Monday, September 7, 2015

Timeline - Track Loader Adventures

Past Two Years

Major Decision:  DIY Excavating or Hire It Done
The excavation for a typical home over a basement, crawl space or slab does not involve a whole lot of dirt rearrangement..  The excavation can easily be done by a backhoe or a trackhoe and the soil can be hauled away or stacked nearby for later backfilling.  In most cases, a good backhoe operator can do the job in a day or two.

In our case, the volume of soil removed is essentially halved by letting the house into the side of a hill, as opposed to digging a basement on flat land.  But the additional digging outside of or under the footprint of the house for French drains, AGS conduits and for the insulation/waterproof umbrella makes the volume comparable to that of a typical basement or more. Furthermore, the dirt-work time-frame is protracted by the need for staging these tasks over many months.  Consequently, it was apparent that buying excavating equipment and having it available for a year or so would be more economical, and certainly more convenient and far less expensive than intermittent rentals at +/-$800 a week or using professional help at +/-$1-000 a day.

What Kind of Excavator?
When the buy decision was made, I had never sat in a Bobcat. The well-meaning folks with experience gave me conflicting opinions, mostly because they did not understand the uniqueness of our project.  So I decided to do some research and start shopping.

Most of the excavated soil couldn't be dumped just outside the footprint of the house --  it needed to be moved varying distances to get it out of the way and position it closer to where it would be used ultimately.  This requirement alone eliminated backhoes.  A "Bobcat"-type loader seemed adequate even if  moving a lot of dirt with it would take considerable time. So I starting researching used loaders on Craigslist and online.  I talked to some sellers by phone and visited some to look at equipment.  I stopped to talk to operators that I saw while driving about -- all in the interest of a crash course on sizes and type of loaders.

Track Loader Deemed Best
Several things readily became apparent:  A front-end loader with rubber tracks, though more expensive, has several advantages over a skid loader; that a loader big enough to handle a 6' bucket would be best; and that operating with two joysticks instead of a combination joystick(s) and foot peddles would be less tiring as well as perhaps more intuitive and easier to learn..  And I learned that Takeuchi developed the rubber track loader genre and the two-joy-stick configuration Consequently, I intensified my search.  I found the type of Takeuchi I wanted locally, a used TL130 with less than 2,000 hours on it for $28,000.  This gave me a baseline for comparison shopping online.

Sight Unseen Purchase
I ended up buying a TL130 with only 1,200 hours on it that was listed online by a dealer in
Hot Springs, AR for $15,000, which was much lower than the several others available online.  I swallowed hard, coughed up the money and had it delivered to a local dealer for inspection and repairs. Well, it did indeed need quite a bit of help for a machine with such low hours -- almost $5,000 in upgrades and routine servicing.  This seemed like a good thing to do in order to have a reliable machine and to increase its resale value.  My intention was to sell it after a year or so for a profit of $8,000 - 10,000, which, after deducting the cost of repairs, would net out $3,000 - 5,000 that could be used for construction.

After using the loader for 50 hours or so at stepson Keith's construction site, we brought it to our property.  I used it less than an hour the first day there before the engine blew.   When we did the math, the lesser of two evils was to spring for a new engine and have the functional equivalent of a new loader that would be easier to sell later.  Unfortunately, the cost of the new engine wiped out the profit  that I was counting on to help with construction and added another $8,000 to the cost of ownership. The bottom line is that owning the loader would still be much cheaper than hiring the work done or renting equipment but not nearly as much as planned.

For the uninitiated, let me say that owning sophisticated equipment requires an uncommon commitment to routine servicing.  After every 8 hours, parts of the machine need greasing.  The tension on the track must be monitored (and babied) to be sure the track will not come off (happened twice for us so far).  The fluid levels have to be monitored.  I ran the machine on bio-diesel (which is mandated by law in Illinois) then had so many problems with bio-diesel during the winter that use of the machine was severely limited until the problem was diagnosed -- algae and water contamination of the fuel held over from summer.  As a result, I felt neglected by the mechanics at the dealership initially and by the mechanics installing the new engine for assuming an amateur DIYer like me understood bio-diesel issues.

Roughing In the Excavation
It took the month of August to remove enough soil to let the house into the hill and clear plenty of space on the north, west and east sides to accomodate the French drains, AGS conduits insulation/waterproof envelope and swales to control runoff (previous post: a month's worth of digging).  The soil was transported and stacked, a 6' bucketful at a time, in storage areas some distance from the dig-site.

Backflip with a Track Loader
The need for deep French drains made me well aware of the dangers of trench work, one of which is that the walls become unstable when the soil is wet. Another is that the use of heavy equipment nearby can have a destabilizing effect, wet or dry.  The only problem was that I failed to keep in mind that the back edge of our excavation was essentially one-half of a trench. So, a couple of days after a heavy rain, I was trying to remove the last bit of dirt that interfered with installing the French drains. Daylight was fading and I was running faster than my skill level supports.  Suddenly, the "half-trench" collapsed in an area where

Uprighting the trackloader after sliding backwards over the edge of the
excavation and ruining a new  engine. 
my repeated turning had destabilized the soil. The soil slid away, flipping the loader over backwards then on its side. The contractor we had hired to help with the French drains was already on site with a backhoe and track loader and knew how to upright the machine, having had similar experiences with his own equipment.  The good news is that, the resulting whiplash only required a few Chiropractic visits.  The bad news is that crankcase oil entering the top of the engine through the air filter before I could turn the key off (lying upside down) resulted in hydro-lock that, in turn, lead to out-of-control pistons that annihilated the block and $14,000 for another new engine.   When we did the math, new engine was our best option. The total cost of ownership of the track loader, instead of being a 7% gain as originally projected, turns out to be a third of our entire building budget. 

Additional Uses for the Loader Before It Can Sold
At some point in the not-too-distant future, we will have to sell the loader to free up money needed to finish construction.  Consequently, the plan at the time of this writing is to complete the concrete work then stop construction and use the loader to backfill against the concrete walls to make them earth sheltered, build the necessary retaining walls, create the final contour of the building site and replace the topsoil where it was removed. Then the loader can be sold and another rented for any additional dirt work in the future.