When it comes to digging in the dirt, Ronald Dowda has a lot of experience. Based in Covington, LA, Dowda is the president and owner of his own underground utility construction company, Red Tech Inc. Dowda got his start in utility construction in 1986, working for a family friend who was doing underground electrical work. From there, Dowda built a career in the industry, moving on to become a foreman on a small crew and eventually running a contracting company where he was working. Dowda's next move was to work for the local electrical utility company as a construction team leader.
"Working in this business was supposed to be a temporary thing. Here I am 22 years later and I'm loving it," says Dowda.
In the Covington area, about 80 percent of the electrical utilities are underground, and the electricity company has a staff of 15 to 20 that takes care of the underground lines.
"I was doing $11 million worth of work for the utility company and working 2,000 hours of overtime every year," says Dowda. This made Dowda realize that there was a market for underground utility contracting and he chose to go into business on his own.
Beginning with one crew and a Bobcat® 435 zero house swing (ZHS) excavator, Red Tech, Inc. was working seven days a week. Monday through Thursday, Dowda's crew performed electrical work under contract for the utility company. Friday through Sunday, Red Tech, Inc. did conduit work for local developers. After his first year, Dowda's business had been built up to the point where he could hire another crew and purchase another Bobcat 435 ZHS compact excavator.
Work on Red Tech Inc. projects is split between the two crews. The first crew does the trenching and the second crew follows the first — wiring the site, setting up transformers and making them hot.
While a majority of Red Tech Inc. projects are on residential jobsites, commercial projects have been a growing part of the company's business. The residential housing market remains strong in southern Louisiana, but it has still been impacted by the changing market conditions that have affected the rest of the country, leading Red Tech Inc. to pick up more commercial work.
Dowda says that the biggest differences in working on a commercial job site are that the conduit is bigger and the room to work is smaller. Red Tech Inc. just completed installing electricity in a new business park in Covington.
With only six buildings, the business park is not a large project, but often the smallest jobs provide the biggest challenges. The Red Tech Inc. crews had to place a transformer next to every building.
On the Covington business park job, the Red Tech Inc. crew was beneath a 34,000-volt power line. A large excavator may have risked getting too close to the line while working. Underground on the site was a sewer line and an existing underground 34,000-volt power line. In addition, there was only 10 feet for the crew to work between a building and a property line, and often the excavator was right next to the building. These conditions meant that a larger excavator would be too large for the work space and too big to carefully navigate around the other underground utilities.
Dowda says that having to work around existing underground utilities makes it important to have the right equipment. "On these job sites, you can't have a machine that is jerky," says Dowda. "You need a machine that is smooth and feels like an extension of your arm and an operator who is experienced."
Before working on a job, Red Tech Inc. consults with maps that show the location of utility lines, and utility companies mark the ground to show where the utility lines are buried. Once ground is broken, however, things are not always in the exact location as on the map, and the crew needs to know when it is getting close to another utility supply. Should Red Tech Inc. crews strike one of these utilities, it can cost the company $5,000 to $20,000, depending on the damage. "The Bobcat excavators are so responsive, we can feel the difference in soil conditions, which is a sign that there might be something there as we operate the machine," says Dowda. "That quality has saved us from damaging something many times."
At the Covington business park job site, the excavator's ZHS was beneficial because the machine had to work right next to the buildings. This design gives the excavator house 320 degrees of swing without any part of the house protruding outside of the excavator tracks. This allowed the Red Tech Inc. crew to place the excavator right next to the new business park buildings and work without worrying about the excavator house damaging the building.
In addition to using buckets to dig, Red Tech Inc. relies on two other excavator attachments on commercial job sites — an auger and a grapple. Red Tech Inc. uses the auger to dig holes precisely. The grapple is used to move construction materials, trees or trash from the right-of-way, where Red Tech Inc. needs to install the utility locations without disturbing more soil than necessary.
Red Tech Inc. purchased the Bobcat Hydraulic X-Change attachment system option on their excavators. This system allows the operator to quickly change between attachments through hydraulically activated retention pins that are set in motion by flipping a switch inside the cab. It retracts the pins for attachment removal and extends them for attachment hook-up, saving the operator time and labor. The operator installs the retainer pins before operating the attachment.
Dowda has also outfitted the excavators with extendable arms. These arms allow the operator to dig deeper and give the excavators greater reach, which means that the excavator does not need to be moved as often on the job site.
No matter how well the equipment performs, it's still up to the person operating the machine to operate safely. On commercial job sites, Dowda says that an operator with a lot of experience is a must.
"One false move by an operator can cost a lot of money, because there are so many things in the ground that can't be disturbed," says Dowda. Red Tech Inc. trains operators by starting them out at residential job sites. Most of their residential job sites are in new subdivisions — areas that have never been developed before. "These are places that don't have electricity or any other utilities, so there is less worry in striking something while digging on these job sites."
Having the right piece of equipment to complete a task is important on any job site. For Ronald Dowda and Red Tech Inc., a compact excavator is the perfect solution for commercial underground electrical utility construction.
"If we didn't have a compact excavator, we'd have to do this work by hand," says Dowda. "The compact excavator saves us a lot of time so we can quickly complete our work for our customers."
Editor's Note: Eric Morse is a public relations professional in Des Moines, IA, for Bobcat Company, Fargo, ND.