Excavation–Oh The Joys Of Dirt!

As I was in the later stages of planning, and after the home inspector I hired pointed out that I needed to install a proper drainage system in my yard, I came to the realization that I would have to move a LOT of dirt. In a previous blog entry, I mentioned the fact that I rented a “skid steer” (or Bobcat) to do the demolition of my concrete and retaining walls. Now, with another long weekend at hand, it was time to rent the beast again and do some real digging.

I remember from my childhood an interest in heavy machinery doing all kinds of excavation and grading on a miniature scale in my sandbox. With my Tonka Toy grader and bulldozer, I was digging awesome ditches and making the grade so smooth that you could calibrate your level on it. A nice memory, perhaps, but it takes a little time to get the hang of operating one of these beasts so it doesn’t hurt you (it can), and produces the desired result.

First, safety. It is important to get hold of an operator’s manual and read it. Although the machine is very intuitive to operate, there are some basic safety concepts which must be followed. Other than doing dumb-ass stuff that the machine isn’t designed for, like using the shovel as a working platform, you really have to remember one thing:  BALANCE!!!  ALWAYS keep the HEAVY end towards the uphill side. If you have a full bucket, then forward is good. If you have an empty bucket, then backward is the preferred arrangement. I made a couple of mistakes along the way and, because the machine is very compact, the center of gravity (CG) can shift quite a bit. It’s a tradeoff between stability and compact size. Fortunately, I did not tip over, but doing wheelies with a 2 ton machine can be scary. Interesting side note: The machine has a “roll cage” which the manufacturer insists that you do not modify in any way. I wonder if that’s because the occasional operator became over-enthusiastic and found themselves upside-down! The other factor affecting balance is the height of the load. The arms can raise the load above your head in order to dump it into a truck. But if you carry the load that way, you are in serious danger of flipping over. Of course, you also need to have personal safety equipment. A hard hat, because you can actually dump crap on yourself (I did), safety glasses (your eyes are vulnerable and too important not to take this simple safety precaution), earplugs because the engine is noisy and I didn’t want to listen to any criticism about my heavy equipment operating skills, and steel toed boots because your feet are important. If your feet get injured, then you can’t walk, and you then become an invalid. Take no chances!

Second, have patience and practice. I saw a lot of You Tube videos on how to operate these machines, and I learned a lot, but there is no substitute for experience and experiment. Start with a relatively benign environment where you have some room to move around, and some latitude to make mistakes. Try to do different operations such as cut, fill, load, and dump. Yes, you may spend an hour or two getting oriented, but the time spent is well worth it.

Third, have a plan. This means that you have to think through what you’re going to do given the topography and the desired end result. It’s more nuanced than just getting rid of a bunch of dirt, although you may have to do that at first. Where will you be able to dig? What are the constraints on my maneuverability? Most importantly (for me): how do I get this material out of the back yard an up a 30″ elevation? This last problem was not trivial. I had experienced two failures (detailed in a previous blog), so this time, I used railroad ties to build a “staircase”. I figured that if these ties could support a locomotive, they could support a measly skid steer. Turns out, that I was right. This solution stood up to numerous 2 ton trips. Here is a picture:


A Ramp That Works!


In the end, I learned how to get a full bucket (pile up your stuff, lower your bucket, and ram it while scooping the bucket (right foot) and lifting the arms (left foot). I learned how to cut (lower the bucket and aim down, push forward, but be careful about digging too deep). I learned how to fill (dump some dirt, and then lower your bucket and go backwards, then run over it a bunch to compact the dirt). Other variables include type of soil (this clay shit that I have to work with needs a jackhammer!), and proximity to existing objects (house, patio cover posts, trees….).  Bottom line is that I did OK with establishing the grade (using frequent measurements), I got rid of the dirt that I think I needed to, and (most importantly) I didn’t kill myself or anybody else. I consider that a worthy accomplishment. Here some “after” pictures:

Side Yard... Lots of handwork BC the skid steer wouldn't fit!

Side Yard… Lots of handwork BC the skid steer wouldn’t fit!



Nice grade for the driveway apron

Nice grade for the driveway apron


Front yard. This was my practice place.




Backyard — no, I’m NOT installing a swimming pool!

Last Gasp

End of a long day. Full dumpster, and the skid steer ready to return. Tomorrow, they will vanish from this scene.



For those of you who were interested in seeing me actually operate the little skid steer beast, Here is my video on steer skid operation:

Here are some more videos of cool skid steer operators:

This guy is my hero. I learned SO MUCH from him.

This is how I learned how to cut and fill. PATIENCE!!

Here is a trickster. See what I mean about balance:

Even the pros F/U:

The other thing I learned is that many of these videos show how the operators make nice even contours given an expansive area. When you’re confined, it doesn’t matter how small your skid steer is. There are places where it won’t reach, and you’ll have to do the work by hand. So it turns out that I have a lot of work to do by hand! But, overall, I probably saved 90% (or more) of the backbreaking manual labor which I am getting ready to undertake as “residual” earthmoving.

In the end, you have to ask the question, was it worth it ? In other words, would this have been an activity that was better to hire out?  At first blush, I seemed to think so. Then, I looked up what the going price was for excavation services in my area. I spent about $5,000 between equipment rental, dumpster costs (5 x 15 yd = 75 yd of concrete/stone and soil detritus), and ancillary expenses (diesel fuel, measuring equipment, safety equipment). The cost for 75 yards of excavation was $10,000. So I saved $5,000. Well, I still have some scut work to do with manually finishing the job (that will take several weekends). I guess it hinges on what is most important to you. If you have a tight schedule to meet, then maybe spending $10,000 on hiring a service is OK. On the other hand, if you’re not so dependent on schedule, then maybe saving $5,000 is better. Of  course, there was the angst of worrying about the skateboarder who would suddenly appear just as my skid steer was emerging from the back and running into him (her) and killing him (her) and thereby losing what little remains of my fortune. But that didn’t happen, so the bullet was dodged, and I am happily putting aside this phase of the remodeling project. And moving onto the next one! Trenching and inspections. But only after I finish up the manual work of cleaning up the excavation. Wish me luck!