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Compact HDD systems are drilling through environmental requirements and into new markets.
By Lauren Heartsill Dowdle
Improved technology and a minimally invasive approach are helping small horizontal directional drilling (HDD) systems gain ground in fiber-optic, sewer and gas markets.
“While the maxi-rigs are often considered the most exciting of these machines, the small rigs are really the workhorses of the HDD industry, composing by far the largest percentage of the HDD contracts being performed,” says Bob Martin, general manager, HDD Broker, a used directional drill online site. Drills in the 30,000-pound pullback and below group make up 60 percent of the used HDD sales, according to HDD Broker’s 2011 data.
Aiding in their popularity are the advances in technology. “Back in the 1990s, HDD designs were changing so fast, they were like computers,” says Richard Levings, senior product specialist, Ditch Witch. “Your model was obsolete two months after you bought it.” But by the 2000s, the HDD rigs started to mature, and the designs began to solidify and stabilize. Now, companies are making small, incremental changes to the units, creating a more consistent design from all manufacturers, Levings says.
“ Today, HDD systems are selected for anything that needs to go in the ground. It’s becoming the primary method of installation.”
“What you see is the equipment gradually performing better than it once did,” says John Olander, directional drill specialist, TT Technologies. “Instead of doing three jobs a day, for example, crews are now able to complete four.”
And the majority of these changes are based around improving the drills’ electronics, including improved interfaces, easier-to-use electronic controls and cruise control. “There has been an increased amount of electronics to make operation more productive and reliable,” says Tony Briggs, underground sales manager, Vermeer. “There’s a continual push to create drills that do more with less – more power in an even smaller footprint.”
These advancements have allowed HDD systems to improve their services, says Gaylord Richey, district sales manager, Toro Utility Equipment – which purchased certain assets of Astec Underground in February. “Locating equipment has evolved to allow contractors to perform critical grade bores. They can now install sewer lines on grade.” Many of the drills’ controls have also been automated, which decreases an operator’s learning curve.
Manufacturers are designing cooling systems to be quieter, and Tier 4 Interim upgrades have also cut back on engine noise. And with noise pollution becoming a larger part of industry regulations, these component changes allow operators to go into residential areas during the day.
Equipment operators are not the only ones realizing the updates and benefits of using compact drills. “In the past, these drills were used only to cut a road or maybe to cross a driveway,” Levings says. “Today, HDD systems are selected for anything that needs to go in the ground. It’s becoming the primary method of installation. Clients have started to look at the social and lifetime costs, instead of just the installation expenses.”
The telecommunication market has seen the most growth because the surface disruption must be kept to a minimum. This includes installing fiber-optics that support 4G networks, Briggs says. To clean up after installing fiber-optics with a drill, contractors simply restore two pits.
“The telephone market is seeing a big growth this year,” says Doug Gayman, owner of Gayman Construction in Bolivar, Missouri. “AT&T and Verizon are in a 4G footrace, and that requires a lot of fiber-optics.” He uses his Ditch Witch 3020 All-Terrain drills to install the lines in his area’s rocky soil.
The gas industry has also embraced the drills since they must be mindful of the environment. Landscapers are using drills on golf courses, parks and residential properties.
Grant Durchi, owner of Forest Lake Directional in Alta, Wyoming, has two Vermeer drills, one with 25,000 and the other with 50,000 pounds of pullback, and says drilling is gaining acceptance because fewer companies and municipalities are allowing contractors to cut through roads and streams. “In the past, clients have seen their roads get cut,” Durchi says, “but even if they patch them, the roads are not the same.”
Besides offering a less-destructive option, drilling also helps meet environmental requirements and budgets. “In some areas, they require contractors to take all of the materials they’ve excavated during trenching off site and haul new material onsite,” Durchi says. “That’s an expensive proposition.” About 50 percent of his projects involve installing fiber-optics.
“Since there are so many underground utilities, it’s getting even harder to perform open cutting,” Richey says, “and skilled operators are able to position new utilities without disturbing what is already buried. Also, there are minimal restoration costs involved with directional drilling.”
With the recession still a factor, the amount of available work remains an unknown, Martin says. “Promised dollars for infrastructure spending have not materialized, at least not to their promised degrees, and contractors holding their breath waiting for work are turning slightly blue in the face.”
However, when work does start flowing again, the small rig category will see the biggest demand, Martin predicts. “Much of the infrastructure spending revolves around projects involving fiber-optic installation, sewer upgrades and remediation of existing utilities,” he says. “The 30,000-pound pullback and smaller machines will be doing the vast majority of this work.
“While the global economy is still recovering,” he says, “the future is looking bright for HDD utility installations and the equipment that installs it.”
Don’t Dig Yourself in a Hole
Using the wrong size drill is one of the biggest mistakes John Olander, TT Technologies, sees a contractor make. “If you use a drill that’s too large, it won’t have a tight enough turning radius – the stem’s not made for that,” he says. “Alternatively, a small drill can fail on a large project and leave a bad taste with the customer.” His advice: “Before you go to a jobsite, ask yourself what the job will require and if you have the right tools, including equipment and operators with the right experience.” Contractors should get the site’s dimensions to decide which size drill the job will require. For example, if a drill is 20 feet long, it will need an additional 20 feet to extend and reach the depth. Make sure there’s enough space for it to fully extend.
Vermeer has six models with less than 30,000-pound pullback, ranging from the D6x6 II to D24x40 Series II Navigator. With 20,000 pounds of pullback, the D20x22 Series II Navigator has an 83-horsepower Kubota turbocharged diesel engine. Its AutoDrill feature monitors changing soil conditions and adjusts the bore or pullback speed, and rotation, thrust and pullback pressure can be pre-set. The unit works in conditions from soft soil to solid rock and is compatible with the Rock Adaptable Terrain Tool (RATT).
For product info, visit vermeer.com.
TT Technologies manufactures compact drills for residential service, last-mile operations, small-diameter main installations and gas pipeline applications. Its Grundodrill 4X has 9,800 pounds of pullback, a dual hydrostatic pump system and a four-auger stake-down system. With a 35 1/2-inch width, it can fit through gates for backyard projects. The unit also comes with the Smart Vice system that performs vice cycling operations automatically.
For product info, visit tttechnologies.com.
In February Toro added horizontal directional drills, vibratory plows and trenchers to its line by acquiring certain assets of Astec Underground, and has three drills in this size category. For work in tight conditions, the Astec EarthPro Series DD-2024 HDD unit has 20,000 pounds of pullback with 2,400 foot-pounds of rotary torque. Powered by an 83-horsepower B3.3C Cummins turbocharged diesel engine, the drill has an onboard mud pump that flows 15 gallons per minute at 1,250 psi. The floating carriage has two speeds, including a 120 feet/minute fast mode.
For product info, visit astecunderground.com.