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October 2008

Red Tech Inc. finds compact excavators right fit on commercial jobsites

Bobcat 435 zero house swing excavator

Red Tech Inc. uses a Bobcat 435 ZHS excavator with grapple attachment to quickly remove debris from the work area.

When it comes to digging in the dirt, Ronald Dowda has a lot of experience. Based in Covington, La., Dowda is the president and owner of his own underground utility construction company, Red Tech Inc. Dowda got his start in utility construction in 1986, when he went to work for a family friend who was doing underground electrical work. From there, Dowda built a career in the industry, moving on to become a foreman on a small crew and eventually running a contracting company he was working for. Dowda’s next move was to work for the local electrical utility company as a construction team leader.

“Working in this business was supposed to be a temporary thing. Here I am 22 years later and I’m loving it,” says Dowda.

In the Covington area, about 80 percent of the electrical utilities are underground and the electricity company has a staff of 15 to 20 that takes care of the underground lines. “I was doing $11 million worth of work for the utility company and working 2,000 hours of overtime every year,” says Dowda. This made Dowda realize that there was a market for underground utility contracting and he chose to go into business on his own.

Beginning with one crew and a Bobcat® 435 zero house swing (ZHS) excavator, Red Tech, Inc. was working seven days a week. Monday through Thursday, Dowda’s crew performed electrical work under contract for the utility company. Friday through Sunday, Red Tech, Inc. did conduit work for local developers. After his first year, Dowda’s business had been built up to the point where he could hire another crew and purchase another Bobcat 435 ZHS compact excavator.

Work on Red Tech Inc. projects is split between the two crews. The first crew does the trenching and the second crew follows the first — wiring the site, setting up transformers and making them hot.

While a majority of Red Tech Inc. projects are on residential jobsites, commercial projects have been a growing part of the company’s business. The residential housing market remains strong in southern Louisiana, but it has still been impacted by the changing market conditions that have affected the rest of the country, leading Red Tech Inc. to pick up more commercial work.

Dowda says that the biggest differences in working on a commercial jobsite are that the conduit is bigger and the room to work is smaller. Red Tech Inc. just completed installing electricity in new business park in Covington. With only six buildings, the business park is not a large project, but often the smallest jobs provide the biggest challenges. The Red Tech Inc. crews had to place a transformer next to every building. The compact excavators that Red Tech Inc. crews use on these jobsites help the contractor overcome the challenges presented at the jobsite.

On the Covington business park job, the Red Tech Inc. crew was beneath a 34,000 volt power line. A large excavator may have risked getting too close to the line while working. Underground on the site was a sewer line and an existing underground 34,000-volt power line. In addition, there was only 10 feet for the crew to work between a building and a property line and often the excavator was right next to the building. These conditions meant that a larger excavator would be too large for the work space and too big to carefully navigate around the other underground utilities.

Dowda says that having to work around existing underground utilities makes it important to have equipment and operators that can be counted on. “On these jobsites, you can’t have a machine that is jerky,” says Dowda. “You need a machine that is smooth and feels like an extension of your arm and an operator who is experienced.”

Dowda and his crews need to know how a machine is going to respond while working because there is always a level of uncertainty when working with underground utilities. Of course, before working on a job, Red Tech Inc. consults with maps that show the location of utility lines and utility companies mark the ground to show where the utility lines are buried. Once ground is broken, however, things are not always in the exact location as on the map, and the crew needs to know when it is getting close to another utility supply.

Bobcat 435 zero house swing excavator

Another attachment that Red Tech Inc. uses is an auger, to dig precise holes for utility installation.

Disturbing a water main or a fiber optic phone line is not an option. Should Red Tech Inc. crews strike one of these utilities, it can cost the company $5,000 to $20,000, depending on the damage. “The Bobcat excavators are so responsive, we can feel the difference in soil conditions, which is a sign that there might be something there, as we operate the machine” says Dowda. “That quality has saved us from damaging something many times.”

No matter how well the equipment performs, it’s still up to the person operating the machine to operate safely. On commercial jobsites, Dowda says that an operator with a lot of experience is a must. “One false move by an operator can cost a lot of money, because there are so many things in the ground that can’t be disturbed,” says Dowda. Red Tech Inc. trains operators by starting them out at residential jobsites. Most residential jobsites that the contractor works on are new construction areas — subdivisions where new homes are going to be constructed, often in areas that have never been developed before. These are places that don’t have electricity or any other utilities, so there is less worry in striking something while digging on these jobsites.

At the Covington business park jobsite, the zero house swing of the excavator was beneficial because the machine had to work right next to the buildings. This design gives the excavator house 320 degrees of swing without any part of the house protruding outside of the excavator tracks. This allowed the Red Tech Inc. crew to place the excavator right next to the new business park buildings and work without worrying about the excavator house coming in contact with and damaging the building.

In addition to using buckets to dig, Red Tech Inc. relies on two other excavator attachments on commercial jobsites — an auger and a grapple. Red Tech Inc. uses the auger to dig holes in precise locations, without having to disturb more soil than necessary. The grapple is used to move construction materials, trees or trash from the right-of-way where Red Tech Inc. needs to install the utility. “There is always something in our way when we get to a jobsite and we can’t wait for someone else to clear it, so we use the grapple to prepare the jobsite,” says Dowda.

Having to clear the right-of-way means that Red Tech Inc. could lose valuable time. In order to make the process of cleaning up the jobsite as efficient as possible, Red Tech Inc. purchased the Bobcat Hydraulic X-Change attachment system option on their excavators. This system allows the operator to quickly change between attachments through hydraulically activated retention pins that are set in motion by flipping a switch inside the cab. It retracts the pins for attachment removal and extends them for attachment hook-up, saving the operator time and labor. The operator installs the retainer pins before operating the attachment.

Dowda has also outfitted the excavators with extendable arms. These arms allow the operator to dig deeper and give the excavators greater reach, which means that the excavator does not need to be moved as often on the jobsite. When the excavator is working right next to a building, moving the excavator only when needed is beneficial because the operator needs to be careful while working there.

Another benefit in using compact excavators in commercial underground utility applications is that they can be transported to jobsites by a pickup truck and trailer. Not only does this keep costs down for Red Tech Inc. because additional equipment is not needed to haul the excavators to the jobsite, the excavators can also be removed from the jobsite at the end of the day so the machines are not vulnerable to theft or vandalism.

Having the right piece of equipment to complete a task is important on any jobsite. For Ronald Dowda and Red Tech Inc., a compact excavator is the perfect solution for commercial underground electrical utility construction. With little room below and above ground, the compact excavator provides enough power to complete the work. The machine can be outfitted with many attachments to quickly complete the different tasks that face the contractor on the jobsite. “If we didn’t have a compact excavator, we’d have to do this work by hand,” says Dowda. “The compact excavator saves us a lot of time so we can quickly complete our work for our customers.”