When we talk about advancements in construction technology, we are often talking about topics like new wearable tech, software, data collection, surveillance and drones. A huge piece of the industry that is often overlooked in the technological era is the construction equipment itself. While autonomous equipment is still a future possibility for most contractors, there is an up-and-coming trend for construction equipment that will be here sooner than you’d think: electric and battery-powered equipment.
While electric and autonomous may seem to refer to each other, they are actually quite different. Electric vehicles refer to the power source that make the vehicle run. Autonomous is a reflection of the actual operational function. Autonomous vehicles are also often called self-driving and use a variety of AI technology and sensors to operate without a driver.
Going electric is not a new trend. Smart cars helped to raise awareness that we could find ways to live our lives without needing fossil fuels or gas. As was discussed in an episode of DirtStories, battery-operated landscape equipment such as mowers and line trimmers have become more popular too. Then Tesla hit the market.
Tesla helped to transition electric vehicles out of the “environmental” niche. The cars were recognized as luxury and lifestyle items. The development of battery-operated pick-ups and transport trucks helped people to see that going electric does not mean compromising the efficiency and power of your vehicle.
The overwhelming embrace of electric cars is enough to make any contractor question the future of diesel equipment. By 2030, many countries such as the Netherlands, Ireland, France and the UK will no longer sell gas-powered cars. Some countries are planning on banning the sale of diesel engine vehicles as well. More and more, it looks like the construction industry has no choice but to embrace electric equipment.
While it would be a big change for manufacturers to produce electric equipment, there are so many benefits to making the change.
Electric equipment, most notably, is great for the environment. Construction is responsible for 11% of energy-related carbon emissions. But there is so much more to electric equipment than the environmental benefits. There is one, in particular, that doesn’t get much attention.
Aside from wearing PPE, there is little a contractor can do to protect themselves from noise on site. It can also be harder to protect against because equipment can fire up at any time without warning. Ideally, hearing protection should be worn when operating equipment, when working near equipment or any other kind of loud noise. Always having ear muffs or plugs on hand can be difficult. The reality of it being worn is simple: most of the time, it’s not.
Excessive noise and prolonged exposure to noise can cause temporary or permanent hearing loss or tinnitus. Tinnitus is the ringing noise you sometimes hear in your ears after a concert or a loud noise. It’s estimated that over 500,000 contractors in the US are exposed to dangerous levels of noise on a daily basis. While hearing loss is a major health concern, it’s not the only reason that excessive noise can be dangerous
Continual noise can impact concentration and make it harder to hear directions or warnings. Noise pollution can actually lead to more on-site accidents than you might think. Off-site, construction noise impacts those who live and work around construction sites as well.
Unlike many other dangers in the construction industry, noise pollution won’t necessarily kill you. Damage happens over a period of time as a contractor is exposed to consistent noise. Since it’s not as shocking as a physical injury and isn’t immediately noticeable, it’s easy to brush off the dangers and to take it less seriously than other safety hazards. However, it should be taken seriously.
Electric equipment could help drastically reduce the level of noise pollution and danger created by diesel-powered equipment. It’s so much quieter, it’s almost scary.
On top of reduced noise levels and the environmental factors of going electric, these machines will have reduced service hours, have lower ownership costs and can all but completely eliminate fuel costs for contractors.
There is the added benefit of possibly being able to work earlier or later hours on a construction site. Many of the reasons that construction is limited to certain times of the day is because of noise restrictions.
In Toronto Ontario, for example, construction noise is not permitted between 7 PM and 7 AM. It would be so beneficial for construction companies to be able to start earlier in the mornings or to work later into the evening. Not only could it be safer in the summer on hot days but shift work could be a good way to adapt to social distancing after the COVID-19 pandemic.
Already, many large OEMs are preparing for the rise of electric equipment. They see that it’s an inevitable future of the industry and want to get ahead of the game.
Here are a few examples of OEMs and the electric equipment they are making.
Using the slogan “Add Silence” Volvo is hoping that their new electric machines will help make construction safer. Their electric machines include the ECR25 Electric Compact Excavator and the L25 Electric Compact Wheel Loader.
Currently accepting preorders on the equipment, these machines offer a fast-charging battery and between 4-8 hours of operation. With zero exhaust emissions, reduced vibrations and quieter engines, mini excavators and compact wheel loaders are only the beginning of Volvos electric machine range.
In partnership with Pon Equipment, CAT unveiled a 26-ton electric excavator. The prototype was built for a Norwegian construction company. The company was looking to eventually purchase 8 of them but wanted to test it out, first. This particular machine featured a 300 KWh battery pack that provides between 5 – 7 hours of operation, depending on the intensity of the work.
The company – Veidekke – wants to provide a better work environment for their employees, to improve air quality around construction sites and to reduce noise pollution.
This machine is just one of many that CAT is looking to make in the future. Already, they have been working on their “electrification” standards in equipment. This electrification includes dual-powered machines that act as electric hybrids. Their adaptation to electric power is now moving into full-battery equipment, as seen with the 26-ton excavator. Soon, this machine will be joined by fully-electric dozers, wheel loaders and mini excavators.
Komatsu has followed closely with the auto industry and started off by creating construction equipment with hybrid technology. This technology allowed the machines to reduce fuel consumption by 40% and helped to show the industry that going electric doesn’t mean sacrificing power.
Just like Volvo and CAT, Komatsu has started building fully electric equipment that offers zero emissions – starting with the mini excavator. Introduced in Japan and Germany in 2019 as a prototype, the PC30E-5 Electric Mini Excavator also provides a quiet machine with reduced vibrations that will help make digging much more enjoyable.
Check out just how quiet it is.
There is so much advancement in construction to be excited about. It’s important to look up from new tech tools and software to recognize the changes that are coming to the equipment that is used every single day.
Electric construction equipment offers many benefits to the industry, including reduced fuel costs, less CO2 emissions and a safer environment with less noise pollution. With big brands like CAT, Volvo and Komatsu already on board, it won’t be long until diesel equipment is out and electric equipment is in.