Heavy Equipment Operation Resource Guide

The term heavy equipment refers to any heavy-duty machine that is used in the construction, mining or agricultural trades. These machines are frequently employed to accomplish earth-moving tasks, although they may be called upon for demolition, transportation, or agricultural harvesting duties. The purpose of this resource guide is to discuss the various types of commonly used heavy machinery on the market today, the role of the heavy equipment operator in today’s construction market, as well as a high level overview of how heavy equipment aids construction companies in completing jobs at peak efficiency.

A variety of heavy equipment machinery is in operation today

Heavy equipment generally falls into one of three main categories:

Earth-moving machines - – Earth-moving machines – these are what most people think of when heavy equipment is mentioned. Some of the most common earth-moving machines are excavators, bulldozers, wheel loaders and backhoes. Excavators are incredibly important to the construction trades because they enable a single operator to do the work of dozens of workers. Excavators are generally used to dig trenches for utility lines, irrigation systems, or foundation footings. The ability to dig a trench through hard, packed soil with minimal effort makes these machines indispensable for any construction crew.

Earth-moving machines – Earth-moving machines – these are what most people think of when heavy equipment is mentioned. Some of the most common earth-moving machines are excavators, bulldozers, wheel loaders and backhoes. Excavators are incredibly important to the construction trades because they enable a single operator to do the work of dozens of workers. Excavators are generally used to dig trenches for utility lines, irrigation systems, or foundation footings. The ability to dig a trench through hard, packed soil with minimal effort makes these machines indispensable for any construction crew.

Bulldozers and backhoes are other earthmovers that are quite common on the construction site, as they enable a single operator to move massive amounts of dirt and loose materials with ease. A large bulldozer can frequently move more than twenty cubic yards of loose material in one pass, and a cubic yard alone may weigh more than a ton in some cases! The Caterpillar D6 is one of the most popular bulldozers on the market today, with the Komatsu D65 its only real competitor in the mid-sized market.

Wheel loaders are incredibly popular pieces of heavy equipment in that their front-mounted scoop buckets are able to transport heavy loads of loose fill and materials in an efficient manner. Some of these units are able to handle several tons of material in one pass, and are adept at depositing their load onto a conveyor belt, into a dump truck bed, or simply moving the product around a construction or mining site.

Backhoes combine the best of both worlds, as they sport a loading bucket in front with an excavating boom arm in the rear. The excavating arm is generally used for trenching, though it can be used for light demolition duties. The loading bucket in the front is perfect for moving and transporting loose fill.

Agricultural Machinery – During the turn of the 20th that one farmer could produce enough food to feed twenty-five people. Today, that number has expanded to one hundred-thirty people. The main difference is in the heavy equipment that is used on a daily basis by our hardworking farming communities.

Some of the most commonly used pieces of heavy agricultural equipment are tractors, tillers, seeders, and irrigation rigs. Tractors have been in use for years, and have grown increasingly efficient through the use of quick detachable implements and accessories. Tillers are commonly used to prep seedbeds and do an admirable job of churning the ground and prepping the soil base to ensure a hospitable environment for plant and fruit seeds.

Seeders are designed to insert seeds into the ground at pre-determined intervals, and make the life of the agricultural worker much easier than previously imagined. Irrigation rigs provide much needed water in bulk quantities, and in a much quicker manner than compared to other watering processes. Agricultural machinery may be more specifically geared toward one task versus a construction-biased heavy machine, but the fundamentals are similar. Leveraging the power of hydraulics, powerful diesel motors, and heavy-duty steel frames, these machines are designed to work.

Material moving/handling –Heavy equipment like cranes, forklifts, and aerial work platforms represent some of the machines that comprise the material moving and handling category. These machines are designed to move bulky, heavy, and otherwise difficult to move cargo over short to moderate distances, and are built with power and safety in mind.

Commonly used cranes in the construction industry include crawler cranes and truck mounted cranes. Crawler cranes utilize tracked wheels to permit a mobile platform, and can move around while holding a load. They are able to do this without outriggers and are able to navigate a job site easily. Truck mounted cranes are not quite as maneuverable around the job site, and do require outriggers for stability, but they can drive between multiple job sites under their own power. Crawler cranes must be broken down and hauled to a new job site on a flatbed trailer.

Forklifts are seen in areas as diverse as marine loading docks, large warehouses, and in agricultural applications. These can operate on liquid propane, diesel, natural gas, or electricity. Aerial work platforms are seen in the construction trades and are perfect for use as temporary scaffolding platforms, as well as to transport materials from the ground level to a higher elevation – and vice versa.

Heavy equipment operators must be trained to command these powerful machines

The role of the heavy or construction equipment operator is a commanding position. Those who operate these steel beasts must be knowledgeable about the physics of moving heavy loads of fill or material, the dynamics of a machine that can weigh ten or more tons, and the general safety requirements of operating any piece of heavy machinery.

Construction equipment operators control the heavy machinery used to build roads, buildings, bridges, and other general structures. They might use this machinery to move heavy materials at construction sites and mines. Clearing and grading the surface level to prepare for the construction of roads, airport runways, and other facilities is an additional responsibility. Heavy equipment operators can control industrial trucks or tractors equipped with lifts or booms for managing heavy materials. These operators may also perform maintenance on general power equipment at construction sites.

Working conditions for heavy equipment operators can be difficult, to say the least. Exposure to dust, dirt, mud, grease, and hazardous materials is a reality. Modern heavy machines do employ several safety features that are designed to protect the operator from flying debris, sharp objects, and the elements. For instance, most units are equipped with roll over protection systems (ROPS), and heavy gauge Plexiglas/safety glass windscreens. Even factoring in the ROPS, the variety of restraint systems, and the thick glass surrounding the operator’s cab, working conditions can be dirty and hazardous. For those who operate machinery in desolate locations or in dangerous areas like underground mines, an added element of danger exists.

How to become a heavy equipment operator

There are several ways to become a qualified heavy equipment operator. One way is to attend a private vocational school that offers programs in construction equipment operation. It is important that the school provides an opportunity for students to operate and work on actual machines in realistic situations. Any prospective student will want to determine what the school provides in terms of hands-on training.

Though classroom instruction is highly valuable to any heavy equipment trainee, the physicality of the job must be felt to provide the real world feel for the job.Some trainees are able to practice on sophisticated simulators for their real world training, while others are able to take the helm of a bulldozer, backhoe, or other heavy machine.

Most schools or prospective employers require a high school diploma, and exposure to classes like English, math, and machine shop are helpful. Many students find that a course in auto mechanics is useful due to the maintenance requirements of heavy machinery. If a bulldozer or tractor needs a simple, on the fly repair, it is less costly and significantly faster to have the operator make the fix, versus waiting for a repair crew. Basic processes can be managed in the field, but for more serious repairs or maintenance issues the construction manager will want to seek professional services.

On the job training is another way that prospective heavy equipment operators can receive the training they need. While vocational training and classroom instruction is helpful, a new operator may find that having a veteran machine operator teaching the ins and outs of machine operation may provide a quicker learning curve. One thing to consider, though, is that these trainers will rarely have the in-depth knowledge of all current safety regulations that are important to know.

Some learn this trade through a three to four-year apprenticeship program. Apprentices must complete at least 144 hours per year of technical instruction and 2,000 hours of paid, on-the-jobsite experience.

Licensing requirements vary among states, but construction equipment operators often possess a commercial driver’s license, which permits the legal transportation of heavy equipment between jobsites. State rules about commercial driver's licenses often vary, with some states requiring a special operator’s license for anyone who plans on operating a backhoe, loader, or bulldozer.

Pile driver operators may be required to have a crane operator certificate or license. Eighteen states, along with the cities of New Orleans, Chicago, New York City, Omaha, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C., classify pile drivers as cranes, requiring operators to possess a crane license.

Understanding the hazards associated with heavy equipment operation is important

Understanding the hazards associated with heavy equipment operation is important

  • Falls – a large percentage of reported construction injuries stem from a fall. Those who operate machinery are at risk of falls as negotiating cab steps or ladders can be tricky in the often dusty and dirty environment of a jobsite. Scaffolding and ladders aren’t necessarily heavy construction equipment, but an operator may sometimes have to work among these fixtures and falls can occur.
  • Electrical – any heavy machine operator has the potential to inadvertently cut through or damage an overhead or underground power line. High voltage lines can cause serious injury, including damage to the machine itself. Care must be taken prior to excavating a new area, or when working around power lines. Utility companies will frequently mark utility line areas prior to digging at little to no cost.
  • Entrapment – when operating in a mine or other enclosed space, or when trenching out a footing that requires the machine to be in the actual excavated space, the potential for a deadly outcome is real. Cave-ins and ground collapses have caused serious injuries and death among construction equipment operators, and must be considered before operating a heavy machine.
  • Bodily Injury – though most heavy machinery and pieces of equipment are equipped with roll over protection systems (ROPS), passive restraints, and other safety-enhancing features, injuries do happen. Working in dirty and dusty conditions, and often on unstable footings, can cause any machine to roll or shift unexpectedly. This can cause serious injury to the operator if care isn’t taken.
  • Damage to hearing – many construction workers and machine operators wear insufficient hearing protection, which can lead to hearing loss and permanent damage to the inner ear. It makes sense – machine operators need to hear commands from other workers and it is important to be able to listen to the nuances of the heavy machine as it does its work. That said, hearing protection is vital, as is training that helps educate machine operators as to the proper way to protect their ears.

Though there is certainly the potential for danger when operating heavy machinery, by paying attention to one’s surroundings, an operator can enjoy a long, safe career in the construction trades.

Should businesses rent, lease, or buy heavy equipment?

One of the biggest management concerns for any company that uses heavy equipment is whether to rent, lease, or buy the equipment. The real question comes down to – how often will the company use the machinery, how much working capital can they invest in it, and what type of machines are most needed for any potential jobs?

Renting equipment – Companies that decide to rent equipment may uncover a few key points:

  • Renting equipment means little to no money upfront. Most rental agencies require that the renter pay for the machinery right before use, or upon return. This means that cash doesn’t have to be tied up for extended periods of time.
  • Renters also receive the benefit of only paying for a machine while it is actually needed. If a bulldozer is needed for a three-week job, the renter can establish a three-week rental period. If more or less time is needed the renter can configure the rental contract to accommodate the timeframe.
  • Renting equipment does pose the dilemma of minimizing any tax incentives or write-offs for the business, so it shouldn’t be the sole means of procuring heavy equipment.
  • Renting equipment generally guarantees that the renter will receive newer models of heavy equipment. Rental agencies know that the machines must be reliable, and that any breakdowns or interruptions in service can cause serious financial issues for the renter. This factor almost guarantees that the renter will receive a quality machine.

Leasing Equipment – Companies that lease equipment may find the following benefits and drawbacks:

  • Leasing is essentially a loan, but the interest rates that leasing agencies charge tends to be higher than the rates on a traditional bank loan. This may lead to higher monthly payments on the lease versus financing the equipment through traditional channels.
  • Leasing requires a longer-term commitment to a piece of machinery, as many equipment lease terms are for many months to several years. For the construction firm that isn’t sure how long their particular project will take, leasing may not make sense.
  • Leasing companies that work with the construction industry do tend to understand the seasonality and cyclical nature of the business. This means that many of them are willing to work with construction companies to ensure that payment schedules are realistic given the nature of the business.
  • Lease payments may be a deductible expense, as they are generally paid from the operating costs of the business. Consulting a tax advisor for more information is advised.

Buying equipment – construction firms that choose to buy their own heavy equipment will realize the following key points:

  • Buying equipment does provide significant tax benefits versus leasing, as the depreciation and other expenses related to the purchase may result in a greatly reduced tax burden. Qualified tax advisors can provide guidance on this topic.
  • Buying equipment does generally require a significant upfront cash outlay, as lenders will want to see a 10 – 20% down payment on the equipment. Construction company managers will want to determine if this cash can be used for more productive means, rather than investing in a machine.
  • The business will need to arrange and pay for storage and transportation of any large piece of heavy equipment. This can be quite costly, especially if a specialized transportation rig is needed to move heavy or bulky machines.
  • Purchasing a piece of construction equipment is an investment that must be met by consistent use of the machine. Businesses should consider how often the machine will be used before purchasing.

If a company plans on using the machine frequently, it may make economic sense to purchase, otherwise, seeking a rental or lease may be wise. Tying up significant amounts of capital can keep a business from purchasing supplies, meeting payroll, and expanding operational capabilities.

The overall costs of operating heavy equipment are significant

Those with years in the construction industry understand the delicate balance between pricing a job low enough to win the bid (yet still make a profit), and pricing a job too high where a competitor wins the bid. While it is important to make money, construction managers can offer competitive bids to prospective clients as long as they know and understand the costs associated with operating heavy equipment. These fixed and variable costs can make or break a job, so it is imperative to understand the key expense drivers related to these big machines:

  • The Initial purchase must be amortized over the estimated number of operating hours. Buying a machine is a much better investment when it is destined for a lot of use. The operating cost per hour will be lower if the business can keep the machine working efficiently. This is an important consideration to make, as a more reliable model will command less maintenance and repairs – and a resulting lower cost per hour to operate.
  • Fuel is an expense that contractors and construction industry workers know all too well. Heavy machines drink a lot of fuel, especially when they aren’t used efficiently. It is important to minimize idle time, as well as to utilizemachines as they are intended. It isn’t uncommon to have a medium-sized bulldozer or backhoe consuming 5-15 gallons of diesel per hour. This can add up quickly, so it pays to consult the manufacturer’s specifications and estimate the per hour cost of running a piece of equipment.
  • Equipment Tires are wearable items that take a lot of abuse on the jobsite. It is important that the tires on any heavy machine are in good working order and free from any defects or dangerous wear patterns.
  • Maintenance and repairs are required in order to keep the machine in safe working order. The maintenance intervals will be in the operator’s guide, and local repair and maintenance costs can be estimated by a competent mechanic.
  • Operator wages are also important to include. A skilled operator, including benefits, will cost anywhere from $40-60 per hour, depending on the actual rate of pay and the geographic region in which the company is located.
  • Depreciation must be included, as owning a machine means possessing an asset that steadily decreases in value after each passing month. While a tax advisor may be able to work this to the business’ advantage, it is important to recognize that the machine does lose value each year.

Heavy equipment powers construction efforts across the nation – and the world!

Heavy equipment powers construction efforts across the nation – and the world!

For businesses that want to increase efficiencies and the overall effectiveness in the competitive commercial and residential building sector, renting, leasing, or buying heavy equipment will help. Those looking for work in this field will find competitive wages and good job security. Whether learning on the job, in a classroom, on a simulator, or from a veteran operator, a career in heavy equipment construction is challenging work - but also rewarding and in demand.