Work Modes, Fuel Savings Make Excavators Pay Off

By Frank Raczon, Senior Editor | February 17, 2014
Work Modes, Fuel Savings Make Excavators Pay Off

Excavators are one equipment category where the playing field is fairly level, technology-wise; there seem to be few exclusive items that only one maker offers.

What manufacturers are doing is moving toward work modes, and other features for fuel savings and production efficiencies, to help owners keep operating costs down. Here’s a look at key cost-related developments in the 40,000- to 60,000-pound operating weight arena, including some of the plans for this month’s Conexpo.

Caterpillar is taking its machines in the category, the 318E, 320E, and 324E, to Tier 4-Final with the introduction of an “F” designation at Conexpo, where they now become the 318F, 323F, and 324F, respectively. According to Kent Pellegrini, excavator application specialist for Caterpillar, the Tier 4-Final emissions updates bring reductions in fuel use.

Cost of Ownership

Size Class Avg. Price Hourly Rate*
16.1-19 metric tons $160,400 $74.37
19.1-21 metric tons $185,991 $82.62
21.1-24 metric tons $210,211 $90.00
24.1-28 metric tons $241,858 $102.82

*Hourly rate represents the monthly ownership costs divided by 176, plus operating cost. Unit prices used in this calculation: diesel fuel, $3.98 per gallon; mechanic’s wage at $51.24 per hour; and money costs at 1.75 percent.


“We’ve reduced fuel consumption, which saves the customer fuel costs over a given year, as well as in the total ownership period,” Pellegrini says. “There’s also no loss of performance versus the prior series, despite the fuel consumption reduction. This allows the customer to have a better return on investment.”

JCB also claims fuel consumption savings with its no-after-treatment Ecomax engines on its JS160 and JS190 models. “The engines’ clean burn technology reduces operating costs,” says Vincent Whelan, product sales manager, compact excavators. “Both the 4.4-liter and 8.8-liter Ecomax engines consume up to 10 percent less fuel than previous models, and they offer increased response to operator demand for smoother machine operation.” Whelan adds that the company’s LiveLink telematics package provides fleet owners and managers with remote fuel consumption data for each machine, allowing managers to see operating mode choice and engine power use from the office.

Komatsu is unveiling its Tier 4-Final PC240LC-11 at Conexpo. It features SCR technology, and the company continues to use a hydraulically actuated variable geometry turbocharger and a DPF, according to Bruce Boebel, Komatsu America’s senior product manager, tracked products. “The Komatsu Diesel Particulate Filter provides a high amount of passive regeneration, and Komatsu Care complimentary maintenance and DPF exchange is standard on all of our Tier 4 machines,” Boebel says.

Taking the perceived risk out of Tier 4 maintenance isn’t the only way the company is targeting managers with a message. Boebel touts the concept of “Komatsu Harmony” as the feature that will provide the most customer bottom-line impact over the long term.

“Komatsu hydraulic excavator components are designed and manufactured by Komatsu,” Boebel says. “That includes our own engines, pumps, cylinders, valves and other power train components. The components go through extensive testing and are properly matched, and machine performance is maximized through advanced control systems. Quality and reliability are also important for an equipment manager. They want a machine that provides non-stop production and minimal downtime. Other examples of the Komatsu Harmony mindset are after treatment systems designed to have minimal impact on an operator, and optimizing fuel savings through systems of the machine other than just the engine.”

Hitachi has four excavator models in the category (ZX180LC-5, ZX210LC-5, ZX250LC-5, ZX245USLC-5), all Tier 4-Interim at this point. “For our line of excavators, Hitachi has focused on increasing productivity to help keep operating costs down,” says Mark Wall, product marketing manager, excavators, Hitachi and John Deere. “We do this in several ways. We utilize emission components that do not affect the day-to-day operation of the machine and that have extended service intervals. We also built on field-proven emission technology found in our prior models.”

Kobelco, making a big splash in a return to North America as an independent brand, offers seven models between 40,000 and 60,000 pounds. Kobelco’s product marketing manager George Lumpkins declined to go into specifics regarding the latest adjustments to the models—proprietary actions designed to reduce cycle times for more performance—but he cited engines that don’t require DEF as the single feature on Kobelco excavators that has the biggest impact on keeping operating costs down. “These engines have improved fuel economy and efficiency,” he says.

Link-Belt has three models in the category, the 210X3, 235X3 MSR, and the 250X3. “The X3 hydraulics system features hydraulics that are designed to work seamlessly with the computer and engine to minimize any pressure losses without sacrificing power or responsiveness,” says Chris Wise, product manager for LBX. “The controls are smooth and effortless, allowing the operator to do any fine-tuning work, but at the same time give him plenty of hydraulic power and speed to bail dirt and load trucks. The hydraulics are designed to work the engine less, thus reducing wear and tear while saving on fuel costs.”

Hydraulics and work modes are the major thrusts from John Deere toward keeping operating costs down in its four models in the category. “John Deere G Series excavators feature three productivity modes that allow an operator to choose the digging style that fits the application,” Wall says. “‘High Productivity’ delivers more power and faster hydraulic response to move material. ‘Power’ delivers a balance of power, speed and fuel economy for normal application, and ‘Economy’ reduces top speed and helps save fuel. In addition, there’s a ‘Power Boost’ button on the right-hand control that provides extra muscle to drive through tough digging conditions.”

Power and work modes have grown in popularity in recent years, but not every operator uses them. Many prefer running at full power.

“We see guys jump in and they want full power, and they leave it set there,” says Shane Reardon, Doosan’s product specialist for excavators. “It’s going to depend on whether it’s the straight-up operator, or it’s the owner/operator. If the guy is paying the fuel bill, he’s going to pay attention to that work mode or that power mode—if he can get away with doing his job as efficiently as he needs to in economy mode, he’s going to keep it there, because he’s going to save on his fuel bill.

Two of These Things Are Not Like the Others

Two machines in this category are decidedly different than conventional crawler excavators, giving you options to explore based on the jobs you face and your appetite for fuel expenditures.

First, there are two tilting, telescoping boom crawler excavators from Gradall, the XL4200 III and XL5200 III, at 47,241 and 54,877 pounds, respectively.

You probably know Gradall best from their wheeled excavators that can travel 60 mph over the road, but putting the tilting, telescoping boom on a crawler carrier brings several advantages:

  • A full-boom tilt, instead of boom-end tilt attachment, maintains full boom power while positioning attachments in precise locations
  • Unlike conventional knuckle booms, the telescoping design delivers full, constant power through the entire dig cycle
  • Also unlike conventional booms, the tilting, telescoping boom has a low profile that allows it to work under trees and bridges, in tunnels and on the bottom floor of multistory buildings.

Second, this size class is home to one of the industry’s very first hybrids, the Komatsu HB215LC-1. Weighing in at 47,530 pounds and packing 139 horsepower, the hybrid delivers an average of 20 percent fuel savings compared to a similar-size non-hybrid excavator, the company says. If your job requires a lot of swinging, the fuel savings is said to be even higher.

“The HB215LC-1’s electric swing motor acts as a generator during swing braking, and is equipped with an ultra-capacitor that transfers power much faster than batteries, which use chemical reactions to produce electricity,” says Komatsu’s Bruce Boebel.

“The guy that’s getting paid by the hour to just do his job and leave, he’s probably not going to worry about it,” Reardon says. “The unfortunate thing is that not enough people are taking advantage of the work modes and power modes, because you can really tailor that machine to be more efficient, both on saving fuel and doing the job properly.”

It all depends on who’s measuring what, and who’s writing the checks for diesel.

“The majority of contractors I have talked to in North America are very interested in maximizing productivity, either measured in yards per hour, trucks loaded, or pipe in the ground per day,” Wall says. “We have succeeded in meeting this need with the Hitachi Dash 5 Series and Deere G Series. The various work modes available make these machines very productive, and I think operators are choosing to utilize them in order to maximize productivity and profits.”

If you want to save the most fuel and money, lean on your OEM salesperson and dealer to make sure you understand how the machine can be operated to fit your exact needs. “Not only do we, as manufacturers, listen to our customers, but our dealers do, too,” Wall says. “They help our customers select the mode that delivers the most productivity for them.”

Reardon also stresses the need for one-on-one interaction and education. “Education needs to be done across the board,” he says. “I think we do a good job promoting proper work modes in our literature and promotions, but operators need more one-on-one explanations about what a difference these modes can make in their productivity.”

Case, which most recently updated its compact minimum-swing radius CX235C SR with EGR technology, a new hydraulic system, and power modes, pegs hydraulics as the key cost-savings opportunity.

“As you consider total operating costs and the factors that not only allow the equipment owner to keep maintenance down, but also to maximize the efficiencies and earning potential of the excavator, hydraulics, both standard and auxiliary, become the biggest feature for keeping operating costs down,” says Philippe Bisson, brand marketing manager for Case Construction Equipment.

“Auxiliary hydraulics are particularly important to this size class of excavator,” Bisson continues. “Having the right auxiliary hydraulics set-up ensures that the excavator will run a variety of attachments. If you’re only using a hammer, then a one-directional system will suffice. Attachments such as mowers require a bi-directional configuration, while more complicated attachments such as large cutting shears may require the addition of a nibbler breaker circuit—a bi-directional two-pump flow.

“Having the right auxiliary hydraulics installed will keep total operating costs down by allowing the owner to complete more tasks with one machine, creating new revenue opportunities and potentially eliminating the purchase and rental of additional machines,” Bisson says.

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