Lifecycles: Curb-and-gutter machines

Properly maintained you can keep these machines going for more than a decade, but improvements in technology are changing the lifecycle equations almost yearly

Unlike earthmoving equipment, which gets pushed to its limits every day, concrete curb-and-gutter machines have a relatively easy life. Their engines don’t strain hard and their tracks or wheels ride at a snail’s pace on a smooth grade. Some components wear out, but most don’t require substantial reinvestment. Given this benign environment it’s not unusual to see curb-and-gutter machines last 10 years and there are 20-year-old machines out there still working fine.

The number of hours logged in a year by a curb-and-gutter machine varies from as little as 300 to as much as 1,500. The 300- to 500-hour-per-year user typically does curb-and-gutter work on the side as part of a larger contracting business. The 1,500-hour-a-year user is usually a curb-and-gutter specialist or subcontractor.

And while a well-maintained curb-and-gutter machine may last indefinitely, contractors typically trade up every five to seven years. This is not so much to replace a machine with increasing maintenance needs as it is to take advantage of new machine technology and capabilities.

Doing more digitally
“New technology is the biggest factor in trade ups,” says John Brincefield, vice president of sales and marketing at Power Curbers. “Things have come so far over the last five to eight years especially, with the new microprocessors that control alignment, steering, grade and slope.”

The earliest high tech innovations were slow to gain acceptance, Brincefield says, because the typical concrete contractor or sub was not digitally literate and the systems were more difficult for the average contractor to troubleshoot. “They don’t have the testing tools or equipment nor do they have the understanding,” he says.

Electronics aside, curb-and-gutter machines have undergone a steady evolution in the last decade. “If a new machine is able to complete a task that their old machine was unable to complete such as pouring a replacement curb, median barrier, monolithic curb, gutter and sidewalk, that’s a pretty good reason to trade up,” says Randy Sondreal, president of Huron Manufacturing. “New applications change every year and we get these ideas from our customers in the field. It’s a good reason to stay in touch with your factory or manufacturer.”

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The combination of electronics and hydraulics in the past five to six years has made it a lot easier to tackle more difficult jobs, says Randy Smith, vice president of Miller Formless. “Now we can pour a 2-foot radius whereas seven years ago a 10- to 12-foot radius was as small as we could get. It’s opened up a bigger market. Guys can use curb-and-gutter machines in a parking lot. Before operators had to hit a lot of levers and switches and make sure everything was just right. Now it’s pretty much automatic. You flip a switch and you go around the radius.”

A lack of service personnel also drives some contractors to trade up, Smith says. “A lot of these companies are small, turnkey curb-and-gutter guys. They don’t have technicians to maintain or overhaul the equipment. So for them it’s probably better to trade and get a new one rather than do the work themselves.”
For busy contractors, workload and uptime can be a major consideration. “We have guys who have three or four machines and they still can’t keep up so they’ll buy another machine,” Brincefield says. “And if you get 3,000 to 4,000 hours on a machine, you get concerned, especially the guys who do curb-and-gutter work full time. They can’t afford to take a machine out that’s not going to run perfectly every day.”

Keeping a clean machine
The curb-and-gutter machine’s simple, straightforward design doesn’t present any tricky maintenance or hard-to-get-to grease fittings that are ignored by tired or lazy crews at the end of a long day. But everyone agrees thoroughly cleaning the machine every day is the best way to extend component life and lower your total lifecycle costs.
Failure to clean is the number one cause for premature wear and failure, Sondreal says. Failure to check lubricants is number two. “All of the machines are easily serviceable, but they have to be serviced,” Sondreal says. “And if you don’t keep the mold clean, the end product is going to be unacceptable. Cleanliness is next to godliness on these machines.”
And while a gob of grease on a Zerk fitting might be advisable on other types of equipment, it can be detrimental on a concrete paver, says Fred Russell, product manager for the Miller Spreader MC1050 curb machine. “Sometimes guys will put grease into an area to try to keep concrete out, and I disagree with that,” he says. “When you go to clean it, the grease retains the sand, which introduces an abrasive into your lubricant. The solution is to leave it dry or apply a light form-releasing oil that won’t attract dust.”
Power Curbers provides its customers with a pump sprayer and a gallon of a product called Klean Kote to help keep concrete from sticking to their machines. “It’s a non-petroleum based product and it’s like a form release that should be sprayed on the machine every chance you get,” Brincefield says.
Concrete vibrators
Concrete vibrators are one of the few components that don’t last the full life of the machine. “New vibrators start out at 10,000 or 11,000 vibrations per minute,” Brincefield says. “When you get to 3,000 or 4,000 vpm you just don’t get the consolidation you need in the concrete.”
Some contractors tend to over vibrate, which leads to premature wear and failure. “The vibrator is on an eccentric shaft and the faster you spin it the faster it’s going to wear out,” says Russell. Repair or replacement is fairly easy and most contractors should be able to do it themselves. Replacing a vibrator will cost around $1,000 and most machines run with two vibrators, or one vibrator for every 18 inches across the width of a pour.

You can also buy a device called a Vibratech, Brincefield says, that checks the vibrators to make sure you’re getting the right vibrations per minute. Most of the manufacturers have technicians who will go out into the field and do this at the end of every season for the contractors who don’t want to purchase the device.

Belts and augers
There are two ways to move concrete to the forms, conveyor belts and augers. Both methods have their adherents. Power Curbers used to make a conveyor system on its most popular machine and switched to augers while Huron Manufacturing used to make augers but switched to conveyors. Manufacturers that use conveyor belts say they will last indefinitely as long as they are kept properly aligned and are not accidentally nicked or torn.

Cast-iron auger segments will eventually wear out due to the abrasive action of the concrete against the cast iron. Manufacturers who use augers say the average auger flight will probably last anywhere from 600 to 3,000 hours. The cost to replace all the auger flights is around $1,200 to $2,000, but the first time through you may only have to replace half of them since the lower flights wear faster than those at the top.
Undercarriage and wheels

Curb-and-gutter machines travel on wheels or tracks. The wheels may last the life of the machine, but you’ll want to keep an eye on the wheel caster bearings and replace those at the end of a season if you think they might be close to failure.
Undercarriage development has improved dramatically in recent years, Brincefield says. Undercarriages will typically last through the first lifecycle or 4,000 to 5,000 hours. Complete undercarriage replacement costs $10,000 to $15,000.
On machines with wheels the caster bearings are the only critical component that needs occasional replacement. These should be checked at the end of every season to avoid having one seize up during a pour and stop your work.

The longevity of a curb-and-gutter machine’s concrete molds is difficult to pin down. “That’s the magic question,” Russell says. “Eventually it will wear out but most manufacturers say the molds will last through the first life of the machine depending on the abrasiveness of the concrete and the number of linear feet poured.

Hydraulic system and engine
Given the slow-speed operation of curb-and-gutter machines, the engines will also likely last the life of the machine. Hydraulic systems are equally as durable as long as they are properly cared for. Large pumps sometimes can be repaired or rebuilt. For smaller pumps it’s usually more economical just to put in a new unit. Pump rebuild/replacement costs are around $1,200 and there are typically four on a machine.

Factory rebuilt machines
Since so many components on a curb-and-gutter machine come due for replacement or rebuild at about the same time, many manufacturers offer complete rebuild programs.

On a complete rebuild the factory will buy back a machine, strip it down to the frame and rebuild or replace anything that’s worn or nearing the end of its first lifecycle. This will include replacement of all hydraulic hoses, hydraulic pumps (more expensive pumps may be rebuilt) and vibrators and replacement of the undercarriage components where applicable. Engines may or may not be replaced depending on their condition.

Rebuilds will bring the machine up to stringline condition and typically come with a warranty. Costs for a rebuilt machine vary depending on the extent of the repairs but generally fall in the range of 50 to 75 percent of the cost of new. Rebuilds are typically sold to new contractors who can’t afford a new machine or to more established contractors who need a backup machine.