Unique Equipment Excels on Multi-Million Dollar Natural Gas Project
By Tim Adkisson
Extending along much of the Appalachian Basin, the slippery sloped Marcellus shale sits on numerous valuable, untapped natural gas reserves. Close in proximity to many major markets along the East Coast of the United States, it provides a treacherous, yet profitable opportunity for underground utility contractors that specialize in pipe laying and are willing to stand up to the safety risks. Benton-Georgia, a leading underground utility contractor that has employed its services all across the East Coast for the past 90 years, was awarded a job last summer on this unique landscape near the northeastern Pennsylvania town of Towanda. The goal was to install the necessary infrastructure from the gas wells so that natural gas worth millions of dollars could be transported to the customer’s refining and cleaning system and then provided to the end user. Standing in Benton-Georgia’s way, however, were life-threatening terrain, specialized equipment needs and two major floods.
“The magnitude and importance of this job was huge due to the financial impact of the natural gas to our customer,” said John Lightner, fleet manager for Benton-Georgia. “I would estimate that there were more than 200 uncapped well heads ready to be connected to the main infrastructure lines. Every week that these remained uncapped, each well head cost our customer upwards of $500,000 to $1 million in profit.”
The first priority after winning the bid was getting equipment to safely handle the job. The Marcellus shale is an extremely uneven terrain, requiring the contractor to work on slippery 45-degree slopes for parts of the pipeline work. Factory-ready excavators aren’t equipped for this type of challenge. In addition, the job required the backfill to be rid of large rocks and other abrasive materials, so the excavators would have to be customized with the proper hydraulic systems to handle the attachments required for the job.
“Like most contractors today, we can’t afford to tie up capital on equipment in hopes of getting a job,” stated Lightner. “In our market, we have to move reactively, yet it’s important that we have the equipment soon. For example, this job required us to be mobilizing on-site in about two weeks, so we turned to our local dealer, Flint Equipment, to get the specialized excavators needed for this unique opportunity.”
CustomWorks Walks the Slippery Slope
Flint Equipment has been a dealer of high-end construction and forestry equipment for more than 40 years. The company used specialty fabrication from CustomWorks, a brand company of Paladin, to help provide Benton-Georgia with the machines suitable for the unstable Marcellus shale terrain. CustomWorks helps its dealers deliver specialized solutions that enhance excavators, backhoes, bulldozers, dump trucks, skid steers and wheel loaders. These enhancements include cab and machine guarding, key component protection and other specialty equipment upgrades. For this particular job, CustomWorks modified the excavators in its Kernersville, N.C., facility, but in many cases the company was able to send the necessary parts and kits directly to the dealership.
“I’ve partnered with CustomWorks for nearly 10 years, which has helped me better provide our customers with safe, rugged equipment solutions,” said Jason Cherry, sales representative for Flint Equipment’s office in Atlanta. “With their help and willingness to work weekends and a Memorial Day holiday, we were able to quickly customize the initial excavator order with the appropriate enhancements and get Benton-Georgia on the jobsite in less than two weeks. Each machine was in CustomWorks’ facility for less than four days total.”
A total of 10 John Deere excavators, varying in size and custom features, were modified as part of two different orders and pre-delivered by CustomWorks to the Pennsylvania jobsite directly. Some of the modifications and added work done to the excavators included:
- Grouser Bar Work — To provide extra grip on the sloped terrain, approximately 100 raised, single grouser bars were individually welded to the top of the excavator track pads on each of the four 350 model excavators. This took approximately three days of total labor.
- Grouser Bars Shipped On-Site — For the 200 model excavators that were not customized with grouser bars, Flint Equipment shipped extra grouser bars to the jobsite so they could be installed if needed.
- Customized Auxiliary Hydraulic Line Kits — To protect the pipe being laid, the job required Benton-Georgia to sort out the backfill so it mainly consisted of 2-in.-minus dirt without any rocks or abrasive materials. To accomplish this, special hydraulic systems were installed on four of the 350 model excavators so the contractor could use an Outlaw “padding” bucket to separate out the material and a hammer (hydraulic breaker) with the same machine.
- CustomWorks reconfigured the way the hydraulic circuit was routed back to the hydraulic tank, so the contractor could reverse the hydraulic direction if they had to clear a jam in the bucket. A case drain line was also added to these excavators.
- Common Hydraulic Line Kits — Two of the 200 model excavators received two-way electric solenoid hydraulic line kits that enabled the contractor to more effectively use hydraulic grapples and hydraulic thumbs.
- Arm Installation — The job required immediate machine turnaround, so Flint Equipment utilized CustomWorks to install arms on two of the excavators that didn’t yet have them.
Two major unexpected floods nearly derailed the project, delaying the crew one week each time. Some of the Marcellus shale was so steep and slippery from the rain that Benton-Georgia was forced to hook a winch system on the back of each excavator to winch the machine up the terrain and ensure it would stay in place while performing the work.
“These heavy-duty, customized excavators were one of the main reasons we were able to build the pipeline system in the timeframe that the customer asked for,” Lightner said. “The grouser bars really helped keep the machine from sliding off the mountain slopes. The different hydraulic kits provided added versatility and use of accessories that helped us do our job better, whether that was breaking out the rock to dig the ditch or backfilling the ditch to the specified requirements. Instead of just digging, we were able to do multiple tasks on a difficult foundation with each machine.”
One Job Leads To Another
Benton-Georgia was able to successfully lay approximately six miles of pipe in 45-ft lengths in less than the required three-month window. Finishing the job ahead of schedule, the contractor has been awarded more than six additional natural gas pipeline jobs since. To date, Lightner estimates that he’s used the customized excavators to lay approximately 30 miles of pipeline ranging from six inches in diameter up to 24 in.
“The machines and customizations are holding up well, as we are still using them today,” stated Lightner. “We use them in a very harsh environment, yet they still perform. We won’t hesitate to work with Flint Equipment again, especially when we need equipment customizations.”
Tim Adkisson is the market manager for CustomWorks, a brand company of Paladin based in Davenport, Iowa.