Why cheaper machines often cost contractors more

08 May 2024

Tony den Hoed, Director, Key Accounts — Demolition Equipment, reveals why buying a cheaper exacavator can often cost contractors more, and highlights what to look for in a demolition cleanup excavator.

Volvo EC480E Demolition Volvo EC480E Demolition Excavator. (PHOTO: Volvo)

When it comes to excavators used for demolition cleanup, many contractors think of them simply as commodities — machines that are interchangeable with other machines and used for the same purpose, with no real value of one over the other.

As a result, they opt for less-expensive models or even low-hour used machines knowing they’ll probably be beaten up in the process, then traded in for whatever they can get instead of investing in the proper specialized demolition excavators they need to get the job done.

That way of thinking, though, can cost money. The machines used to process demolition debris are typically conventional excavators as opposed to purpose-built demolition excavators, like a high reach.

But these demolition cleanup excavators can and should have durable features and be outfitted to withstand the demands of demo work.

That may cost a little more up front, but the savings on operating costs over time — not to mention safety and potentially higher resale values — are well worth the investment.

I think that view is widely accepted when it comes to the excavators tearing down structures, but more contractors need to think that way about the excavators processing material on the ground.

Demo Excavator Guarding Packages

Let’s start with guarding. The excavators cleaning up debris are often working in rugged conditions, and guarding can help prevent unnecessary wear and tear and breakdowns that can happen with models lacking adequate guarding.

Whether it’s a broken hose that’s been caught on some rebar, a track that has come disengaged because the excavator didn’t have full-length track guards, or small damage to a door that then gets into your radiator, you should be looking for excavators with guarding that’s specific to demolition and designed for the intense, day-in-day-out operations.

It’s only a commodity if it’s something you can “pick up off the shelf” that’s the same as everything else. But I view machines with these features as an upfront investment that immediately support a contractor’s bottom line.

First and foremost, they can prevent downtime — and your cost for a hydraulic hose is insignificant compared to the day and a half (or more) that it takes to get you back up and running.

Most demolition jobs are time sensitive, and it’s probably not the hour that you’re down in the first day that’s going to make or break you — it’s the one hour here, one hour there that add up. If you can avoid these little increments adding up, you have a much better shot at getting your bonus in the long term. Even better, you can gain a reputation of being a fast, preferred vendor for future jobs.

The Case for Quality Over Commodity

There are two main reasons going with the cheapest option is not the right choice with cleanup excavators: quality and controllability.

Better-built machines are well designed and have features that sometimes go unrecognized until the operator gets in.

It’s hard to put a value on these things because they don’t necessarily affect whether the job gets done or not — but it does affect the operator’s quality of life while operating the machine. That’s why choosing the correct excavator for the job will improve efficiency and reduce costs.

A great example is the cab. Demolition is tough work, so investing in excavators that feature comfortable cabs with intuitive controls is important to keep your operators alert and productive.

You should also seek out brands that aim to minimize or even eliminate noise and vibration. That makes long days more tolerable.

If you want to keep your crew out there working longer, you don’t want to put them in commodity-type machines that rough them up. A bit more investment up front can put them in safer, more durable machines — and the efficiency and added productivity over time can pay for that added investment.

For controllability, choose machines that allow operators to set the reaction speed of the hydraulics at different levels.

Most exceptional operators love the active controls because they’re snappy and responsive. However, some operators like a calmer and more fluid motion and opt for normal or soft controls. Personal preferences like these matter to operators, and it can be the difference between more productive days and days cut short.

You can do the same for the tools. An operator can adjust the settings for rotating shears, for example, and the machine will be a little bit easier on the tool.

When an operator rotates material in the jaws of the shear or processor too quickly, it bangs around the machine. That’s why I recommend a normal or soft setup to minimize unnecessary component damage such as pin wear.

Does a Better-Built Excavator Really Matter?

It does. Excavators built with thicker plating and walls are stronger and heavier, making them more durable.

Sometimes that can be a detriment of what the machine can lift because when your boom and arm are heavier by a couple thousand pounds, they lift less. But when it comes to demolition, you don’t really want to be lifting the material — you want the tool to process the material.

You only need to be able to lift the tool out there and then start cutting. You shouldn’t be lifting material out — some operators do, but it’s not best practice.

Volvo EC480E Demolition Volvo EC480E Demolition. (PHOTO: Volvo)

Durable undercarriages are just as important. For example, investing in a machine from an OEM that focuses on extremely durable frames, booms and arms, means those components aren’t ones to worry about failing. Some OEMs also warranty them for life. Many OEMs don’t.

More durable machines with high-quality guarding packages help keep you up and running to make more money.

They’re less likely to need unexpected service, and their resale values are usually higher in the end. If you lease, higher residual values can lower your monthly payments and what you’ll pay over the life of the lease — plus, you’ll have a machine that can get the work done and one your operators like running.

All of these make an excavator outfitted for demolition so valuable. The investment starts paying you back immediately, and in the end, you have machines built to help keep your crew safer.

The Impact of Idling

One last point. Demo cleanup excavators tend to idle more often, and that eats into profitability by burning extra fuel and racking up unnecessary machine hours.

When you idle, you’re adding hours on the machine, you get to the next service interval faster, your lease runs out faster, your extended warranty ends earlier and so on.

Better-built machines include features to prevent excessive idling, like an auto-idle feature that automatically switches the engine to the idle setting after five seconds of inactivity, lowering the engine’s RPM and saving fuel.

Some also come with an engine auto-shutdown feature to shut down the engine when idling for a certain period when the control lockout lever is down. Those savings really add up over time.

If you use excavators for demolition cleanup, take some time to understand exactly what you’re investing in and what your return can be.

Lower-cost commodity-type machines might get the work done, but they can also cost you a lot more in the long run — and they can add unnecessary safety risks for you and your crew.

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