The Green Giant

Aug. 1, 2008
No longer the silent elephant in the construction and rental industries, environmental responsibility and sustainability concerns are today...

This summer the exorbitant cost of fuel has been reported on by every media outlet in every medium available. So it's no surprise that equipment makers from automobiles to construction machines receive media attention when they innovate and find more fuel-efficient and environmentally friendly ways to power their products and facilities. As green manufacturing and building initiatives as well as the sense of corporate environmental responsibility continue to pervade the industry, RER will look at what's being done by OEMs as well as rental companies to make a substantive impact on the environment.

The biology of biodiesel

Biodiesel is frequently referred to by construction equipment manufacturers and end users as an alternative fuel source to diesel, but what exactly is it and why is it better?

A renewable, oxygenated fuel made from a variety of agricultural resources such as soybeans or rapeseeds, biodiesel's advantage is that it is renewable and domestic, reducing dependence on petroleum imports. Additionally, biodiesel is nontoxic, biodegradable and suitable for any environment. And, it significantly reduces harmful emissions such as carbon monoxide and greenhouse gases.

“A blend of 20-percent biodiesel can reduce carbon monoxide by as much as 12 percent,” says Don Miksch, co-founder of Riksch BioFuels. “That jumps to an almost 50-percent drop if a B100 or 100-percent biodiesel is used. Using biodiesel also reduces known cancer-causing emissions associated with Ultra Low Sulfur Diesel by 75 to 85 percent. That makes bio-diesel a safe-burning fuel that can be used in tight quarters where emissions are important.”

Biodiesel contains no petroleum-based diesel fuel, but it can be blended at various levels with petroleum diesel to create biodiesel blends. A biodiesel blend is identified with a “B,” followed by the numeric percentage of biodiesel contained in the blend. For example, B20 is a blend of 20-percent biodiesel and 80-percent petroleum diesel. Other available blends include B100, which is pure biodiesel; B5, 5-percent biodiesel and 95-percent petroleum diesel; and B2, 2-percent biodiesel and 98-percent petroleum diesel.

“Here's the great thing about biodiesel: There are no engine modifications needed to use it,” says Miksch. “Bio-diesel can be used in any diesel engine. It should be noted, however, that biodiesel is a solvent and can cause fuel-filter plugging in equipment that has been using only petroleum fuel. But this is a good thing because petroleum diesel fuel can cause deposits on the tank walls, pipes and fuel lines of diesel equipment. The biodiesel's solvent effect will release those deposits and initially cause fuel filters to plug. As you continue to use biodiesel, you'll notice that filter changes will become less frequent.”

Many construction equipment manufacturers and engine makers have formally approved the use of biofuel blends for use in their equipment. For example, Case Construction in June announced its approval of B20 blends for more than 85 percent of its construction equipment, and in June 2006 was one of the first construction equipment suppliers to approve the use of B5 blends. The support for biodiesel use comes, however, with the caveat from most OEMS that equipment users use only biodiesel fuels that comply with the North American Standard ASTM D6751.

“Biodiesel should be purchased from a trusted supplier who understands the product and maintains good product quality,” explains Ray Good, engine application manager, Case Construction. “Case recommends that you only use biodiesel from BQ 9000-accredited suppliers to maintain the quality and the consistency of the fuel.”

In addition, John Deere places a B2 factory fill in all its U.S. diesel equipment, according to the National Biodiesel Board, the trade association for the biodiesel industry, and has approved the use of B5 blends (preferred) up to B20 in John Deere engines through Tier-3 models.

Other OEMs approving a biodiesel blend for use in at least some of their equipment include Caterpillar, Cummins, Isuzu, Komatsu, Kubota, New Holland and Toro. For a full list of auto and equipment makers that support biodiesel blends, visit the National Biodiesel Board website,

While biodiesel is an attractive alternative for many types of equipment, some equipment owners and operators still express concern about the validity of their equipment and engine warranties if biodiesel is used to power their machines. However, NBB reports that most major engine companies have formally stated that the use of blends up to B20 will not void their parts and workmanship warranties. This includes blends below 20-percent biodiesel, such as the 2-percent biodiesel blends that are becoming more common. Several statements from the engine companies are also available on the NBB website.

In addition, several engine companies have specified that biodiesel must meet ASTM D-6751 as a condition, while others are still in the process of adopting D-6751 within their company or have their own set of guidelines for biodiesel use that were developed prior to the approval of D-6751. It is anticipated that the entire industry over time will incorporate the ASTM biodiesel standard into their owner's manuals. “I think the major drawback that the rental industry is going to see for awhile is the inconsistency in the use of biodiesel,” Miksch says. “Unless biodiesel is used on a consistent basis, you may see the filter-plugging problem continue to occur, especially in older equipment. I would recommend that if you want your equipment to use biodiesel that you recommend to the renters that the equipment use blended fuel. The major benefit you are going to see from the use of biodiesel is the extended life of the equipment. You will get more hours out your equipment with less engine wear. This will allow you to keep your equipment longer and get more for your investment in the equipment.”

the hype of hybrid

Everybody's doing it. It seems that way at least. Developing construction machines based on hybrid technologies, of course. And national media outlets are taking notice and publicizing their efforts — good PR for construction equipment makers in these times of high consciousness fuel awareness. A recent report that aired on CNBC highlighted the hybrid equipment being developed by Hitachi, Kobelco and Caterpillar, but those companies are certainly not alone in their efforts to make hybrid technologies a reality for heavy construction equipment.

One of the companies pioneering the development of hybrid technology is Volvo Construction Equipment, which announced its plans at Bauma in Munich, Germany, in early 2007 to offer machines featuring hybrid technology by 2009. Then, at ConExpo 2008, Volvo unveiled a pre-production prototype of its L220F hybrid wheel loader.

At the heart of Volvo CE's hybrid wheel loader is an integrated starter generator that is fitted between the engine and the transmission, and coupled to a state-of-the-art battery that offers many times the power capacity of a normal lead acid battery. The ISG allows the diesel engine to be turned off when stationary and then quickly restarted by rapidly spinning the engine up to optimum working speed using a burst of energy from the high-power battery. It also overcomes the traditional diesel engine problem of low torque at low engine speeds by automatically offering a massive electric torque boost as the ISG's electric motor offers up to 700 Nm torque from standstill, or in engine power terms — 50kW of instant mechanical energy.

“Hybrids are not a gimmick — construction equipment responds extremely well to the technology,” says Arvid Rinaldo, manager, global market communications for Volvo CE. “We are facing the very real prospect of fuel savings up to 50 percent, significant performance increases and a reduction in CO2 emissions in the order of millions of tons a year, if adopted industry-wide.”

Leading engine manufacturer Deutz has developed a new hybrid-power drive unit for construction equipment applications. Consisting of a four-cylinder diesel engine, an electric motor, a battery and a control unit, the electric drive serves to assist the main diesel engine drive. Constantly energized when the engine is running, the system creates electrical energy that is stored within a lithium ion battery pack when asked to operate as a generator. In response to high engine loads, the system reverses its operating mode and turns into an electric motor, enabling the system to supplement diesel power by taking stored battery power to assist the engine in driving the machine's hydrostatic transmission.

“With similar hybrid technology in cars and commercial vehicles bringing fuel savings of up to 30 percent, we are pioneering its potential in the construction equipment sector,” says Keith Andrews, Deutz UK national sales manager. “Going hybrid has to be the way forward if we are to reduce rising fuel costs and help lower harmful CO2 emissions at the same time.”

A prototype unit has already been fitted to an Atlas Weyhausen wheel loader, but the new Deutz hybrid drive is unlikely to reach full commercial production until 2010.

With a clear focus on environmental sustainability Caterpillar in March announced the development of its D7E electric-drive track-type tractor, which compared to the Caterpillar D7R Series II, will deliver 25-percent more material moved per gallon of fuel, 10-percent greater productivity and 10-percent lower lifetime operating costs.

“From an environmental sustainability perspective, the D7E uses substantially less fuel per hour — dramatically reducing the amount of carbon dioxide emissions,” says Stu Levenick, Caterpillar Group president. “This revolutionary design consumes fewer resources over its working life than any other track-type tractor in its class. All major components are engineered to be rebuilt or reused in the future.”

Caterpillar expects to commercially introduce the D7E in select markets in 2009.

Komatsu, which claims to have been the first manufacturer to launch a hybrid electric forklift, recently announced it will also be the first to launch a hybrid excavator, the PC200-8 Hybrid, which is powered by the Komatsu Hybrid System — a newly developed electric motor that turns the upper structure, power generation motor, capacitor and diesel engine. Compared with its standard PC200-8 hydraulic excavator, the hybrid model achieves about 25-percent less fuel consumption.

Many other companies are developing products using cutting-edge technologies that reduce fuel consumption and/or offer improved energy efficiency. Atlas Copco has introduced its GA 90 to 160kW range of oil-injected compressors, which use 11-percent less electricity than the previous GA models.

Aerial equipment makers such as JLG and Genie have long been building electric-powered booms and scissorlifts for indoor applications and sensitive environments, and continue to develop hybrid models using battery power and electrical technology on their other aerial work platforms (see article on page 30).

“Today we've got more than 20 scissors or boomlifts that are what I would call hybrid, electric or environmentally friendly,” says Kirsten Skyba, vice president of global marketing for JLG Industries, McConnellsburg, Pa. “All of our diesel engines to some extent or another can use or integrate biofuels — boomlifts, telehandlers — all of them are able to use some level of biofuel, though that percentage varies by engine model.”

Though the machines mentioned are by no means a complete list of the hybrid equipment available or in development industry-wide, they are a good representation of the ongoing research and development being dedicated to producing more environmentally friendly and green, construction machines.

the right light

Using the right type of lighting in a rental facility can significantly reduce energy consumption, which translates into reduced energy costs. One example is light-emitting diode lighting, or LED, which can reduce energy costs by 30 to 40 percent, according to New York-based lighting company LED Waves.

“In addition to saving money by reducing total energy consumption, LED lighting will also save money by virtually eliminating maintenance and re-lamping costs, which for many facilities are larger than the energy expenditure,” says Joel Slavis, president and chief lighting consultant for LED Waves. “Furthermore, because LEDs use much less energy and emit only a narrow spectrum of visible light, they are much cooler than other lighting technologies, thus they reduce the air conditioning load.”

The energy conserved and money saved by using LED lighting in one branch location can be significant, and multiply that by several rental store locations and that savings increases exponentially. Though LEDs are more expensive upfront, Slavis says that most of his company's clients achieve a return on their investment between 18 and 30 months.

The response of rental

Beyond powering equipment with biodiesel, equipping machines with solid-rubber tires, changing the lighting in their facilities and adding hybrid machines to their fleets, rental equipment companies can also impact the environment in other ways. And many are taking a proactive approach to the green movement.

Santa Ana, Calif.-based Sukut Equipment specializes partially in renting equipment with environmentally advanced technology, and recently overhauled more than 70 earthmoving machines with computerized electronic engines, cutting emissions by half.

“We voluntarily developed an innovative green process to re-power our equipment long before California implemented its current stricter requirements,” says Michael Crawford, Sukut Equipment CEO. “As a market leader, it is our responsibility to advocate bold changes that improve the environment and building industry.”

Bellingham, Wash.-based Birch Equipment Rental implemented a battery recovery program about 7 years ago in its maintenance department that has extended the life of most of its equipment batteries from 2 to 3 years to now up to 8 years, according to owner Sarah Rothenbuhler.

Birch uses a PulseTech product designed to optimally charge and de-sulfate lead-acid batteries to keep equipment running longer. “We get between 65 and 70-percent recovery,” says Rothenbuhler. “We date them, charge them, and get them all cleaned up and back on our shelves. I've got some out there that we've got 5 years on before they came back in and they finally failed the load test.”

As evidenced by its solid-tire initiative with JLG, RSC Equipment Rental works at both the corporate and branch levels to cultivate sustainability in its business. The Scottsdale, Ariz.-based company developed highly personalized and automated order, delivery and billing systems — RSC Online and RSC e-Pay — which have significantly reduced the amount of paperwork and paper it uses.

The company's branch in Garland, Texas, developed a recycling and energy-reduction plan for its store, purchasing recycled-content products and supplies; installing recycling containers for paper, plastic and cardboard; installing automatic motion light switches; and recycling all scrap metal and pallets. The store significantly reduced its carbon footprint while saving more than $11,000 in less than a year.

Equipment rental companies across the proverbial pond are working to achieve a positive environmental impact as well. The United Kingdom's largest tool hire company Speedy Hire recently received an award for “Best Contribution to Environmental Issues” at the Hire Association Europe Awards. The company's commitment to health, safety and environmental issues as well as its commitment to promoting environmental best practices and work to support customers' environmental programs were cited by the judges as reasons for the recognition.

In addition, Speedy has a new range of generators running on biofuels, energy-efficient lighting systems in place, and maintenance programs designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The company was also the first rental company in the U.K. to introduce electric vehicles to its delivery fleet in some urban areas.

With fuel and commodity costs at all-time highs, construction equipment makers and users are embracing ways to create more efficient machines, prolong their lifecycles and reduce carbon and greenhouse emissions. In kind, rental companies are finding ways to cultivate sustainability, while operating leaner and with environmental responsibility in mind. The green giant isn't going away; it's only gaining momentum and getting bigger.