The installation, repair and maintenance of utilities is big business, and contractors are increasingly turning to high-tech machinery to boost productivity.
On both sides of the underground utilities business – trenchless operations and open cut jobs – equipment is being refined, and operators are being provided with more information about what is going on in the ground than ever before.
Indeed, as Steve Seabolt, GPS product manager for Ditch Witch, put it, “knowledge is power.” He was commenting on the manufacturer’s latest horizontal directional drill (HDD) rigs – the JT60 and JT60 all-terrain – which come factory-equipped with Ditch Witch’s GPS technology for fleet tracking and remote viewing of locationa and a range of performance criteria.
“Users will gain valuable awareness into operator practices, idle time and service needs. Owners also typically receive a significant discount off their insurance premiums. We’re very excited about the JT60 and JT60 owners’ usage of the GPS system,” Mr Seabolt added.
The HDD method is a trenchless technique for installing pipes that is completed in two stages. Firstly, a pilot drill is driven from the launch site to the target point, then the pilot hole is widened in the opposite direction. In the last step, a pipeline is inserted into the reamed bore hole.
And a new entrant has joined the horizontal directional drill (HDD) market in the form of McCloskey International, which has launched a new trenchless equipment division to supply HDD rigs.
The manufacturer has introduced the new McCloskey TR-14 HDD rig – a machine that boasts 14,000 lbs (6.35 tonnes) of thrust/pullback. It also features technology supporting internet and satellite communications, while interactive diagnostics are said to alert operators to service and supply needs, or to order parts and regularly scheduled maintenance.
Paschal McCloskey, president and CEO of McCloskey International, said the new division positioned the company well in the North American HDD market. “The drilling business is a natural fit for us,” he added.
Away from HDD, other new technology has also been developed to boost productivity in the trenchless sector. Sacpro, for instance, is a producer of tools and materials for lining sewer systems without requiring open cut construction. It supplies its products to Sweden, Norway, Finland and Denmark, but also across the Baltic countries, Germany, Belgium, UK and Australia.
The company has developed a new three-phase, 6 kW steam generator designed to streamline the curing process when lining underground pipes, together with a new gauge to allow temperatures to be monitored during curing.
Jan-Erik Svedlund, CEO and founder of Sacpro, said, “The approach that has dominated the market in recent years is to spray line with polyester plastics. But we see that lining with flexible liners is increasing and gaining ground against the various spray methods. So much so that even the leading spray companies are now starting their own departments that only work with lining.”
He said housing associations, property owners, property managers and construction companies were coming to understand the benefits of renovating sewer systems without open cut construction.
“When the methods and materials are reliable and the end result is the same as a traditional pipe replacement, we see that even more people choose lining instead of breaking up property to replace old leaky pipes.”
However, those on the trenching side of the underground utilities market would likely argue that their method is the most popular. In any case, if the job requires the ground to be opened up, it presents contractors with an entirely different array of challenges.
Indeed, National Trench Safety said trench shields were evolving as contractors moved more and more towards using lightweight excavation machinery to dig trenches.
Joe Turner, director of engineering, said, “The change in excavation technology is strongly related to the advancement of smaller, lightweight equipment for excavations in mid depth utility work.
“Large, heavy down and deep excavators tear up streets, require a larger footprint on the street, generate more noise, burn more fuel, have higher transportation, storage and maintenance costs, and leave a much larger carbon footprint, among many other factors. These factors have driven the development of powerful, quiet, mid-size excavation equipment.”
Mr Turner said part of the past problem with widespread adoption of lighter excavation equipment in mid-depth utility work – up to 4.9 m deep – was that the machines couldn’t handle heavy steel trench boxes that were developed for use with large excavators. Steel trench boxes, he said, weighed about three times as much as aluminium boxes.
“The use of lightweight aluminium shields in place of steel boxes has increased dramatically over the last few years,” he said. “With aluminium, the contractor gains a much lighter box that is far better matched to the excavators he is using.”
Mr Turner added that the company forecast widespread growth in demand for aluminium trench shielding over the next five years in
Meanwhile, utility products and attachments director for Volvo CE Sales Region EMEA, Per Leis, said that the utility sector in Europe was switching away from the use of backhoe loaders for trenching, and moving more towards the use of compact equipment.
“This switch has put rental companies to the fore, simply because they tend to stock compact equipment whereas they never really carried backhoe loaders in any great volume,”
To meet this demand, Volvo CE added the ECR25D short tail swing compact excavator top its product line up in the summer of last year, and Mr Leis said the manufacturer planned to follow this in the coming weeks with the launch of a new 5 tonne ECR50D.
“We are closing the gaps in our compact offering,” said Mr Leis. “The utility sector puts varied demands on machines and it is therefore imperative that we offer the type of flexibility required by end users.”
Philippi-Hagenbuch, meanwhile, has focussed on increasing the options available to contractors on trenching jobs. It has introduced a new cutter for trenching operations – a tool that it claims uses up to -70% less energy during trenching than traditional trench saws, breakers, or other cutting devices.
The company said the Rolling Wedge Cutter caused less disruption to the ground, and could also be used on frozen earth without having to wait for it to thaw. It said the tool, which is available in diameters from 0.75 in to 9 in (19 mm to 229 mm) could be adapted to many makes and models of trenchers and mining equipment, with a host of optional tips. Philippi-Hagenbuch is now developing cutters for specific cutting applications – the width of the trench dictates the total number of cutters required.
On the larger end of the trenching scale, Murphy Pipe & Civil has further developed new plough technology for the installation of high-density polyethylene pipelines in the oil and gas and mining sectors in Australia.
The company’s research & development team have been expanding the flexibility of Föckersperger Spiderploughs – machines manufactured by Germany-based Föckersperger.
John Stack, Murphy CEO, said, “During its research of the German manufacturer’s technology in 2009, MPC identified a unique opportunity for the 450 mm machines to be adapted for the Australian market. Extensive modifications were made in order to deliver economic, safety and environmental benefits through its operation, resulting in last summer’s achievement of the successful installation of 630 mm HDPE pipeline at a field day demonstration.”
With an installation rate of up to five times higher than conventional methods, Murphy said the Spiderplough is able to regularly install up to 10 km of HDPE pipeline in a single day in trench corridors as narrow as 12 m, delivering significant cost savings.
Indeed, while each pipeline installation contract varies, Murphy said the technology was generally seen as saving clients between 30% and 50% in costs through reduced crew sizes, reduced fleet requirements and shorter installation time leading to reduced contract periods. Murphy itself has already installed over 3,000 km of pipeline using the technology.
The underground utilities sector is developing rapidly, and it will be interesting to see how quickly the advanced technology currently in use across mature markets spreads and adapts into emerging economies in the coming year.