An Amalgamation of Attachments

Jan. 1, 2001

Offering more gizmos than the proverbial Swiss Army knife, the ever-expanding attachments business is providing contractors with more options to do the job faster, more efficiently, and more safely. (And a person with one machine can do a lot of damage in a big hurry.)

No longer just a luxury, this equipment is becoming a survival mechanism for many contractors as the grading and excavation business becomes even more competitive in the new millennium. According to industry professionals, the role that attachments play in the business has taken center stage. You need to catch up with the times and learn to adapt or you might be doomed to failure.

“If you don’t recognize the value of attachments and you don’t recognize the role they can play in your company and the bottom line for your performance, the world is going to pass you by,” declares Scott Guimond, president of National Attachments, a manufacturer and distributor of attachments worldwide in Gorham, ME. “There is nothing worse than watching your competition bid you down. You’re thinking, ‘How can he bid so low?’ He’s laughing all the way to the bank. He can do it better and faster. We’re not providing just a tool. We’re giving you an edge.”

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Dozens of attachments are now available for all kinds of light and heavy machinery that can be converted at the flip of a switch or the twist of a pin. Having the proper tool on the job site to do the job correctly and safely can save hundreds of dollars. The role of rental companies in the business is profound as contractors often need a tool or a piece of equipment at a minute’s notice. Knowing they have a variety of equipment on-call, they can bid lower with confidence.

The key is being a quick-change artist – having the equipment to quickly move one tool off and another on to your frontloader, excavator, skid-steer, or Bobcat. “If one guy can change five different tools in 10 minutes, he’s got the edge over someone who needs all day,” comments Guimond. “Contractors are realizing in almost a wholesale manner that they need flexibility with their machine. An excavator is no longer just an excavator. It’s a tool carrier.”

One operator might dig dirt, hammer rock, load rock with a grapple, dig trenches for pipe, place crushed stone in the bottom of the trench, put in the pipe, and cover and compact the soil – all with one excavator.

“Twenty years ago you had a loader, a forklift, and a sweeper,” says Jon Shaw of Shaw Brothers Construction of Gorham, ME. “Today you have one machine to do all three of these.”

Shaw praises the Nye Quick Hitch System. “It allows us to react to job-site changes. If we hit rock, we are able to send a hammer to a job and mount it on the excavator that’s already there.” When it comes to rentals, the number-one issue is the quick change, he notes. “The most important thing is if it has a quick-switch bucket system and how many sized buckets you have available. The hitch is more valuable than the attachment is. You can’t really get the use of the attachments without the quick hitch. We continually have to find more efficient ways to perform this work each year, because you really can’t get more money out of these items. You’ve got to find ways to do jobs more efficiently than your competition.”

In the past, if someone was laying down 3-ft. pipe and 6-in. pipe at the same job site, he would use the same bucket. Shaw says his company’s excavators carry a variety of buckets to meet the needs of the job, both for digging up the proper amount of dirt and tailoring the bucket for the various soil conditions. Excavation of too much dirt wastes fuel. Frequently, the excess dirt proves to be unsuitable and has to be trucked off-site at great expense.

One of the benefits of rental attachments, he points out, is that it’s easier and cheaper to move a bucket, a hammer, or a pulverizer attachment than it is to transport a 100,000-lb. excavator. “We take the attachments from job to job without taking the whole machine. We usually have 25 sites going, but we don’t need 25 hammers.”

Shaw points out that hydraulic hammers and pulverizer attachments have allowed them to pick up demolition work on bridges and commercial and industrial buildings.

With the fanfare of a 100-mi. police escort, Shaw’s firm brought in a long boom, or “long-reach,” attachment to demolish a steeple that was the only structure remaining after a church fire in Saco, ME. Authorities made a heated after-hours statewide search for a contractor with the necessary equipment for the job. Shaw Brothers was able to bring down the steeple without damaging a nearby residence. In addition, without the use of the extension, there was a high likelihood that the operator could have gotten crushed by the falling debris.

That excavator attachment, however, is not a quick hitch by any stretch. It’s about a four-hour changeover.

Dee Sellers, vice president of Dee Sellers Concrete in Fayetteville, NC, says that the fact that the necessary tools are available for rent nearby is figured in when his company submits a bid. “To be able to feel confident that we can get an attachment is important because on a minute’s notice we might need a piece of equipment. We use quite a few different attachments. I don’t know how we would do some of our projects without them.”

When doing a parking-lot paving job, his crew arrived on the scene to find 6-8 in. of old concrete already down. “With the [rental] supply company close by, we were able to get a hydraulic hammer for a skid-steer without any downtime. Without that I would have had to contract somebody to do it for us and probably would have lost a lot of money. You can peck away at it with the air hammer, but it’s a lot faster (with the hydro hammer).”

He says his firm also uses an auger attachment for installing iron bollards. “Without it, it would be kind of tough. Without it we would have to hire an electrical contractor with an auger because a hand-held auger wouldn’t cut it.”

Sellers also uses a backhoe attachment on a Bobcat to get into tight areas for deep digs for small footings and removal of underground tanks.

His company saves money by renting a street-sweep attachment for its skid-steer, rather than renting or buying a street sweeper. “It’s not cost-effective to buy an expensive machine compared to the cost of renting an attachment,” states Sellers. He also uses a spreader attachment on his skid-steer for grading work.

“The attachments make you more versatile,” asserts Eric Monson, owner of Strole’s Tri-Service located in Los Osos, CA. “You can do more by yourself rather than having to sub someone in. If I want to do demolition, I can rent a breaker. If I want to do fencing, I can rent an auger. If you can think of it, there’s an attachment for it. Time is money. If it’s taking you twice as long to do the job without the right attachment, your profit margin goes down.”

He says he uses sweepers, grinders, breakers, and augers on his Bobcat and a thumb for picking up rocks, concrete, bushes, and trees with his excavator.

Without the auger attachment, he would be forced to use his backhoe to dig a larger hole than he wants for such projects as installing fence posts for a corral, putting up a perimeter fencing for a residence, or planting trees.

Renting is the only way to go for certain pieces of equipment, according to Monson. He notes that it would not be prudent for him to purchase a breaker for an auger. “I can’t justify buying them if I don’t use the products all of the time. I don’t use the auger all of the time. It’s not feasible for me to buy one. I don’t do enough demo work to buy a breaker. In addition, the vibrations can destroy the machine that it’s on and also [the breaker] itself. There’s also a benefit to renting because sometimes it’s hard to carry all of your attachments because you have to have a big-enough truck or trailer.”

He has also rented rollers for base compaction and one of the more versatile pieces, the four-in-one “combo” bucket. “With the four-in-one bucket I can grade; perform demolition, pickup, and removal; and use the fork attachment. It’s one of your more versatile pieces.”

When building a road, Monson ties into already laid concrete with a dowel attachment that goes on his Bobcat. He also utilizes a box scraper attachment for fine grading for drainage and roadwork.

“There are always new attachments,” he points out. “You see something and you say, ‘I wish they had an attachment.’ You then read a magazine, and boom, there it is.”

“Attachments basically allow you to use a piece of equipment to its full potential,” says Chuck Poss of C.W. Poss Inc. in Fullerton, CA. “A lot of equipment has different attachments. It allows you to do the work of two or three machines in one.”

Poss points out that he uses a compactor wheel, a thumb attachment, and a pulverizer on the end of his excavator, as well as a shank ripper, rock rakes, buckets, and vibraplate attachments on a backhoe. His company also uses a forklift attachment on its frontloaders.

If they are confronted with rockier soil than expected, they rent a hydraulic hammer rather than go to the trouble of bringing in a bigger piece of equipment.

“You need a quick-coupler disconnector, which a lot of machines have now, because obviously if you can change quickly, it’s for the better,” he notes.

Contractors are able to pick up additional work by using a brush-cutting attachment that can hook up to anything – from a small backhoe to a large excavator. “Most can’t keep at work all year,” states Bill Yearley of Pro Mac Manufacturing Company of Vancouver Island, BC. With the brush cutter, they get work on power line right-of-way maintenance, forestry access-road maintenance, and ski-run maintenance.

At land-development sites where it is expensive to move out debris, contractors will use the brush cutter to grind down vegetation on-site, he says.

“Twenty percent of our work is brush cutting,” states Jeannie Mellor, office manager for Mark Mellor Excavating in Duncan, BC. “He couldn’t do a lot of work without [the brush cutter]. It can cut up to 4 inches around.”

She says her husband has cut brush on the tracks of the Canadian Pacific Railroad. Utilizing a 5901 Case backhoe with Extendahoe, he drives on the tracks and reaches over the side to cut the weeds.

He also received a contract to clear brush in a swampy area on the west coast of Vancouver Island so that fish can come up and spawn in the creek. To prevent environmental damage in the riparian habitat, Mellor has to reach in with the hoe. “If he was to have an oil spill, it wouldn’t go into the creek,” points out Jeannie.

In addition, he does road easements and clears brush under power lines.

Another tool that can increase a contractor’s meal ticket is a stump harvester, which pins onto an excavator and allows for clearing of land in a most efficient manner. “While the stump is in the ground it splits it, excavates it, removes the dirt from it, and loads it into a grinder,” explains Guimond. “In minutes it comes out of the ground and is turned into recyclable wood-chip products [including bark mulch and silt fencing].”

Government-mandated recycling programs have also resulted in additional work. An attachment that works similarly to the human hand, the excavator-mounted “garbage raptor” allows the operator to move hundreds of thousands of tons of municipal refuse and recycling materials to balers or rolloff trucks. It also crushes and “densifies” the material, he says.

Another attachment that can expand a contractor’s work capacity is the vibratory sheet-pile driver. It drives sheet piles into the ground and is used for stabilizing shoreline and preventing erosion of soils. “It eliminates the need for a crane and men on the ground,” states Guimond. The attachment allows for the sheet to be grabbed off a flatbed truck, rotated from the horizontal position to the vertical, and driven into the ground.

David Klingaman, district manager for Rental Service Corporation in Gilbert, AZ, says the landscaping business is keeping grading and excavation contractors well fed in Arizona. “Arizona has been in the number-one or number-two spot for growth for several years. So you have a lot of the housing industry moving in. Landscaping is a huge business here. It’s definitely good business.”

He says they rent a high volume of plate compactions and roll compactions for backhoes and hydraulic breakers on backhoes, excavators, and skid-steers for demolition of hard soil conditions, namely pesky rock.

The company has also done well renting skid-steer auger attachments for post holes and small-plant holes. It also provides 16- to 24-in. augers for planting of larger trees.

Contractors have been benefiting from the presence of Ft. Bragg, one of the largest Army bases in the nation, says Alan Lea, branch manager of United Rentals in Fayetteville, NC. Some $96 million worth of bids have been awarded in recent months for construction of new training areas and mock cities for combat practice, as well as for revamping the barracks.

“We have a sales team that calls on the job sites,” he explains. “They need all kinds of attachments.” The company has been renting a large number of hydrohammers for demo work, auger machines for drilling holes to set poles, and material buckets to put gravel on roofs using an external boom forklift. It also has done well with grapple buckets and brooms.

As a result of all the work, there has been a consistent number of transient contractors hauling themselves into and out of the area, he says. “They’re like a fair.”

Regarding his regular rental customers and the attachments market, Lea says, “It is starting to pick up. We’ve been getting more calls for attachments. They don’t want to spend $20,000 to $23,000 on a sweeper that is going to sit over in a corner and be used once in a while. They don’t want to worry about storage or if it is going to walk away.”

A person with a backhoe could do a quicker job than someone with a skid and a backhoe attachment. However, a financial decision must be made on whether to rent or purchase a backhoe. Lea states that the rental fee for a backhoe attachment is about $90 a day. The cost of renting a backhoe is from $175 to $195. Purchase of a skid-steer is about $20,000-$24,000, while a backhoe would be about $50,000.

As far as the contractor is concerned, it all boils down to predicting how many times a piece of equipment is going to be used, says Lea. “We tie up the investment. They take the chance of how many times are we going to use it. We upkeep and maintain it. If they have a problem, they call us.”

According to Greg Forbess of United Rentals in Ft. Worth, TX, a booming economy nationwide forces contractors to be even more efficient. “There’s a shortage of people. There is not a large labor pool because everybody is working. If you can take an attachment and get the job done without people, then that’s the answer.”

He says one man with a hoe ram on a Bobcat can break the same amount of concrete that two or three men could do with a jackhammer.

With the rough soil conditions in their area, having the auger attachment is invaluable. “It’s hard to do it by hand. Conditions around here are so tough. The drought we’ve been having also makes the ground even tougher.”

In addition to the hoe rams and augers, he notes that hammers and grapple attachments are hot rental items in his area.

Work has been plentiful as a number of fast-food restaurants, big-box developments, and municipal building projects have been in the works.

According to Mike DeBrino, southeast national account manager for Nations Rent Inc., the attachments market has created a competitive atmosphere among rental firms. “The competition has been there since day one. [Providing a full line of attachments] adds more flexibility for the rental house to get the customer. Some rental houses don’t have everything. You do what it takes to be above everybody else. There are cases when you don’t have it. The good thing with us is we have so many locations. You can pick and choose to get the job done.”

He relates that there are definite benefits to renting: “The cost of the attachments is outrageous,” he says. “A piece of equipment has to be kept hydroplumbed correctly in order to tie up. (Contractors) have to buy the machine, buy the hydraulic attachments, and buy the attachment. If it’s down, (contractors who rent can say,) ‘Bring me another one.'”

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DeBrino observes that concrete breakers, sweepers, and root rakes are in the most demand in his area.

“Business is increasing at a good clip, partly because of the attachment markets,” states Ron Crouse, construction-equipment product manager for Kubota of Torrance, CA.

Hammers, buckets, thumbs, quicker couplers, augers, and drills are all selling well, he observes. A few years ago, the firm sold more than 4,000 compact excavators. Last year 9,000 were sold nationwide. “The mini-excavator business is increasing really fast,” Crouse notes.

In this sink-or-swim profession, grading professionals are gradually exploring the recent advances in machinery and technology. Some, however, are slow to make the move. “People are starting to learn of these ways to eliminate labor time,” explains Monson. “But there are a lot of old operators who are stuck in their ways and will not switch over. There are a lot of macho people in the construction business.”

According to Guimond, the revolution has just begun. “The trend is meteoric. The trend is for the products available in the marketplace to continually evolve. The trend is for contractors to understand about the necessity for interchangeability of tools and the necessity of a base machine to become multifunctional. The contractor is realizing now that one machine can do a variety of work if it is equipped with the right attachment.”

He estimates that sales and rentals will double in the next 24 months. “The next decade is going to yield some fabulous innovations to allow the contractor to be faster, more efficient, and more profitable. Everybody has debt load, everybody has employees, everybody has a beast they have to feed. They have to learn how to do the work faster and cheaper. That’s the only way to compete.”