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Cat Compact on the grade

Taking a look back at one of my earlier articles for Earthmovers Magazine and bringing it to life on the internet, with this piece on Reeds Caterpillar 279D tracked skid steer with grader attachment.

Although the market for the traditional four wheeled skid steer is massive in the North American territories, in the UK they have never really reached the same dizzy heights in terms of sales. There has, however, been a lot more interest in the compact tracked versions, which are better suited to the generally soft underfoot conditions we experience in this country, handle working on slopes and inclines better, and provide a much more comfortable and stable ride for the operator.

The range of attachments for these “tool carriers” is staggering and many contractors are now adopting the “Swiss Army” approach to these machines and investing in a wide range of work tools to suit a variety of applications. I recently caught up with a Caterpillar 279D compact tracked loader, which was being used in conjunction with a grader attachment on a solar farm infrastructure job in Cornwall.

In addition to their other stabilisation works in the UK and Ireland, Reeds have a lot of experience in terms of solar farms, having worked around the country installing upwards of 60km’s of roads over the past 3 years, from Boston in Lincolnshire to the largest solar farm in the UK in Bournemouth, where the team installed 6km’s of road to service the farm.

The site in the coastal village of Millbrook, in south east Cornwall is just 4 miles south of Saltash and will be home to a 5mgw solar park covering some 45 acres, which will be run by British Solar Renewables. Reeds soil stabilisation division were in the process of installing the necessary roads and compound area ahead of the main solar panel installation works. The work involved using cement modification techniques to further reduce the environmental impact on the area by reducing the amount of site delivery traffic as no aggregate would be required. This job involved the installation of over 1000 linear metres of roads and 2000m2 of compound/parking area. The job was also time critical, so the enablement package could be delivered in 6 days.

A typical solar farm roadway is bound with 10% product up to a depth of 300mm with cement bound capping layers or standard type 1 finish, dependent on the requirement of the road in terms of predicted load bearing from traffic. The materials involved are tested prior to the works commencing.

The team have a wide variety of kit available from within the Reed fleet, with dust free integrated machines and tractors being the preferred method due to environmental controls. The company’s tractor of choice is the Fendt, but there are also some John Deere models in the fleet. Some tractors have been using Fransgard towed graders for levelling the ground, but the most recent addition to the fleet is the Caterpillar 279D, which is equipped with a GF LG 270 grader, which perhaps unsurprisingly has been brought into the fleet by Reeds, who are also Cat Compact Dealers and cover a wide sales territory from their base in Wiltshire.

The man charged with operating the Cat 279D at the time of our visit was 24 year old Richard Gibbens, who has worked for Reeds for around a year now. Richard said, “I have been working on one of the track crushing teams for the past 12 months now, on jobs ranging from farm tracks, lorry haul roads and the solar farm tracks like we are working on down here in Cornwall. Reeds are a great firm for helping us develop our skills and will give everyone the opportunity to learn new skills, so far I have operated tractor mounted Meri crushers, Fransgard graders, Stehr stabilisation equipment, excavators and now I have been given the chance to take on the new kid on the block, the Cat 279D & laser grader”.

This machine also has more regular work tools in its arsenal like a conventional bucket and fork carriage, but also a road saw, but in this application it’s the grader attachment that is the star of the show, as it gives the team the ability to grade large areas very quickly and with extreme accuracy when using the laser guidance system and is proving to be an invaluable tool to have in the arsenal.

Richard was quite clearly passionate about his latest mount and in fact about Caterpillar machines in general, as he described himself as a massive Cat fan. He was keen to tell me more about his machine, “It’s a great piece of kit really. From my position in the cab I get great visibility, which is vital for me to ensure I am creating the accurate cambers which are required on these jobs. The seating position is excellent with all the controls located directly in front of me. With the grader able to move easily and quickly in all directions I can adjust the machine to give a very accurate finish at all times no matter what the material I am faced with”.

It’s often said that graders (especially larger motor graders) are very difficult to master and require a very skilled man at the controls. I would imagine that these smaller scale graders could be equally challenging to master, but Richard, a relatively young man, seemed to have it completely within his grasp as I watched him preparing the ground ahead of the awaiting hired in Bomag BW 213 DH roller.

The front mounted grader attachment is manufactured by Italian company GF (Gordini) and features a blade width of 2700mm. This width enabled Richard to finish off the tracks generally in two passes. Weighing in at 1000kgs, the unit has two wheels at the front, which can free wheel 360 degrees offering great manoeuvrability. The unit offers 30 degrees of blade inclination on either side, making camber formation easier, with a rotation angle of the blade at 35 degrees to the right and 40 degrees to the left. The 279D has also had some additional counterweights fitted on the back to improve its balance when using the grader attachment. The team have also mounted a set of “wing” mirrors which enables Richard to see the front face of the blade when operating. These have proven to be a very useful addition for keeping an eye on the corners of the blade when “trimming” up.

Also working on this job was another example from Reeds Caterpillar portfolio in the form of an 8 tonne class Cat 308E2 CR compact radius excavator, which was being operated by Reeds highly experienced Site Manager, Ed Hall.

The 279D, which is one from an eight model range of rubber tracked loaders, was introduced in early 2013 and is powered by a 55.4kw (74.3hp) Cat C3.3B electronically controlled engine, which meets Stage 3B emissions regulations, according to Cat this engine offers 8% more torque than its predecessor model and a 6% improvement in fuel consumption, something that Richard was especially pleased with as he said he doesn’t have to fill up the machine as often.

Richard also had high praise for the cab environment, which he described as top class! The D series machines feature a sealed and pressurized cab design, which Cat call the “Cab-One” operator station, which results in a much more comfortable working environment for the operator. Richard said, “The addition of full air-conditioning in these machines is a godsend, no matter what the weather I know I am going to be comfortable all the way through the shift which helps to keep you feeling fresh and alert right to the end of the day. Another feature I really appreciate is the rear view camera feature, which is displayed on the display monitor inside the cab. It’s nice to have that peace of mind when reversing that nobody is in the way. I am also going to have a radio fitted in the cab as it can be a long day without any sounds to listen too”.

The fully adjustable suspension seat has a wide variety of adjustment features that will help to accommodate operators of all shapes and sizes and the joystick controls can be independently adjusted to suit too. This arrangement also allows the entire seat/joystick control package to move up and down as a unit, further minimizing operator fatigue and maximizing comfort.

Ride across the ground is excellent, thanks in part to Cat’s torsion-axle suspension system, which isolates the track roller frame from the chassis. This feature helps to provide a much smoother ride for the operator, whilst reducing shock loads to the main components. The machine has a high performance powertrain and features two speed travel, with first speed offering 8.4kmh (5.2mph) and second speed offering an impressive 13.5kmh (8.4mph).  The machine also features Caterpillars High Flow XPS hydraulic system, which is well suited to running work tools that demand a high flow of hydraulic oil such as the aforementioned road saw, flail mowers and hammers.

Love them or loathe them solar energy farms seem to be big business at the moment and are popping up everywhere around the country, but in terms of constructing the tracks and infrastructure for such projects it would appear that Reeds have found the perfect solution with the Cat 279D compact tracked loader and its grader attachment.

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