers know all about running full speed through the workweek in order to find a more fuel-efficient machine. Jim Johnson, manager of key customer sales for Terex Roadbuilding, found himself in a healthy exchange of positive reinforcement while testing out a new piece of equipment on a jobsite in Texas in mid-July. An innovative concrete paving kit was taking the time it took to change paving widths from two days down to four hours. It emphasized the importance of the contractor bringing the right type of equipment to the jobsite.

“Sometimes when you try to use a piece of equipment that is not specifically for that work application, it is probably going to be inefficient to varying degrees,” said Johnson, who had four other tips to squeeze the maximum benefits out of every drop of diesel fuel:

  • Operate within the manufacturer’s recommended rpm range. “Maybe the recommended rpm range is 2,200 and instead of checking when they run throttle up, they run it to full stop, which could be 2,500 or 2,600.”
  • Clean fuel filters, quality fuel source and efficient fuel delivery. Johnson said it is amazing how much debris can creep into filters and gasoline on the jobsite. “Fuel type also is important. You can end up with the wrong fuel type and get a much-reduced performance from the engine. Most operators really only know to give it more fuel.”
  • Do not crowd the tool. “If the piece of equipment is at its boundaries of performance, pushing the rpm or crowding the horsepower of the machine is not going to improve anything except reduce the fuel efficiency. Often on the jobsite, people exceed that quickly and do not realize they are crowding the tool.”
  • Newer engines are more fuel-efficient. Johnson said when an operator does crowd the tool with newer models, an electronic management system in the engine will reduce the horsepower and cut back on machine performance to prevent a component failure. “Recent production engines manage the efficiency much better.”

Terex Roadbuilding also encourages contractors to pocket a fuel calculator. Laid out on an Excel spreadsheet, the calculator allows one to estimate the cost of fuel for certain types of machines.

“You couldn’t necessarily use it to substantiate fuel consumption, but you could use it to project what it would likely be,” said Johnson.

Hybrid power

Fuel efficiency was the buzzword that flew all over the extensive grounds of Bauma in Germany earlier this year. Most manufacturers stated they remained committed to making traditional engines last longer on a tank of gas. However, one manufacturer, Volvo, announced its commitment to hybrid technology. The Swedish machine maker has been testing hybrid engines on refuse trucks, buses and wheel loaders on its testing grounds in Europe. Although it is closer to releasing a line for refuse trucks and buses, it is claiming future wheel loaders could display potential fuel savings of up to 50%, the largest of any prototype.

“[Wheel loaders] are used in a completely different application and that gives us more possibilities,” Stefan Salomonsson, product specialist for Volvo, told Roads & Bridges. “With a wheel loader, there is a lot more back-and-forth, and you can work it exactly where the engine is most efficient.”

Salomonsson said it would not be surprising if Volvo sells its first hybrid wheel loader by the year 2010.

Biodiesel also found its way into the exhibit halls at Bauma, but according to Salomonsson, the capacity to produce such an energy source to meet demand isn’t close to becoming a reality in either Europe or the U.S. It’s a further endorsement for hybrid technology as the future in engine building.

“It is my opinion that, especially in concrete paving, the step to hybrid will not be difficult and I think it is fairly certain it will be in the short term,” said Johnson, who points to the advancement in railroad locomotives and large mining trucks. “Their wheels are driven by electric motors. So to some degree we have been running hybrid for a long time.”

For now, test vehicles and talk does little to make James’s day. On top of the rise in fuel costs, there is the dim prospect of heavy work in Virginia.

“The workload is stagnant or slightly declining,” he said. “So that is not a desirable environment.”

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