A tough choice that can reward

By Jeff Winke

The big decision to jump ahead or not? Many asphalt paving contractors are there at the edge. They teeter … weighing the pros and cons of adding their own cold planer to their equipment fleet.

The question being wrestled with is whether the benefit outweighs the risk of a large investment. Is it worth it? Or are they best off subcontracting or renting a machine when needed?

The opinions vary widely among paving contractors and can vary widely even within a single contractor who may be gung ho one day and cautious the next. With equipment ownership, there is the expense of purchasing, operating, transporting, and maintaining their own equipment, which can initially seem intimidating.

“We’ve found contractors who are looking to be ‘in control of their own destiny’ rather than waiting or scheduling a subcontractor to perform their milling needs are typically the ones most interested in acquiring their own mill,” said Matt White,
 North American sales manager – milling for BOMAG Americas, Inc., Ridgeway, S.C. “There may also be scheduling issues with a rental house or subcontractors may not always be available when needed for work, causing project delays.”
Contractors who want to grow their business and provide another form of service to their customers are likely to invest in a cold planer.

“Sometimes it’s a matter of how much control do you want to surrender to outside companies,” White said. “When you own the equipment, you own the quality of the work.”

An asphalt paving contractor may need to step back and look at the business.

“Understanding the work load you have is the primary indicator of determining if it makes sense to invest in a milling machine,” stated Tom Chastain, milling product manager for Wirtgen America, Antioch, Tenn. “You have three options to best address a looming big workload; subcontract, rent or purchase.”

Chastain elaborated: “The question then becomes, ‘Can the milling subcontractor complete the job in the timeframe you need?’ If not, then renting may be the best option. Of course, when renting a milling machine from a manufacturer or dealer, you need to make sure the machine is:

  1. The proper machine for the application.
  2. In proper working condition.
  3. Easy for my crew to operate it safely, and productively.

“When you reach the point where subcontracting or renting really start to affect your day to day operation, it might be time to consider purchasing a milling machine.”

In looking at the demands workload place on a business, the numbers do not lie.

“At a certain point, subcontractor and rental costs will exceed the cost of ownership,” said Kyle Hammon, product manager – mills, stabilizers, brooms for Roadtec, Inc., Chattanooga, Tenn. “If utilization is expected to remain above a certain level, a machine purchase is logical to retain equity and ownership in the unit. Machine use is a primary indicator.”

Purchasing an asphalt milling machine can open up a new spectrum to your business portfolio.

“But understand, that even if you purchase a machine, you may still need a milling subcontractor to assist you with special applications due to their experience on these particular applications,” added Chastain.

When investing in a cold planer, size matters.

“Choosing the right size machine would largely depend on the type of work the contractor typically does,” Hammon stated. “Half-lane milling machines (base cut widths between 79”- 86”) provide the productivity needed to handle larger highway projects, but they can also be used for smaller projects such as parking lots. For a smaller contractor, a machine with a base cut width of four feet would be adequate for parking lots and smaller scale projects.”

According to White, the best size cold planer to start with depends on the contractor’s needs regarding project size, scope of work they plan to pursue and crew requirements: “Larger machines typically require more manpower and ancillary equipment. The milling machine of choice for a contractor who predominately bids on parking lot jobs vs. highway work can vary significantly. Horsepower, weight requirements, and what type of trailer/hauling capabilities will depend.”

Machine features can provide the greatest versatility for a milling operation.

“Variable cutter systems that provide the ability to cut multiple widths with the same machine can broaden the range of possible applications,” said Hammon.

White added, “Quick-change options that allow for different milling widths and patterns can save a contractor time and allow for flexibility between different job site requirements. Setting their machines up with the capabilities of multiple sensors for grade and slope referencing, provide maximum flexibility to meet varying job site specs.”

Ease of machine operation can be critical to the productivity and success of owning a cold planer. A milling machine that is easy for the operating crew, and the service side as well can provide a big advantage.

“Having a machine that is intuitive, and allows the operator to concentrate on the application is very nice,” stated Chastain.

“Simplified grade controls that allow the operator to quickly make changes, and is extremely reliable is a great innovation in milling. Having real-time machine information and job data available to the machine operator is another great innovation. Quick change drums, allowing contractors to go from standard spaced drums to fine or micro texture drums for different applications and having a multi cutting system setup which makes changing drums a quick and simple event, all enhance productivity. State of the art cutting technology is one of the biggest advantages to a modern milling machine. Cutting systems that allow you to maintain a quality pattern, while also getting maximum performance out of the machine are all becoming crucial.”

There are many good reasons for jumping into the milling business and many contractors are doing that. Yet, as more contractors get comfortable with the idea and add asphalt milling to their service mix the step can still be daunting.
Milling may very well become a common component of most paving operations. The irony is that with all the objections paving contractors have when thinking of buying a mill, the conclusion many make after the investment is: “Why didn’t I do this sooner?”

Jeff Winke is a business and construction writer based in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He can be reached through jeff_winke@yahoo.com