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A Mercenary Guide to Reducing Diesel Emissions

Contractors say automatic grade control, vehicle telematics, and fuel-tracking systems boost profits by cutting fuel use and improve air quality in the process - March 1, 2009

California contractors are finding compliance with in-use, off-road diesel emissions rules expensive. Those working outside California have a unique opportunity to apply a much broader range of technologies that will cut diesel emissions from their work sites, some of which will also cut operating costs.

These technologies — automatic grade control, vehicle telematics, and fuel-tracking systems — are not the kind of things that will satisfy the emissions regulations likely to spread from California to other states. But they offer equipment operations a competitive advantage, and can help reduce the need for regulation. The happiest coincidence — especially in light of 2008's fuel-price history — is that most efforts to reduce fuel consumption will also cut the volume of diesel exhaust.

One of the greatest opportunities to cut fuel costs is to idle machines less. Komatsu estimates that idling consumes nearly 20 percent of a typical construction machine's lifetime fuel burn. The California Air Resources Board mandated anti-idling programs for most diesels in the state. Telematic technologies — eye-in-the-sky boxes that combine global positioning systems (GPS) and wireless cellular networks to monitor and transmit data such as machine location, hours of use, and operating condition — are great tools for modifying operator behavior.

The most profitable way to reduce fuel consumption is to use automatic grade-control systems such as Accugrade, Trimble, Topcon and Leica grade-control products that enable machines to cut down to planned grade faster and more accurately. Users are consistently finding that they are within project tolerances on the first fine-grading pass.

Grade control

Caterpillar claims that its Accugrade automatic grade-control system boosts productivity by as much as 50 percent, and fuel savings by as much as 43 percent. The systems reduce the first and second largest inputs to equipment costs, labor and fuel. And each dollar saved drops to the bottom line as profit.

Roxwell Construction, a small commercial sitework company from Thousand Palms, Calif., has been using GPS grade control less than a year, and company president Roxwell Fontenot is impressed with the technology's fuel-saving aspects. The company has a new Cat D4K bulldozer equipped with a Trimble GCS900 Grade Control System. It ties into a Trimble SPS780 Smart GPS Antenna that serves as the base station. The system allows Fontenot to compete for more complex projects, and it reduces machine hours needed to achieve planned grade.

"Our work is so accurate with one pass that we've eliminated rework," states Fontenot. "On our first job (with automatic grade control), I learned how accurate we can be with just one pass. The developer came out and checked our grade and we were within 1/10th on each of the 74 shots they made."

Roxwell is ahead of schedule on a Brawley, Calif., project that will eventually move 60,000 cubic yards of silty clay to make way for several three-story apartment buildings. Plans call for the firm's six-person crew to over-excavate four feet for sub-surface drainage under the parking lots that will replace open retention ponds.

"We're completing our finish grading in half the time because we're using GPS machine control," says Charlie Hollingsworth, site manager and operator for Roxwell.

Interstate Highway Construction, an early adopter of GPS-based machine control systems, has enjoyed most of the technology's benefits at one time or another. Their recent complete reconstruction of 6.67 miles of I-75 in central Michigan illustrates how even the reduced need for grade stakes saves fuel.

"Virtually all of the grading on this job was done without staking, except for the reference stakes we placed every 300 feet or so to reassure the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) inspectors," says Brad Miller, project supervisor. "Because there were no grade stakes to work around, we could spread the entire width of the grade. That saved a lot of time."


Komatsu claims that if you can eliminate even half of the average construction machine's non-productive idle time, fuel costs are cut by 10 percent. That's significant, and reduced idling also improves resale value.

Komatsu literature offers an example, comparing two PC200 excavators that actually work 600 hours per year doing identical work. One machine idles 40 percent of the time whereas the other idles 20 percent of the time. After five years, the machine that idles 40 percent of the time runs up 5,000 hours on the service meter, while the machine that idles 20 percent of the time will register fewer than 4,000 hours. Not only is the machine with fewer hours worth more, it will also have had two fewer maintenance intervals, which cuts cost and increases availability.

The example is part of Komatsu's sales pitch for its Komtrax telematic system for monitoring machine condition, location, and operation (a system like Caterpillar's Product Link or Qualcomm's GlobalTracs). By measuring and graphing machine idle time versus work time accurately, data from telematic systems can help modify operator habits to save fuel as well as increase residual value.

Ace Asphalt, the largest parking lot builder in Arizona, expects to save nearly $150,000 worth of fuel in its first year on idling reductions alone thanks to a fleet management service it purchased from GPS Fleet Management, a Phoenix-area vendor. Ace implemented GPS Fleet Management's solution throughout its fleet, installing GPS equipment in 283 mobile machines.

"Initial reports show that we have cut unnecessary idling by nearly 50 percent since the start of the program (in June)," reports Darin Soll, chief information officer for Ace.

"The 'Ignition On, Ignition Off' feature is our flag to know if a vehicle is running or not," Soll adds. "If it idles for more than a few minutes, the system generates an exception (report) that notifies us by e-mail and text message so we can quickly address it."

Fuel tracking

In the past, diesel was cheap enough that it was not worth the effort required to accurately measure how much fuel was burned in each machine in even a modest-sized fleet. With diesel retaining something like a $1.30 premium over the cost of a gallon of gasoline, few can afford to make a living using diesel equipment without knowing specifically how much fuel individual units consume.

Luckily, technology has provided a number of options for tracking fuel use automatically, or nearly so. Very often the process of gathering fuel-consumption information raises awareness of a firm's need for fuel-efficiency enough that simply implementing a tracking system cuts fuel use. The data inevitably improves fleet-management efforts.

Ryan Inc. Central's fuel vendors use Nextel phones with bar-code-reading accessories to tag each gallon of fuel they pump to a machine ID. Phones communicate via Bluetooth to laptops in the fuel trucks, so data can be uploaded directly to the Janesville, Wis.-based earthmover's fleet-management software, a home-grown system called Iron IQ.

The fueler scans a bar code on the machine to gather the unit number, and the computerized fuel truck records the measure of fuel pumped into the tank. Fuel pumped equals the amount of fuel burned since the last fueling. The fueler punches hour-meter readings into his keypad with each fuel stop, and that data is correlated with gallons pumped to compute fuel consumption for each of Ryan's machines. Nextel's GPS chip identifies the machine location.

The process complements fuel-consumption and hour-meter data gathered by Qualcomm's GlobalTracs asset-tracking systems. Ryan has 500 units with Qualcomm boxes.

"We paid for the Qualcomm boxes in six months just with the increased utilization on small equipment," says Greg Kittle, Ryan's equipment manager.

Iron IQ's automated data gathering eliminated several thousand hours of data processing at Ryan. Because the data fuel-truck drivers gather every time they top off a tank is used to generate the vendor's invoices, the system also eliminated 3,000 hours of vendor data processing. One result is that Ryan pays significantly less on bulk fuel than most.

"Saving our vendors money is important to Ryan," says Kittle. "That's how you build partnerships. It also allows us to negotiate service charges — we expect to get some of the benefit of saving them money."

Brubacher Excavating became a partner in the Environmental Protection Agency's SmartWay program because the brothers who own the company are committed to minimizing their impact on the environment, and because the process of cleaning up their operations has also tended to improve operating costs. SmartWay focuses on the trucks in their machine fleet.

"It's not hard to become a SmartWay partner, although the program is geared to carriers and shippers," says Myron Brubacher, equipment manager and part owner of eastern-Pennsylvania-based site-prep firm. The company owns 60 medium and heavytrucks — 30 of which are Class 8. "You enter a lot of baseline data — full descriptions of all your trucks, average miles per year, idling hours per year, fuel consumption — into a pretty complex fleet model in Microsoft Excel."

The SmartWay report includes disclosing all of the existing fuel-efficiency strategies used in the fleet. For Brubacher, that includes low-friction drive-train lube and speed limiters. The model calculates fleet average fuel economy and tons of carbon emitted per year.

"After you establish your baseline, you can change your fleet model to include changes in equipment or maintenance or engine setup, and the model will show what those changes will gain in savings due to efficiency."

Brubacher is considering trying super singles, assuming they can find some that are suited to their vocational duty. Reducing the maximum road speed is another possibility. For now the company is focused on effectively reducing idling time.

"We have a lot of trucks getting 35 to 45 percent idling time — some log over 1,000 hours of idle time every year," Brubacher says. "Some trucks burn a gallon of fuel per hour when they're idling."

Implementing a three-minute idling limit has begun to reduce fuel consumption in less than a year of practice. Company policy dictates that operators should turn trucks off if they're to be left running at idle for more than three minutes. Three out of four trucks in the Brubacher fleet are electronic, and they've been programmed to shut down automatically after five minutes of idling.

Operators quickly discovered that any clutch input will restart the five-minute countdown. Eliminating the clutch sensor from the loop shifted driver attention to the accelerator. Any movement of the throttle likewise gives another five minutes of idling. Supervisors continue to encourage drivers to reduce idling at regular toolbox talks and discuss their effectiveness during employee reviews. Long-standing behaviors are beginning to change.

Brubacher is also working to get operators accustomed to maintaining tire inflation pressure. They're required to check tires on equipment and trucks weekly. The company has installed air hoses with tire chucks on vehicles that have on-board compressors. Brubacher has more than a year's experience with two trucks that have the Doran Pressure Pro wireless pressure sensors, and the company recently installed four more systems on trucks to see if they repeat the initial success.

"A display on the sun visor tells the driver how much pressure is in each tire," says Brubacher. "It saves the operator 15 minutes every week, which adds up pretty quick with 60 trucks. And the system also will warn the operator if there is a sudden loss of pressure from any tire. That saves a lot if he takes care of it before he sees tire shreds in the rear-view."

Not all of the expenses required to clean up diesel exhaust will cut operating costs, but most of those that also reduce fuel consumption inevitably will pay for themselves. How long it takes to break even will be determined by how much fuel you burn, and by how much a gallon of diesel costs.


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