By Paul Hull
When you arrive at the job site you should know exactly what you are supposed to be doing and you should have all the people, equipment, and tools you need to do it for a profitable project. Obvious, isn’t it? You’d be surprised how many crews arrive and wait around, sometimes for hours, because they don’t know what to do or exactly where to do it. The technologies of modern communications are amazing but the basic fact remains that, in communication, one party tells another party, accurately, what must be done and the receiving party understands the message and is capable of carrying out the instructions.
The size of a job site can vary from several square feet you could jump across to multiple acres. However big or small it is, your role is of vital importance. Your only task may be to dig a hole, but it’s a key role in the success of the whole project. It must be the right size! In the right place. With no harm done to surrounding property or people. There’s been a lot of sensible talk and writing about the value of good connectivity between people at job sites and you cannot deny that, at a large site especially where there may be many people and machines, it is essential that every contractor involved knows what is going on and what is expected. It’s important at a small job site, too. Everybody has a role to perform. It’s just like a play at the theater, or a movie, or a game. If one character does not know his or her role, if one character is missing, the whole presentation breaks down. Imagine your favorite football team playing without a quarterback, a baseball team without a catcher, Christmas without any lights or laughing children.
Information technology has permeated the construction environment, particularly as it relates to equipment resources; it’s as much of a presence as the equipment itself. I was surprised (and embarrassed) when I discovered how much communication between the contractor and the equipment rental company happens right on the job site these days, using IT. Not just ordering equipment but managing resources and costs. That must be so helpful for some contractors, especially for subcontractors working with much bigger companies. “We see contractors taking an increasing interest in the technologies we have to offer,” advises Daniel Higgins, vice president of IT Infrastructure and operations at United Rentals/RSC. “If an application can improve their productivity and save them money, they’re on board. The United Rentals mobile website is one of our most visible customer-facing technologies. A customer can use a smart phone to search for equipment, request rental quotes, and locate nearby branches via the GPS in their phone. We also have a technology called FAST that makes us more efficient at delivering and picking up equipment; it gives us real-time visibility into available delivery slots, which are often moving targets in our business.”
Smart phone app provides rapid rental location information.
“Our recent merger with RSC gave us access to Total Control management software. It’s a terrific, web-based management system that offers a real-time view of fleet activities. The system makes it a lot easier for a contractor to manage complex rental situations and eliminate unnecessary costs.”
“A lot of other IT that comes into play, but these are some of the more prominent examples. The main point of interest to contractors is that technology is just as relevant to today’s construction environment as generators or light towers. If a rental company is investing in areas such as mobile applications, telemetrics and other business process technologies, it indicates a strong commitment to customer service. These investments should be considered as important as investments in fleet.”
“Be Prepared” Is not for Boy Scouts Only
There’s something that all successful job sites have in common: the right preparation. Whether it’s a water pipe repair downtown, renovating the parking lot at a gas station, or a multi-acre development that stretches almost to the next county, we have to be ready to start, able to perform, and efficient enough to finish. You can’t just arrive at the job site with your crew and machines and say: “Okay, let’s get started. Get to work.” If you do that you’ll probably get a few blank stares and raised eyebrows.
“Just plug that in and we’ll get started here,” said the foreman, knowingly.
“Where?” asked the new, nervous laborer after a quick look around the site.
“Where? Where do you think? Where would a f..f..famous lad like you expect to plug it in?” asked the foreman, looking to heaven for guidance and sympathy.
“In a power source.”
The foreman looked around the job site. No electric power. He muttered (quite loudly and irreligiously) some words to describe the man back in the office who was supposed to order a temporary power source and then stomped away to get it done. That was at least an hour wasted before the project had even begun. That’s an hour of five workers’ wages, an hour when the weather was good.
This belief in the importance of portable power at job sites large and small was reinforced for me by Matt Timmons, director of regional sales and marketing with United Rentals Power and HVAC. “Construction sites typically demand a lot of power generation for electrical because of the need to power tools and site lighting at all stages of a project. A fair estimate of the range serviced by portable power would be 10% to 15%. Rentals can range from days to weeks, there’s no strong skew toward one end of that range or the other. Each site is different; it often depends on the local utility’s ability to provide a temporary power pole.”
“The face of portable power is changing,” observes Timmons. “The biggest change we’ve seen is in the larger generators, which are now subject to stricter EPA emission standards. Tier 3 and Tier 4 emission standards are coming into effect. This has had the largest impact on generator manufacturing in recent years. And our customers (the contractors) are helping to drive that change. They’re interested in how quiet the unit is, and the quality of the power. In terms of machine trends, the new inverter series units are high profile right now-the technology is quieter to operate and reduces energy consumption. We’re also seeing demand for units with self-contained environmental basins: the basin keeps fluids away from the surrounding environment in the rare case of a mechanical failure.”
Ask a successful contractor, and one consideration, even beyond the profitability of a job is always…safety. There’s a sensible reason for this. While machines and tools are usually necessary to complete a project well, the one component you cannot eliminate from the equation of profitability is: people. Excavators don’t run themselves perfectly without operators; graders could go all over the place without skilled operators; contracts would not be won and projects never started without diligent, accurate estimators. There are programs and machines to help get everything right, but the most essential parts of the job site’s success are still the people. They are also the most expensive components. You should know them well. You should praise their good work and advise wisely about any errors they make. If this means you should learn a few basic words and phrases of a foreign language, do it. Good communications between your crew members, with you in the teacher/leader role, can get the job done faster, more profitably, and with nobody injured or put out of action.
Equipment Needed Before the Job Starts
We tend to think a job doesn’t start until we hear the excavator start up, until the operator climbs into his grader, until they maneuver the dozer off the trailer. But the job really starts when everything you need at the site is available, or ordered and on its way to arrive in time. In the bidding for the contract, all these needs should be considered or your profit margin may be much lower than expected. If the neglected items concern safety or local regulations you could be liable for much more than your anticipated profit if everything is not prepared correctly. Some project owners (like a hospital or public building) require that their projects be secured by fencing, so that could be one of your first searches. Check the Internet and see who sells or rents fencing. Providers like National Construction Rentals, Academy Fence, Wenn, and Steelco Fence come to mind. Find the provider nearest you. Find the one with the best options. Do the same thing for lighting if your work makes that necessary.
Pumps can surprise you. You arrive at the site the day after you’ve dug a beautiful trench and find it’s invited several inches of water to visit. I’ve seen that happen in the desert! Who would ever expect a water problem in desert terrain? The best solution for the unprepared is usually a rental of the right pump. The right pump? There are many, many different kinds and sizes of pump available, each one perfect for a particular job. “Pumps are a popular rental item because each application requires something a little different,” explains Chad Bubla, United Rentals director of national accounts for the western region. “Contractors who own their own pumps often find that they don’t have exactly the right machine for the job. That’s why most rental companies will ask a lot of questions before renting a pump. If you don’t get the questions, it should be a warning sign. The best advice to give about renting a pump is to be prepared to give the rental provider a lot of information about the application. Is the water clear or muddy? Does it contain solids, and of what size? Is the fluid caustic? If so, parts of the pump will need to be surfaced with stainless steel or other appropriate materials. How high a suction lift do you need-bearing in mind that the water level may drop during pumping-and what are the vertical and horizontal distances to the discharge point?”
These are just a few of what may be several dozen questions an expert rental supplier will ask before specifying a pump. Other questions can relate to the distance from onsite power sources, time constraints and altitude. Altitude is a big factor with pumps. As atmospheric pressure drops at higher elevations, it reduces suction lift. Gas and diesel engines lose about 3% of their power for every 1,000 feet of elevation. “The good news is that rented pumps are constantly scrutinized by the provider for proper rpm levels, and are vacuum-tested for priming and pumping,” adds Bubla, “so they’re typically very productive when specified correctly for job-site applications.”
You can have pumps powered by gasoline or diesel engines, by hydraulics, or by electricity. This is certainly when you should consult experts at the pump source. Which size is best? Many construction pumps are 2 inches, 3 inches, and 4 inches, but they can be much bigger if you need to move a lake of water rather than puddles. Will your requirement be to pump simply water, or will there be bits and pieces in the water? For the latter you would need a trash pump that allows debris to go through without hindering the pump’s water performance. There are many names to investigate, so I picked some truly at random: Honda, Briggs & Stratton, Tsurumi, WasteCorp, Subaru, and Gorman-Rupp. Many pump companies have been in business for decades; their performance is reliable.
Would the dozing be easier with some laser help?
Or it may be an item you have seldom needed elsewhere, a generator or genset, laser instruments, fencing, or other security measures. If you need certain tools just for one job, even for just one day’s work at the site, renting makes a lot of sense. One of the best reasons for renting job site equipment for a specific job is that you can be sure that the rental company has completed all necessary forms for compliance. These can be complicated today and take a lot of time if you are unfamiliar with particular equipment, or your job is not in familiar territory. If your specific need is for, say, a power source, you probably know some of the best brands and sizes available. Not all manufacturers of gensets will rent directly to a customer so it’s wise to check with your favorite manufacturer to see where you can rent their products. You can approach the problem from this direction, naming Doosan (Ingersoll Rand), Caterpillar, Kubota, Cummins, John Deere, Kohler, MultiQuip, or similar maker, or go to the local rental store and see what they have, remembering that some of the brand names may be unknown to you because you use that kind of equipment rarely. That doesn’t mean to say the brand is inferior! You can get good advice about how much power you’ll need, so that you don’t overpay by ordering too much. This should be done before you “start” the job; the power you need should be ready as soon as you need it. For laser- and measurement-related instruments, you would probably check out Spectra Precision, Topcon, Leica Geosystems, AGL, CST Berger, and Trimble.
Site-Specific Equipment, Most of It Rentable
Another job site item that’s easy to forget, if you seldom use one, is a lockable storage unit, mostly for those smaller (but expensive and easily removed) tools but also for anything you want to store, perhaps for reference, at the site. The Stanley Vidmar JBX is such a storage unit, or gang box, or whatever you wish to call it. You can have one measuring 48 inches by 25 inches by 25 inches (or a foot shorter), and it offers a load capacity of 1,150 pounds. The lid is easy to open on this model and it accepts most manufacturers’ high security padlocks. You can also get casters for it for good maneuverability. Other names in good storage boxes are Jobox, Knaack, and Greenlee, all with products that could suit different levels of contracting. The advantages of storage for smaller tools is obvious, and it’s surely a better way of treating them than tossing them into the open back of a pickup. Being where you know you can find them secure and protected from the weather are benefits you cannot ignore.
Construction trailers may be a good idea for some job sites, not only as easily recognized and accessible control centers but as enclosed places for those who work with computers and similar devices. They also have generous storage for materials that are generally softer than tools or machines. ConstructionTrailers.com is a company that specializes in these trailers, in finding just the size and type you want and making arrangements for delivery. The trailers vary from 160 to 896 square feet, with different floor plans available to suit your specific site needs. ConstructionTrailers arranges trailers that meet your local, state, and federal codes. “ConstructionTrailers.com is a great resource,” says David Richard, contracting in California. “They helped me find a 12-foot trailer for my job site and even had it delivered. Their service was very convenient. Next time I need a trailer, they will be my first stop.” Other good companies to check for job-site trailers could be ModSpace, Acton Mobile Industries, Williams Scotsman, and Mobile Modular.
All contractors have had to deal with downtime for one reason or another during the course of a job. This is especially frustrating when the delay could have been avoided if the missing tool or equipment had been kept readily at hand. “With the right preplanning to anticipate needs, a custom-stocked Mobile Tool Room can make a lot of sense,” advises Patrick Lowry, vice president of the Tool Division of United Rentals. “On-demand access equates to productivity, and that goes right to the bottom line. The Mobile Tool Room is a concept that was added to the United Rentals repertoire upon the company’s merger with RSC. Mobile Tool Rooms are dedicated, onsite trailers that, in the construction environment, are most often used for new job sites. They typically contain tools, electronic histories on tools and materials, and bring accountability to the process.”
Our primary interest is in grading and excavation, because that’s how most of our businesses have started. It’s a great temptation to think that equipment needed at the job site will be earthmoving machines. This may apply especially to equipment we plan to rent for just the duration of the one project, equipment like mini excavators, skid-steers, and backhoes. “Earthmoving machines are not the whole story anymore,” notes Chad Bubla. “For example, the demand for small, self-propelled vertical lifts is growing, due to their versatility. They’re ideal rental items for somebody who likes to try before buying, or needs to conserve capital for the foreseeable future. We also see compact qualities infiltrating large equipment, like a boom lift that has a 40-foot platform height but a slim-line design for certain applications. There are a lot of forces driving the popularity of compact machines, not the least of which are regulatory limits on environmental disruption. Compact technology should continue to evolve rapidly for some time, and rental is a good way to get hands-on experience with new or niche machines. When new models are experienced first through rental, a contractor’s rent-versus-buy analysis will be much stronger in advance of making capital investments.”
Acquiring the Necessary Equipment
It was not my intention in this article to address the better way to acquire what you need for your job site, but I have heard so many comments about renting or buying that I decided to finish on that subject of financing. Most contractors who need a tool or some equipment for just one project will try to rent it rather than undertaking the purchase of something they may not need for several more months. The most common problem with this strategy is that, for more contractors than you may imagine, there is no local rental company that has the required equipment available. (This is a problem that should be addressed before any bidding.) The bigger, national rental companies may not have a store near the site of the project but don’t let that deter you. Find out how you can get the equipment you need. Some of my local contractors have had to rent from companies based 200 miles away and still managed good results for all concerned.
“The growing popularity of equipment rental comes down to one word: analysis,” asserts David Ledlow, United Rentals senior vice president of operations. “There are a number of components under the hood, one of the most timely being conservation of capital. It may not be readily apparent, but there’s a tremendous opportunity cost to the ineffectual use of capital. Equipment that’s needed three or even six months per year can be poor candidates for purchase. And rental is good for the balance sheet: it can give a company a more favorable assets-to-liabilities ratio for greater borrowing power.
“Of the many considerations involved in rent-versus-buy, the most compelling is having the correct equipment for the job. This has ramifications on three levels: productivity, safety and asset management. If you own equipment outright, you’re obviously going to put those assets to work as often as possible, even if a different model would do the job faster, better or more safely. Any savings is a false efficiency because it’s offset by poor productivity or worse, injury. That’s not to say that all equipment should be rented, but selective rentals are a good way to prolong the life of owned assets.
“Many contractors are surprised to find that equipment is never really paid for, even when it’s owned outright,” adds Ledlow. “There are four ongoing areas that require periodic evaluation. First, there’s maintenance (the cost of replacement parts, mechanics’ labor, maintenance documentation, warranty compliance and dedicated facilities). Second, warehousing and transporting (storing idle fleet and having the proper vehicles to deliver equipment directly to the point of use). Third, personal property tax and insurance. And fourth, disposal of the asset. Disposal may well be the most overlooked cost of equipment ownership. The costs and effort of pre-sale maintenance, cleaning, parts replacement, and time and fees spent in finding a buyer can make a contractor hold onto tired equipment longer than is advisable. When you add in the costs of theft control and accounting control during the life of the asset, the analysis can become lopsided for equipment with less than 70% utilization.”
“The construction cycle of the past several years has shone a spotlight on asset management and the need to adopt strategies that are as fluid as possible,” concludes Ledlow. “Equipment rental is the most adaptive cost control available to contractors: it maximizes the best use of the owned fleet and, at the same time, avoids committing full-time dollars to part-time needs.”The most important aspect of all this is to include everything you may need at the job site in your bid. You may have everything already in your yard. Check that. Apparently small items like motors, lighting, and pumps can ruin everything, so decide what will be needed, even demanded by law, before you start the excavator.