Applying Pressure

Nov. 1, 2012

Hydro- and vacuum excavating systems are becoming so much an increasing part of the construction site landscape these days that one manufacturer states it’s been the busiest year for his company to date, with the demand in some cases exceeding supply.

The driving factors: increasingly strict construction site regulations, the growth of oil and gas exploration in North America, and not truly knowing what lies underneath the ground despite line locating technology.

Vacuum excavation is a technology that uses water or air as the medium to loosen the soil surrounding buried utilities, points out Ben Schmitt, product manager for Vactor Manufacturing.

A vacuum source will remove the soil into a debris body for offloading at a remote location or back into the excavation site. Since only water or air is being used to disrupt the ground, buried utilities are exposed without disruption or damage, he adds.

“By using vacuum excavation as the preferred method of exposing utilities for repair, the user protects the asset from damage along with any other buried utility that may or may not be known to occupy the same general area,” Schmitt says. “Not knowing the exact location of other buried utilities is a leading cause of unintentional utility strikes.”

Schmitt explains that on most dedicated hydroexcavators available today, end users can choose either a fan system or a positive displacement (PD) blower as the vacuum source. Each has distinct advantages.

A fan system “moves an incredible amount of air, excavating more rapidly than other systems,” he says. “It’s also easier to operate and maintain, and the unit’s overall weight is usually less. Also, fan units are generally less expensive than the PD versions.

“A PD blower moves air over longer distances and generates higher amounts of vacuum, allowing for excavation at greater depths, but at slower speeds than fan units,” he adds.

End users often have unique applications that lead to a preference for one type of vacuum system, so Vactor offers both PD and fan machines, says Schmitt.

“In either the fan or PD configuration, a simplified airflow path design will maximize pickup and filtration effectiveness,” he says. “Additional features that improve the unit’s overall productivity include extendable or telescopic booms offering a wide range of rotation and mounted on the curb side, large-capacity water tanks and debris bodies, heavy-duty solid construction, heated pump and hose reel cabinets, convenient operator controls, and tool storage.”

Photo: Gap Vax
Gap Vax provides its sister company, Gap Pollution & Environmental Control, with both wet and dry equipment.

Vactor’s typical customers are primarily municipalities, contractors, and utilities, as “non-destructive vacuum excavation is quickly gaining acceptance as a relatively safe, effective alternative to traditional excavation methods,” notes Schmitt.

“We see a rapid growth in vacuum excavation,” Schmitt adds. “The method is increasingly becoming the preferred alternative to conventional excavation practices. The cost of strikes to buried utilities is a risk most construction companies, utilities, and cities are no longer willing to accept. As a result, there is a desire to seek alternative means. Vacuum excavation is true damage prevention.”

Customers are opting for the Vactor HXX HydroExcavator and Vactor HXX Prodigy vacuum excavator to locate, inspect and repair buried assets.

Nondestructive vacuum excavation applications include excavating remotely at long distances, line location, installation and repair for utilities and pipelines, slot trenching, waterline maintenance and repair, directional digging, sign and pole installation, and precision digging, says Schmitt.

Vacuum excavators come in a variety of sizes and options. Schmitt says end users should consider several factors before making a purchase, including these:

  • The primary application for which the machine will be used-The right tool for the job means selecting the right digging media (air or water), the right nozzle jets, the right flow and pressure, and the right amount of vacuum. “Many novice operators will simply turn the equipment to the maximum settings, but this can be counterproductive,” Schmitt points out. “Through experience, the operator will know where the sweet spots are for certain applications and soil conditions.”
  • The features needed to improve overall productivity of the selected vacuum excavator-Such features may include extendable or telescopic booms offering a wide range of rotation and mounted on the curb side, large-capacity water tanks and debris bodies, heavy-duty solid construction, heated pump and hose reel cabinets, convenient operator controls and tool storage. For added versatility, customers should choose a vacuum excavator that offers plenty of options to meet their specific needs so they can achieve maximum productivity on the job, Schmitt points out. “There are a number of option choices available, including an air compressor for excavation or air tool use, water heaters to help cut through frozen ground and clay, a hydraulic tool package, a second operator’s station, stainless steel water tanks and additional tool boxes.”
  • Safety, a critical factor-“Safety features on vacuum excavators should protect both the operators and the equipment from dangerous situations,” says Schmitt. “Vacuum excavators are powerful pieces of equipment that pose unique hazards to the novice or untrained operator. Safety should be designed into the equipment in the form of emergency stops, guards, specialized tools and safety interlocks. It’s crucial for customers to understand the equipment before putting it to work, and to make sure that all operators are completely trained on the equipment and use safe work practices.”
  • Knowing whether the equipment will be used to dig with water, air, or both
  • The choice between a powered boom to manipulate the vacuum hose or manually handle it with brute force
  • How much vacuum power is needed
  • The importance of increased payload and improved fuel economy-“You don’t want to compromise performance or productivity on the job,” says Schmitt.
  • The filtration system needed to filter the spoil and avoid clogging
  • How large of a storage hopper is required
  • Whether the unit is expected to work in extreme cold weather applications
  • How well are the parts and service supported for the machine

“The equipment dealer can also aid in the decision-making process by determining what product and features best fit the customer’s individual application,” says Schmitt. “The dealer can provide a demonstration of the product in the specific application to ensure the customer is selecting the right tool and to show how the productivity of a vacuum excavator can impact their work. After-sale support is also an important service provided by dealers to provide training, parts and service in an effort to keep the customer on the job and productive.”

There are two driving factors to the increasing popularity of hydro- and vacuum excavation, notes Tom Jody, marketing manager for Vac-Con.

“Vacuum excavation or hydroexcavation is growing in stature in the United States,” he says. “It started in the oil patch in western Canada and spread across Canada and now it’s not only popular but in some areas mandated-especially in areas where there is a lot of density in underground utilities. I think the gist of the actual growth of the industry itself is awareness partly due to this current flurry of activity.”

Noting that his company has sold a great deal of machines in the oil-and-gas marketplace, vacuum excavation and hydroexcavation has become “quite popular as an adjunct service to the oil-and-gas industry,” Jody says.

Typically, Vac-Con’s largest market has been public water departments and public utilities. Today, there are a growing number of private contractors who have a dedicated business to vacuum excavation and hydroexcavation.

“I think also those who use backhoes and other digging equipment are looking at vacuum excavation or hydroexcavation as a supplement to their business,” adds Jody.

Recently, Vac-Con unveiled a new telescoping boom, the Power Flex, which is used for the company’s Municipal, Industrial, and X-Cavator product lines.

The boom rotates up to 315 degrees, articulates up to 110 degrees, and lifts up to 34 feet. The boom also telescopes out 8 feet for a reach of up to 28.5 feet from the truck and is top-mounted on the debris tank for front or rear positions.

The boom is designed to allow the customer to vacuum at multiple angles and levels for improved access to remote locations and improved maneuverability.

Vac-Con also offers a three-stage centrifugal vacuum compressor. The vacuum device creates a significant air flow to move material in excavation.

“People operating the equipment are looking for ease of operation, reliability, and serviceability,” says Jody. “Overlying all of this, they’re looking for safety. Certainly, they’re looking for the ability of the machine to perform effectively and efficiently to provide them with the best value as far as time on the job versus fuel consumed.”

Everything is more expensive on a job site these days, Jody points out.

“In the case of a fiber optics failure, that may shut down so much information you can actually shut down a business, a city, or a bank by not being able to transmit that information, so being able to get to that and get it repaired certainly is a consideration. Contractors are looking for faster operations, less time on the job.”

Bobby Williams, the CEO of Williams Brothers Plumbing-a trenchless sewer replacement company in Thousand Oaks, CA-concurs.

“The reason we use a hydroexcavator rather than a backhoe to dig is that out here, all of the utilities are underground,” he says. “You’re trying to electronically locate things and they’re not very accurate, so we can dig straight on down and dig right around the utilities without hurting them. It makes it so I can sleep at night, not worrying about pulling up an Edison line that wasn’t located, which I once did. It was so big I didn’t know what it was.”

Edison employees had assured Williams it was OK to dig. After a few shovels into the ground, up came a power line, resulting in the need for a dozen trucks and three days of work to put in a large amount of new wiring.

“We’ve never hit one since,” Williams says. “We find ones all of the time that aren’t located, but with the hydroexcavator we can dig right around them.”

Williams Brothers Plumbing uses a Vac-Con hydroexcavator on the job.

“We use it to dig up the sewer lines at the property and can dig straight down a 3-by-3 hole and go down 8 or nine 8 to the sewer connection and then from there, we run a cable up and use pipe bursting to break out the old sewer pipe and put in a new one,” Williams says.

Williams opts for the hydroexcavator because the clay soil in the region necessitates it, he says, adding that it’s faster to use water.

Williams says the selling point for the Vac-Con is the ability it gives the company to dump debris into a bin through a high-dump option.

“In southern California, it’s really hard to get rid of dirt,” says Williams. “You can’t just dump it anywhere. With all of the strict environmental regulations we’ve got here, you’ve got to be able to dump it somewhere where you can contain it and be able to dry it out.”

Vacmasters’ air vacuum excavation systems range from small to large and include System 1000, System 3000, System 4000, and System 6000, and are used by those whose primary business revolves around locating underground utilities. The systems also can remove slurry.

Vacmasters also manufactures the SpoilVac, a mud vacuum for removing directional-boring slurry. The system also has an optional high-pressure water system for digging.

The trailer-mounted SpoilVac was designed primarily to vacuum mud but can also perform limited potholing duties using only high-pressure water.

All of the air vacuum excavation systems have a high-pressure water system on them as well to give operators more versatility, says Trevor Connolly, vice president of sales and marketing.

Vacmasters excavators are being used by a variety of companies, including large utilities, fiber optics, municipalities, and small engineering and environmental firms that use the systems for checking the ground prior to geoprobe endeavors to ensure it’s clear of utilities.

“There are small companies that are purchasing systems because there is such a huge demand for it and the supply isn’t great enough, so they are buying them because they’ve got contracts,” says Connolly.

He notes that in the first half of 2012, the company has been “busier than ever in the company’s history as far as orders.”

Connolly attributes that to what he sees as a “slight return of the economy’s power as well as the rise, knowledge, and acceptance of air vacuum excavation as an effective, safe, and profitable means for utility locating and pipeline work.”

Photo: vacmasters

Another driving factor is a rise in mandates from oil companies that only air vacuum excavation be used because it’s safer, cleaner and faster, Connolly adds.

In the past year and a half, Vacmasters has been selling a substantial number of systems for work in the Marcellus shale in Pennsylvania as well as in Texas for the shale oil, says Connolly.

“A lot of the systems are starting to go to North Dakota as well because of the oil boom there,” Connolly says. “If the Keystone pipeline project ever gets approved, I assume we are going to be sending a lot of systems out to Nebraska.”

Vacmasters also is selling a lot of systems overseas to Australia, South America, South Africa, Europe; some of the larger systems being sold to British Petroleum for oil work in the Middle East.

Vacmasters also has a lot of customers that are private entities but have contracts with major oil companies doing work in Texas refineries.

One such end user is David Campbell, the owner of Campbell Airvac Systems in the oilfield town of Sundown, TX.

Campbell’s company uses air vacuum systems to locate lines, dig and fill in the holes that are created in the process. The company works for major oil companies such as Shell and Chevron.

Campbell runs four Vacmaster 4000 units and one 6000.

“It provides a tremendous benefit,” he says. “They are not as fast as a backhoe, but they’re a lot safer. It saves lives. It saves a lot of expenses. When a backhoe hits a line, you’re laying down a lot of money just to repair the line. You don’t tear lines up with this. It’s a real good machine.”

In looking for a machine to do the job the way he wants it down, Campbell says, “I’m looking for that machine to be able to ditch and be able to use the dirt I’m sucking up where I can drop it right back in the hole immediately.”

The air vacuum doesn’t disturb the ground like a hydrovac, he notes.

“That makes a slurry mix and that slurry mix hardens and they can’t put it back in the hole,” he says. “It slurries everything in that soil such as chemicals. Benzene that’s in the ground that becomes more prevalent. Then you have trouble with the lands that you’ve poured it on.”

Campbell says he likes that Vacmasters offers hydro capabilities if needed, such as those times when the job entails needing to get through hardpan soil.

“But the air is the way to go for the future,” he adds.

The drought in which Texas has been in for some time is another reason why Campbell favors the use of air vacuuming.

“The less you have to use water in the drought, the better,” he points out.

In making a purchase in a hydro or vacuum excavator, end users are seeking a return on their investment, says Connolly.

“It’s an expensive capital investment to purchase large vacuum excavation systems, especially an air vacuum excavation system,” he points out. “There’s a lot more that goes into an air vacuum excavation system to make sure that it can work as opposed to a hydrovac system. You need a lot more horsepower to be able to dig with high-pressure air versus high-pressure water.”

End users are looking at how much billable work they are going to be able to do in a day’s time and what their cost savings are going to be.

“With cost savings, they look at factors that with air, they can use the spoils they’ve vacuumed up as backfill because it’s dry,” says Connolly. “They don’t have to worry about running out of water in the middle of the day and if it’s somewhere remote, it could be a substantial difference to refill with water, which is time, labor and money.

“And at the end of the day, they don’t have to pay for their operators to drive to a hazardous material dump and dump the spoils because it’s dry dirt and can be essentially anywhere – either back in the hole or a yard or out in the desert.”

Gap Pollution and Environmental Control is doing a lot of pot-holing and trenching hydro-excavation jobs with its industrial vacuum trucks servicing local existing utilities in an effort to find out what might be underground before further excavation efforts.

“Most of the work we’re doing is for the power plants. With the new environmental regulations, they have to build scrubbers and selective catalytic reduction and all of that construction requires a lot of locating and hydroexcavating,” says Randy Johnson, the company’s president.

Gap Pollution and Environmental Control utilizes equipment from its sister company, GapVax, which manufactures hydroexcavators, wet-dry vacuums, and wet-only vacuums.

“With the GapVax truck, we can do jobs with the wet and dry and we don’t have any changeovers, so if you’re working with material where you don’t have to use water, you can actually do it dry. That’s a very big benefit. With the air compressors, you can use air instead of water,” Johnson notes. “If you’re just using a regular hydroexcavator truck, some of them don’t do dry work, so you have to add water to it all of the time.”

Johnson notes that it’s becoming more important for people to do line locating before starting new construction.

“A lot of times, the drawings they have are so antiquated they’re not sure what they have in the ground,” he says.

For vacuum excavation, Ditch Witch offers reverse flow for offloading fluid spoils, a hydraulic opening and locking rear door designed for easy, one-man operation, and cyclone filtration for better performance and easier maintenance, says Jason Proctor, vacuum excavator product manager for Ditch Witch.

The company’s typical end users include contract utility locators, horizontal directional drilling contractors, utility companies, municipalities, oil-and-gas drillers, and pipeline installers.

The types of projects on which such equipment is currently working include locating buried utilities for damage prevention and operator safety in fiber and copper communications installations, oil and gas installation, municipal water works’ installation and maintenance of valves and pipelines and utility installation and maintenance, Proctor says.

Additionally, Ditch Witch is being used for general cleanup on such jobs, primarily when using directional drills, says Proctor.

The principal concerns and considerations in making purchasing decisions for a machine focus on life and carry: airflow in CFM and suction pressure in inches of mercury, spoils capacity, and ease of service and maintenance, Proctor says.