The concrete cutting globetrotter

Published 2/7, 2015 at 14:26

The world is shrinking and concrete cutting tasks are expanding. Being a concrete cutter was previously regarded as local employment. But now many concrete cutting operators and contractors often move around the world taking their knowledge and expertise with them. One of these is Andreas Kuelz who moved from Karlstad, Sweden to Germany and then Canada, where he is currently a Mentor Operator with Graff, which is part of the Penhall Group.

PDi has thrived in featuring stories about people working in this industry since the magazine was first published in 2000. This article is about a concrete cutter who changed his life, but not his profession. Kuelz was born and raised in Karlstad, a city in the mid western province of Varmland, Sweden. He worked as a concrete cutter in his home city for several years, before moving to Germany and continued his profession as concrete cutter, got married and moved to Canada.

Father working for Sweden‘s biggest demolition company

Since 2006 Kuelz has lived in Kitchener, Ontario, with his wife Mandy and three children Kayla, Alexa and Morgan. Kitchener is about 100km from Toronto and has a population of 230 000, which is about three times the size of Karlstad. He works for the concrete cutting contractor Graff, part of the Penhall Group, as a Mentor Operator. Penhall is currently one of the world’s largest concrete cutting and demolition groups.

Kuelz has been working with concrete cutting for most of his adult life. “I got in contact with the industry quite early as my father was a Brokk operator at the Swedish demolition and concrete cutting at Rivteknik (meaning demolition techniques) in Karlstad. When I was free from school I used to join my father at different worksites,” said Kuelz. Rivteknik was well known and the biggest demolition company in Sweden. Many other contracting companies have sprung from Rivteknik. It was people from Rivteknik that originally used Brokk demolition robots renovating the various road tunnels in New York during the late 1970s and early 1980s. The two Swedish demolition veterans, Roy Johansson and Roland Jarl, running their own US demolition companies in New York for many years, originally came from Rivteknik.

Kuelz has memories of working as concrete cutter in Sweden and it was of high importance for his learning of the craft. “I remember making a great job at a worksite called Commerce in Skovde the summer of 1992. I learned a lot on just this one job,” said Kuelz. “We demolished, drilled and cut a lot. Another example of jobs with big importance was at a large paper mill plant in Borlange during the summer of 1993. These two jobs were in particular important milestones in my early career this industry.”


Path to Canada

The path to family and living in Canada started in 1994. Kuelz, whose father originally came from the former East Germany, has been able to speak fluent German since he was a small boy. He recalls that the job situation in Sweden changed dramatically in the beginning of the 1990s. He had completed his military service, Rivteknik had closed and his chances to get a full time job as concrete cutter were poor. He managed to get a government supported job at a concrete cutting company called Arnessons Betongborrning for a while. One of the projects he worked on was in Germany, and his family moved there. They settled in Mannheim and he started a small concrete cutting firm. Here in 2000 he met his wife to be. “My wife came from Stratford in Canada and she started to become homesick so we decided to take on a new challenge lives and move to Canada, which we did in 2006,” said Kuelz.

Before they moved Kuelz checked the area where he planned to live in Canada for concrete cutting firms. In only the second week in his new home country Kuelz went with his father-in-law to Toronto and on the way home stopped at the concrete cutting firm Graff and left his CV. By the time he got home there was a message on his answer machine calling him for an interview. The interview was a success and Kuelz started with Graff, which is now called Graff/Penhall following Penhall’s acquisition of Graff in 2006.


Both similar and different

Kuelz enjoys working as a concrete cutter in Canada. He thinks that there are not generally any big differences between being a Canadian concrete cutter and doing the same in Sweden. “One clear similarity is that it is freezing cold in both countries during the winter,” said Kuelz. “One negative thing here and also in the US is that you need to bring your own power to the worksite. That never happens in Sweden. When we for instance work in large office buildings we need to bring a large transformer that an electrician needs to install before we can work. Most buildings have 600V and our machines use 480V. This you never see in Sweden.”

There are differences like a lot of machinery in Canada runs on diesel, which is no so good for the environment. He also thinks that life is easier for concrete cutters in Sweden. The equipment is lighter and easier to work with and there is plenty of equipment that aids daily work and makes it smoother. One example is Swedish drill stands, which are lighter, and often have a gyro function, which makes drilling smoother and more precise. “I think it is not always built-in among supervisors in Canada and the US to invest in equipment that makes the daily work easier and more efficient for operators,” said Kuelz. “If we want to improve working conditions the initiative must come from the operators who forward ideas to the supervisors. This is in general different in Sweden where supervisors and owners of the companies are very keen to try new and better equipment and tools.” 

He said that there have been changes within the concrete cutting field in Canada since he moved there. “When we moved to Canada the difference between Canada and Sweden was bigger. At that time the equipment was quite old and not so user friendly. The wall saws we used during that time were mostly Longyear 360 or Hydrostress,” said Kuelz. “High cycle equipment was unthinkable at that time. Everything was hydraulic. But in 2009 we purchased a high cycle wall saw from the US company Diamond Tech. in California. But at that time the high cycle equipment had some teething problems. The drilling equipment we used came mainly from Milwaukee or Black & Decker fitted on rather big and clumsy stands and the motor was normally in one piece with the feeder. Today we are mostly using Hilti drilling and sawing equipment. I got my bellowed Hilti TS-20 in 2012 and since then we have bought six more.”

Kuelz said that safety is number one on Canadian worksites. The workers safety is valued very highly and there is no difference from Sweden. He is very satisfied with his employer Graff and Penhall. “Penhall has an admirable policy when it comes to their workers’ safety,” said Kuelz “They always back up their staff if something has gone wrong on the worksite. If it is for instance more safe to rent a $400 lift there are never any discussion. Safety comes first. Hardhat, safety gloves, a visor and safety shoes are obvious on the sites.” When operating a flat saw it is mandatory to wear high voltage gloves and isolated rubber boots and the handles of the flat saw are always made of none energized material.

On thing that is different between concrete cutting in Canada and Sweden is the efficiency. “Canada is more efficient on the job and I think that it has to do with the hardness of the concrete. Here the concrete is much softer. I can wall saw about 100m with a depth of about 230mm in a day here in Canada. Lately with newer equipment I can do even more then that and the downtime, when the equipment stands still due to failure has decrease a lot thanks to improved machines and equipment,” said Kuelz. He also said that methods sometimes vary between Canada and Sweden. When you cannot make overcuts a Swedish concrete cutter will drill in each corner. In Canada and also the US chainsaws or ring saws are solely used when finishing up a corner.

It is still more hydraulic equipment that is used in Canada, but high cycle equipment is on a strong increase. “These days we just maintain our hydraulic machines. When they are done, high cycle equipment replaces them and no new hydraulic equipment is bought. I think most of our bosses are convinced that high cycle is the future,” said Kuelz. “If I have a problem, and that is not often, I call Hilti and I can get a spare machine in about an hour. High cycle equipment can also be used on most jobs where before we used hydraulic machines or where hydraulic equipment is too heavy to operate. In all our trucks we have a Longyear 360 or a hydraulic wall saw system from Tyrolit, but sometimes the hydraulic hoses are not long enough and then we use our high cycle equipment.”

Kuelz thinks it is just a question of time before high cycle is the only equipment that is used. “We have proved so many times that the production rate doesn’t go down with high cycle, which was the previous criticism against high cycle, but not any more. Today I often see small firms also using high cycle,” said Kuelz.

Graff is currently discussing the possible purchase of a Husqvarna Prime system containing high cycle ring cutter and chainsaw. Kuelz thinks this system is a perfect option and he has been arguing that the Prime system will save time in the production and space in the trucks.

Canadian requirements

Among Canadian concrete cutting firms and in particular within Penhall there are requirements for how much a concrete cutter should perform per hour or per day. This will depend on the job and material. But on average a concrete cutter should wall saw about 2m/h. But safety is paramount and if there is a risk for the operator production is secondary. What is very important within Penhall is that the concrete cutters have a positive attitude towards the clients or other contractors and that the operators are independent and solve problems on their own, but with safe working methods.

The use of high cycle equipment has resulted in more European equipment like Hilti and Tyrolit. Graff mostly use Hilti drill systems and wall saws and recently bought two Hilti wire saws. For electric flat saws mostly US Diamond Products are used and diesel driven flats saws are mostly Husqvarna. The diamond tools come solely from Diamond Products, Hilti and Husqvarna. Kuelz believes that Diamond Products is the strongest supplier of diamond tools in Canada.

Kuelz receives new jobs through email and works mainly in the southwest region of Ontario, which includes the regions Kitchener, Windsor and Niagara. “It is a rather big area to cover and it is often I drive about 400km in one day. My truck is fitted with everything I need for my work like wall saw, flat saw, three drill systems, power cutter, water tank and core bits up to 350mm and blades up to 1200mm and some other extra equipment,” said Kuelz.


A perfect ambassador for concrete cutting

Kuelz prefers to spend as much time as possible with his family. During the week there is not so much free time as he works long hours and his wife works some evenings. But during the weekends the family like to spend time together. “January is normally a bit quite so we used to go south during this time. Unfortunately I have not been back to Sweden since 2006, but I am planning to go back to Sweden this year,” said Kuelz. “But Canada is now home and my wife and I have good jobs that we enjoy and we have a nice house so we have no plans to move to Europe.”

Kuelz hopes that Graff will have use for his services in the future and can continue to develop his skills and share his knowledge and train new and younger employees. “I like this type challenge and that is something I can see myself doing at some point in the future,” said Kuelz.

By the time this article was completed Kuelz changed his job. He is still with Graff/Penhall of course but he has taken a position as Account Manager, which is a job that includes both selling and working as supervisor. Kuelz is the first Account Manager hired in about a decade with a background from working in the field. Kuelz is very excited about his new position and PDi would like to seize the opportunity and congratulate him to the new job. “Good luck Andreas!”

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