Maintenance: Cutting Fuel Costs

Even though diesel prices have fallen in the last six months, fuel is still a huge part of any construction company’s costs.

The good news is that there is a lot you can do to pare down your annual fuel bill, some of it very high tech, some of it very old school. Here are three ways to improve fuel efficiency starting right now.

High in the sky
A little more than a year ago Billy Chandler, executive vice president of Summers-Taylor, pulled his pickup truck into the yard of the company’s east Tennessee concrete plant and noticed six or seven mixer trucks all idling with nobody in them. “I got to thinking, just how much fuel do these trucks burn at idle, and how much fuel do we burn at idle throughout the whole fleet?,” he says.

With some 400 employees and 500 pieces of equipment, it was no small question. Nobody could give him a definitive answer, but two hours of idle time per day per machine seemed a conservative guess. So Chandler set up a test with six representative pieces of equipment burning fuel at idle for two hours. After multiplying the amount of fuel these machines burned at idle by 300 machines, he came up with his figure – $1.4 million per year.
“That was enough to get everybody’s attention,” Chandler said.

Back when off-road diesel went for 25 cents a gallon, nobody questioned the wisdom of letting big diesel engines idle. But today’s diesel engines don’t have the starting problems and warm up much quicker than the old models. Chandler knew there was a lot of money to be saved if he could break operators of the old habits.

His solution was to invest in a Trimble asset tracking system called CrossCheck GPS. The company had been using a version of the system to track the whereabouts of 150 trucks. Chandler bought 300 more, installed them on all the major off-road pieces and had them all programmed to send site supervisors reports about excessive idle times. At first, on an average day the CrossCheck program would flag about 150 pieces of equipment with excessive idle time. But the supervisors worked with the operators and quickly brought the number down to 10 or 12 a day, Chandler says.

The operators didn’t need much encouragement, Chandler says, because of the company’s profit sharing plans. Savings in fuel translated into bigger paychecks for everybody. The total outlay for the systems was about $300,000, he says, but the fuel savings alone in less than a year has paid back that investment many times over. Additionally, by reducing idle hours, Chandler has been able to extend service intervals and expects to prolong the life of his equipment.

“It works even better than we thought it would,” he says.

Down on the ground
A $3 tire pressure gauge might not be as sexy as a GPS-enabled asset tracking system, but it can still save you a bundle.

“The single most important thing about any tire maintenance program is to keep air in the tire,” says Jack Dutcher, corporate training manager at Bridgestone-Firestone. “Manufacturers design a tire to operate at a particular shape to get the maximum traction out of the tire, the longest tread life, and the best ability to overcome road hazards … in other words, the most productivity. The other thing you get out of that is the maximum potential fuel savings.”

A critical point to remember is that to maintain the proper tire sidewall shape under loads of different weights, you may need to change the pressure in the tire – increasing it for heavy materials and decreasing it when carrying lighter loads. “It is important to get with a dealer and get the data book that gives you the specific pressures and loads,” says Steve White, market segment manager for Michelin.

Dutcher recommends erring on the side of over-inflating tires a bit for this reason and because tires will lose some air and pressure over time. Also, use a tire pressure gauge that you know is accurate. Either have it checked against another gauge or have your tire supplier check it.

Another problem White sees is what he calls “over-tiring,” or using a heavier tire, chains or foam fill when not necessary. The difference between a L4 and L5 type tire in the 35/65R33 size is 284 pounds, he says – more than 1,000 pounds if you put four on a wheel loader. “Often people like the L5 because it’s a big, beefy tire. But it takes more energy to propel it because you’re moving a lot more weight. Tire life is important, but pushing that heavier tire around is also burning up a lot of fuel.”

You don’t want to get a tire that won’t survive an unfriendly jobsite, but before you invest in the heavier tire, consider not only the tire costs, but the fuel you’ll burn to spin that extra 1,000 pounds throughout the day. It may be more cost effective to spend money to clean up the site instead.

There are too many variables to do exact side-by-side comparisons of fuel savings of radial vs. bias ply tires, but most radial tire manufacturers claim somewhere in the neighborhood of 5 to 10 percent fuel savings. Radials have the potential to save 5 to 10 percent over bias tire on the same machine and under the same conditions, Dutcher says. The radial will allow a bucket to fill quicker (due to more power available to penetrate the pile versus overcoming the bias tire’s higher rolling resistance). More cycles per day may equate to more fuel consumed per day, but less fuel consumed per ton.

Another tip Dutcher recommends for contractors is to paint a short white stripe on the sidewall of your heavy equipment tires. The white stripe will show you when an operator is spinning his tires – which is a huge waste of fuel and accelerates wear on the tire. You may need to educate your operator, but also consider cleaning up the site better, getting rid of debris or excess water that causes slippage.

Repower your machines
Fuel savings may not be the top reason to repower a piece of equipment. Repowering involves putting a new, upgraded engine in an older machine. It’s more frequently done to meet emissions regulations or to extend the life of a machine. But any step up to a higher tier engine will bring some fuel efficiency, and get this – the government may give you some cash to help with the cost.

One of the provisions in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (aka the stimulus bill) is to provide $300 million directly to users of heavy equipment for diesel emission reduction technology – repowers included. Unfortunately the EPA barely gave the industry six weeks to apply for the funds, and the deadline is April 13. For more details go to We’ll also post news and updates about similar programs on our blog in the “Emissions” category.

Repowering can cost anywhere from around $30,000 to $300,000 depending on the size of the engine and how much of an upgrade. The parts and labor costs are generally about 25 percent of the cost of a new machine and 50 percent of a used machine, says Steve Igoe, commercial manager, Cat Emissions Solutions. “It gives you an emissions reduction advantage and in some cases it reduces the cost of ownership,” he says.

Going from a Tier 0 engine to a Tier 3 engine will bring the most advantage in emissions and fuel economy, as Cat’s Tier 3 engines come with electronic controls and ACERT technology, Igoe says. Although hard numbers are difficult to quantify, fuel efficiency gains of up to 20 percent are possible, depending on the model, he says.

“Customers repowering from an older engine would likely see significant increases in fuel economy with a Tier 3 Power Tech Plus engine,” says Glen Chrusciel, program manager, repower and retrofit, John Deere Power Systems. “The cost to repower to a Tier 2 engine is generally lower than repowering to a Tier 3,” Chrusciel says. “A Tier 2 repower kit usually consists of an engine and some additional spare parts. However, when repowering to Tier 3, the dealer often must make significant changes to the cooling system and perform electronic control upgrades.”

There are a lot of factors to consider in any repower, says Joe Mastanduno, product marketing manager, engine drivetrain, John Deere Construction and Forestry division. “Usually larger machines have a higher residual value, so it makes sense to consider a repower on those machines because repowering makes more economic sense when compared to the cost of fully replacing these large machines.”

Igoe says some repower models may require a reconfiguration of the driveline and or sheet metal. “These are engineered solutions, by the factory,” he says. Given the vastly different technology in the Tier 0 to Tier 4 engine range and complexity of applying for and qualifying for emissions reduction grants, Igoe recommends contractors discuss the range of options with their dealers.