11 min read / July 18, 2022 / Greg Heckart
The bad news: The cost of fuel has reached record highs across the country, and the construction industry is feeling the impact. The average price of diesel is over $5 per gallon in most states, nearly double of what it was last year, and could continue to rise. Fuel is a major expense for most construction companies – and when its cost goes up, so does the threat to companies’ bottom lines.
While we cannot control the cost at the pump, the good news is there are still ways for construction companies to reduce their fuel usage and lower costs.
In some cases, you can help defray costs through contracts and agreements. Negotiating a surcharge clause that gives you the ability to raise prices if fuel costs reach a certain level is a possibility. You may also have a simple deal with a customer that gives you the ability to do the same. If you signed a contract before prices soared and don’t have fuel surcharges in place, you can try to add them, but it’s more likely you will have to seek ways to reduce your owning and operating costs and offset the higher price.
If you are idling for extended, unproductive periods of time, you are wasting fuel.
A study done about 10 years ago by Komatsu’s Business Solutions Group (BSG), part of its Digital Support Solutions, showed the average idle time to be nearly 40%. The group used telematics data to track equipment. Recent data indicated that for most machines, the number remains relatively high.
Idling is necessary in certain situations such as warming up and cooling down a machine. It could also be justified when you are in high-production activities that involve near-constant movement, such as loading trucks with an excavator and charging crushers with a loader, where restarting would negatively affect productivity.
“Shutting the machine down during lunch breaks or when there are significant blocks of time where it’s not going to be used will be better for your bottom line,” stated Matt Beinlich, director, Digital Support Solutions, Komatsu. “Reducing idle time is an easy and effective way to reduce fuel costs.”
Telematics let fleet managers easily track idle time by machine for their entire equipment lineup. If they see excessive idling, they can address it with operators and other on-site personnel.
Using Auto Idle Shutdown, a feature available on most Tier 4 Final machines, is an easy way to decrease idle time during unproductive periods, according to Beinlich. Your machines’ operations and maintenance manuals can show you how to set it — the minimum is five minutes before shutdown begins in most cases — and your local dealer can help too.
“Sometimes, you don’t even realize how long you have been idling,” said Beinlich. “Setting Auto Idle Shutdown gives you the ability to set the machine to automatically shut down after a certain amount of idle time. If you are not already using it, you should turn this valuable function on to save fuel.”
Beinlich and his team created a tool several years ago to help equipment users anticipate the amount of fuel a machine will consume during a given period of time and help make better informed estimates when budgeting, placing bids or purchasing a new machine.
“Typically, equipment owners forecast annual fuel consumption by categorizing the types of work the machine will do into three categories: light, average or heavy,” explained Beinlich. “Those are pretty subjective terms and guessing wrong could be costly. We want to give owners a more precise prediction.”
To accomplish this, BSG developed a chart based on the relationship of fuel burn and idle time. Using Komatsu’s Komtrax telematics system, the team can compare like-model machines to determine the average fuel consumption more accurately.
“We use idle ratio because it’s the biggest driver of fuel consumption, and it is measurable data that we can get from Komtrax. It gives us the clearest idea of how a machine is really being used,” noted Beinlich. “A heavy-use machine will idle less than a light-use one. This allows us to better define light, average and heavy work for the equipment owner.”
Using a chart with idle time and fuel burn, BSG uses Komtrax to display information from like-model machines onto a scatter plot.
“This helps us determine a best-fit line that covers all possible scenarios. If the average idle rate for a specific model is 40%, and a company knows its idle time will be closer to 30%, it can classify its machine usage as heavy,” said Beinlich. “The company can then use the chart to determine how many gallons per hour they should expect to burn in a heavy-use environment for that machine.”
The information can help customers make clearer, more informed decisions when purchasing equipment as well as assist in setting operating budgets and calculating bids.
“With this approach, it’s realistic that a customer’s annual fuel budget for a single machine might swing a few thousand dollars per year in either direction when compared to simply using the national averages,” Beinlich said. “Think about how that adds up across an entire fleet.”
ECO Guidance, which provides information to operators on energy-saving operations that reduce fuel consumption, is a feature on most machines r during the past 10 years.
Komatsu’s ECO Guidance displays messages on the monitor in the following situations:
“ECO Guidance is great for maximizing fuel economy,” said Salvador Davalos, Komtrax administrator, Komatsu. “It gives operators instant feedback on how they can operate more efficiently. If for some reason that feature was deactivated, turning it back on is very simple and can be done in a few steps using the machine’s monitor panel.”
Follow these steps to activate ECO Guidance if it’s not currently on:
ECO Guidance data on Komatsu machines is transmitted via Komtrax and available through My Komatsu. An energy savings operation report can be generated for fleet managers, operators and others to review.
ECO Guidance might also suggest operating in Economy (E) mode instead of Power (P) mode.
“In most instances, Power mode is unnecessary,” said Beinlich. “For example, a wheel loader in a quarry really gets no better production in P mode versus E, and E provides better fuel efficiency, so it’s the best choice. The only time P really is an advantage is in applications where the loader has to climb, for example, a 10% ramp with a full bucket. Most loaders are running on relatively flat ground and not in a load-and-carry application where they are moving with a bucket uphill over a long distance.”
Beinlich added that excavators and dozers are used for both digging and moving naturally compacted soils and lighter applications such as final grade and spreading material. In most instances, E mode will get the job done without unnecessary fuel burn. However, that doesn’t mean that P mode should never be used.
“If the material is hard, such as heavy clay, and requires greater power to move, by all means, P mode should be used,” said Beinlich. “In those cases, using E mode will take more time to hit target elevation, which increases fuel usage.”
Bigger is not always better and using a large machine for a job that a smaller one can efficiently do increases fuel usage and overall operating costs. Fleet managers need to consider several factors when utilizing equipment, including choosing the right size for the job.
“The data shows that people often own and use machines that are too big,” said Kurt Moncini, senior product manager, Komatsu. “Large machines not only cost more upfront, but they also have higher operating and maintenance costs, are more costly to transport, consume more fuel, and depreciate faster. Smaller machines have a higher utilization rate because they can be used on more jobs, are much easier to transport, and their residual values are more predictable and potentially higher.”
Moncini says that contractors often choose large machines due to a lack of information. They believe they are protecting themselves by purchasing bigger equipment, with the thought that it can handle more jobs. Using a machine that is the wrong size is also common with new or growing companies because they often work with machines they already have – which tend to be older – to save money. This strategy might work in the short term, but long-term it could end up costing companies more. Older machines can usually be replaced with newer, slightly smaller models that have better design technology, fuel efficiency and performance.
It is also important to consider sizing attachments correctly. Excavator buckets are a prime example. Many contractors believe bigger is always better with buckets. However, at the end of the day, the pile of dirt excavated or loaded is often the same with a properly sized smaller bucket. Larger buckets extend cycle times, work a machine harder, spend more time over hydraulic relief, and end up burning more fuel.
“I think people would be surprised at the benefits of properly sizing machines,” said Moncini. “Just because a Komatsu PC360 excavator can do the same jobs as a PC210, doesn’t mean it should. The PC360 isn’t nimble enough for smaller jobs. Using the right-sized machine is not only more economical from an equipment standpoint, but it also easier to transport, saves time and eliminates wasted effort – which reduces costs, including fuel usage.”
Komatsu’s Digital Support Solutions team has done several studies with contractors, quarries and other operations to determine ways that they can maximize productivity and efficiency. For instance, the group assessed a material supply customer’s site – looking at how it loaded, its haul distance, the tons of product the plant needed per hour, and more. The team determined that smaller equipment would be best when projecting operating costs that included fuel, operator pay, maintenance and more. The customer heeded the recommendation and determined that it would save enough money to allow for the purchase of a second WA380 wheel loader.
Another thing to consider as fuel prices rise is purchasing or renting a hybrid excavator, such as the Komatsu HB365LC-3 hybrid excavator. This hybrid excavator with electric swing drive uses a capacitor to store energy during swing braking and discharge electricity during start of swing cycle. This, combined with an ultra-low engine idle speed, can reduce fuel use up to 25%. The machine also cycles faster and is more responsive, because the hydraulic system does not need to share oil with the swing drive so can devote 100% of available flow to the boom, arm and bucket.
GPS-based grading helps increase productivity and lower per-yard costs to move material. In the last 20 years, GPS technology has improved significantly with integrated machine control that lowered costs associated with replacing cables, masts and additional satellites that increased accuracy.
Many of today’s machines with integrated GPS grade control also feature additional technologies, such as Komatsu’s Proactive Dozing Control logic, that help operators get to grade even faster and at lower costs, including reduced fuel usage. An added benefit is that technology is helping new operators become proficient at moving dirt faster than ever before.
“Putting an inexperienced operator in a conventional dozer means you have to live with the fact that it’s going to take valuable time for them to learn how to move dirt efficiently and be able to understand stakes and slopes,” said Byron Omdahl, who owns and operates Omdahl Excavation & Utilities Inc. in Manhattan, Mont., with his wife, Bev, and runs a Komatsu D71EXi-24 dozer. “The iMC (intelligent Machine Control) dozers shorten the learning curve because the automatic grade control knows to put the right load on the blade. We have seen our productivity on road, pond and other types of jobs increase. It’s highly accurate, and we are finishing jobs faster.”
Intelligent machines with integrated GPS are one component of a larger technological picture that’s shaping the construction industry’s future. Solutions that provide remote file transfers to update plans, track productivity off-site, and survey sites are also available.
“It’s critical to communicate new information as quickly as possible,” said Bryce Satterly, Komatsu Smart Construction solutions manager. “Technology is making that virtually instantaneous. Solutions such as our Smart Construction Remote is a good example. It allows users to send design data to machines in the field and remotely support operators without traveling to the job site, reducing costly downtime, and saving fuel costs associated with making those trips.”
These tips are relatively easy to implement, will decrease fuel usage, and increase profitability. For more information on Komatsu’s Smart Construction solutions and other ways you could potentially save time and costs, visit https://www.komatsu.com/en/site-optimization/smart-construction/.