Willhite Grading and Excavation Tackles More Utility and Trenching Jobs by Incorporating Grade Control Technology
Mike Willhite has been in the excavation and construction business for more than 20 years. During that time, he has traveled the world working on heavy equipment and honing his skills as an operating foreman, jobsite supervisor, equipment manager and lead operator for several top builders and contractors. In 2014, Willhite was named a winner in the Under 40 in Construction Equipment for his skills in grading, excavation, and earthscape design. He also has a popular blog, YouTube presence and a large following on Instagram. Through his social media platforms, Willhite shares project photos and writes about his experiences testing new construction technology, such as grade control systems.
Rotating Lasers and Machine Control
Willhite Grading and Excavation runs three, two to three man crews and his team specializes in commercial grading and excavation work, as well as excavation for high-end residential projects. His team also focuses on re-compacting projects, utilities trenching, footing work, rock breaking, building pad construction, soil conservation, building oil field pads and more.
Willhite is a long-time user of Trimble rotating lasers, including the Spectra Precision UL633 Universal Laser and Spectra Precision LR50W Laser Receiver and magnetic mount. The Willhite team uses the lasers to check grade during bulk out and finish grading or when excavating for footings. The lasers provide precision and guidance for cutting paths, trim work, leveling forms, footers and pads, slope work and the placement of concrete.
Willhite recently used the dual plane lasers' grade-matching feature for grading work at a plant nursery where the client was installing a sophisticated spray irrigation system. The outdoor nursery project included fine grading a 2-acre outdoor bed where the soil had to reach tolerances of +/- 3 hundredths of an inch.
To reduce time waste even more, Willhite has just recently added machine control to his Caterpillar box blade running Trimble dual LR410 Laser Receivers coupled with a Trimble CB450 Control Box. This has introduced Willhite Grading and Excavation to the world of laser-controlled automatics. Together, these tools give Willhite and his crew the ability to produce the most accurate grades possible in the shortest amount of time and with minimal rework.
"When Trimble approached me about the new Trimble Earthworks Grade Control Platform, I was very interested because I've had such great experiences with Trimble lasers," said Willhite. "And for some reason, on the West Coast, grade control technology hasn't been that widely adopted or accepted yet. I'm really interested in learning all that I can about machine control and spreading the word about how it can help contractors of all sizes to be more productive, take on bigger jobs and do great work."
He worked with his local Trimble dealer, SITECH Pacific, to get up and running on the new Trimble equipment. Willhite equipped his Caterpillar 308E Excavators with Trimble's next-generation Earthworks Grade Control Platform. Trimble Earthworks is the industry's first integrated aftermarket grade control system with excavator automatics capabilities. The platform includes intuitive, easy-to-learn software that is extremely customizable. It allows each operator to personalize the device interface to maximize productivity, regardless of his or her experience or skill level.
"The amazing thing about Earthworks is that all the data is in real time and it tells you exactly where you are at any given moment," said Willhite. "I can set a grade benchmark and know exactly how deep I am. Everything about the platform is streamlined, and the best part is, I don't need a single ground man to set grade rods or move lasers. This saves me a tremendous amount of labor costs over the course of a year, and it means that each of my two and three man crews can take on more work, so we have the advantage in both areas."
Maintaining Elevation During Excavation
Willhite recently used Trimble Earthworks for a large residential project on the beach between Carpinteria and Summerland on Padaro Lane in Santa Barbara. He leveraged the technology for excavating drainage lines, trenching, pool digging, over excavation and re-compaction work. He believes the laser catching feature is extremely useful because he can move the excavator where he needs to around the jobsite, while benching an elevation and he can maintain the digging elevation that he needs when he resumes work. Willhite explains that Trimble Earthworks is also especially useful for digging drainage systems because he can quickly reach the elevations required. He simply starts with his beginning invert elevation and then programs a 2 percent trench for the pipe flow, directly from the Trimble TD520 Display. From there, he just starts digging.
"When I'm working on a pipeline project that has several branches from the main line, all I need to do is reach over, touch wherever that branch is coming off and then start trenching," said Willhite. "Then, I set a new benchmark and start digging. When I need to tweak that to a 1.5 percent or 1 percent slope, I just go up, punch the numbers into the Earthworks display, press apply and I'm digging again. It's just so much more efficient because I don't have to reset my laser, set grade rods or ask my ground man to check grade. People don't like to think about it, but all the wasted time spent getting ready to excavate can eat up real work hours every single day. My guys and I love Trimble technology because we can get more done, make our customers happy and earn more money."
Willhite is also using Trimble Earthworks on a landslide repair job in Santa Barbara. He explains that the hillside has been failing slowly over many years and he was hired as the sub-contractor to rebuild it. The project requires moving approximately 2,500 yards of material, and the repair spans 125 feet long and 70 feet high. Traditionally, this type of hill repair can be extremely tedious and sometimes dangerous. Using manual methods for benching and sloping, he would have to measure and bench out the 1.5-1 slope and pound stakes every four feet, to slowly build the slope at 1.5-1. Once he cut to those stakes, he would then have to get out, stand on the slope - which is steep and unstable - move the level, re-bench and reset the stakes for the next cut.
"For the landslide repair job, Earthworks has really been shining as a great tool and time saver," said Willhite. "For the last two months I've been working the landslide, I haven't had to set up my laser one time. Instead, I'm just going on benching measurements and I can work off my first bench. When I'm building my slope back up to elevation, I figure out what percentage of a slope that is and I program that into Earthworks. From there, I can just excavate and cut my perfect slope into my compacted fill, without all those other steps. This eliminates hours and hours of staking and surveying."
Willhite estimates Trimble Earthworks has helped saved him several hours each day on the landslide repair project, which translates to hundreds of dollars saved per week, in addition to not having to hire a professional surveyor. Not only that, he has improved safety on the job because he no longer has to stand on the unstable hillside with his level to pound in grade stakes.
"The great thing about Trimble Earthworks is that it takes a skilled operator and makes them more self-sufficient, and it takes a good operator and makes them even better," said Willhite. "You still need smart operators, but it's a tool that allows you to get so much more work done. Contractors new to grade control have to break through that wall and realize that the investment upfront will pay for itself very quickly. It's really a no-brainer."