Welcome to Canada's Athabasca oil sands, one of the world's largest petroleum resource basins and quite possibly the worst place on the face of the earth to put a skid steer loader.
"To be realistic, nobody should take any piece of equipment into this environment -- but there's a job to do," says Dave Scragg, Manager, Carmacks Construction, Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada. "And John Deere is the only machine that can withstand this kind of punishment."
Punishment indeed. Imagine working in a light, steady rain. Only instead of rain, an abrasive, sandy, oily material is falling continually from the sky. And it gets into everything...The spillage material is so abrasive, in fact, that in just 36 hours it completely wears down the bucket’s cutting edges. That’s the kind of environment the John Deere skid steer loaders must endure, shift after shift.
“The oil sands are basically a huge, buried pile of sand with oil residue in it,” says Scragg. “A skid steer comes out of there after a 12-hour shift with a 6-inch coating of this tarry, sandy material. “We need tremendous parts and service support, because we really are pushing our equipment to extremes. Our experience with our Deere dealers has been excellent — they bend over backwards.”* Located in northeast Alberta near Fort McMurray, the oilsand plants produce about a million barrels a day.
That’s enough to supply a quarter of Canada’s total energy needs. Oil exports are roughly equivalent to those of a small member of OPEC. And with oil reserves exceeding 300 billion barrels, the region isn’t expected to run dry anytime soon. “It costs more to produce, but it’s virtually an unlimited supply,” says Scragg. “That’s important to the United States, which imports oil from the region.
Let’s face it, Canada is a more stable region than the Middle East.” A truck-and-shovel method is used to mine the oil sands at the Steepbank mine. The method can access a higher quality of oil sands with less clay.
Huge shovels load the oil sand into 350-ton trucks, which transport the mix to primary crushers. The oil-sand mix is transported from the crushers to the oil-extraction plant by a 600-meter-long conveyor. Concrete beams support the conveyor, which is suspended as high as 20 meters above the ground in places. It’s the skid steer loader’s job to clear spillage out from underneath the conveyor.
The spillage piles up so rapidly that in a 12-hour shift, it starts to reach the conveyor even where 20 meters of clearance had existed. “I’ve tried many pieces of equipment, but skid steers are the only ones that can get in there,” says Scragg. “There’s barely enough room, but the Deere skid steers have the agility to get into tight spaces, with the power you need to pick up this material. Deere machines have the best horsepower- to-weight ratio you can find for this job.”
John Deere skid steers owe their superb agility to optimal 60/40-weight distribution, low center of gravity, high ground clearance, long wheelbase, and, of course, compact size. And when it comes to power, John Deere diesel engines deliver more torque rise and usable power than other engines. The skid steer’s unified design optimizes hydraulics, lift capabilities, and pushing force.
Built to withstand the sand
Of course, superior performance doesn’t mean much unless the machines are available when needed. Durability is a key reason Carmacks chose John Deere. Built in the same factory as our highly reliable crawlers and backhoes, John Deere skid steers set the benchmark for reliability and uptime. “Deere has the most durable machines out there,” Scragg reports. “We’ve tried every brand, but John Deere is the only one that gives us the uptime we need. Our mechanics and operators make it clear that they prefer Deere, and we listen to them."
Operators like the best-in-class visibility with clear sightlines to the cutting edge, bucket corners, sides, rear corners, and directly behind. “You can see the bucket edge from the seat, even when you’re next to these concrete pillars where it’s really tight,” explains Scragg. “With some other makes, you cannot see the edge of the bucket, and you can do an awful lot of damage."
With 35 degrees of rollback, big bucket loads arrive where they are supposed to. Plus, their 45-degree dump angle ensures the bucket empties the sticky oil-sand material easily. Carmacks has used mainly 270s, as well as 250s, 260s, and 280s, at the oil sands. Recently the energy company that contracts Carmacks rented three John Deere 328 Skid Steers to work under the conveyor. After trying other makes, the energy company now rents Deere exclusively because of their reliability and performance. Over the years, Carmacks has owned more than 40 John Deere skid steers.
In addition to the five John Deere skid steers working in the oil-sand region, Carmacks has two working for its bridge division, three for its municipal division in Edmonton, three for its municipal division in Calgary, and two with its highway crews. During the winter, some of the machines are used for snow removal. In addition to buckets, Carmack owns a number of other attachments, including planers and backhoes. The skid steers are used for hundreds of different jobs. “They’re incredibly versatile,” observes Scragg. “They have become an integral part of the work crews.”