Hydro-Excavation: Versatile and Safe

By Ron Weber, Assistant Marketing Manager, Vac-Con, Inc.

The real beginning of Hydro-Excavation dates back to the California gold rush of the 1800’s where miners used steam pump-pressurized water to erode soil. This process was called hydraulic mining.  It wasn’t for well over a hundred years that such processes as vacuum, water pressure systems and heat were introduced to better the “art of controlled erosion ”

Utility companies and contractors are becoming more and more aware of the benefits of hydro or vacuum excavation. The versatility and safety is certainly at the forefront of those benefits. As more and more customers focus on those two key areas, the industry will continue to develop and evolve in many different ways.

Safety made easier

When comparing vacuum or hydroexcavation to traditional digging, some of the advantages are that there is less material removal, cleaner cut footprint, and there is minimal post-excavation restoration. The big advantages of vacuum excavation as it pertains to safety is the ability to safely uncover buried utilities, i.e. no floods, explosion, fires or power outages causing inconvenience or damage to public and people. These are all important areas to consider before digging.  Trench rescue is another area related to vacuum excavation safety.  While it might be uncommon, it is an effective, safe and quick way to remove material.

Trench rescue situations usually are the result of mechanical excavation or a trench that simply collapses on a worker. It is a major safety-related issue when comparing traditional digging to vacuum excavation.

Versatility opens opportunities wide

The other big advantage of hydro or vacuum excavation is its versatility.  Most hydro-excavators come with either front or rear mount booms that have eight and ten foot boom extensions. Some of the versatile jobs that a hydro-excavator can do relate to plumbing, post installation (light posts, road signs, traffic lights, etc.), construction, landscaping, locating utilities (gas, fiber optics, etc.), potholing/day lighting, slot trenching, debris removal, cold weather and remote digging. Those are all examples of ways to safely, and effectively do many different jobs using hydro-excavation.

Safety can be compromised at any time when traditional digging occurs. One recent example of an underground utility strike happened in October 2012 and was fairly catastrophic. It affected thousands of people, disrupted traffic control and cost millions of dollars. On Monday, October 8th, 2012, Alaska Airlines, the 7th largest U.S. airline had to temporarily ground and delay hundreds of flights because their Sabre ticketing system was taken off line when two Sprint fiber optic lines were severed. The first cut, an underground line, occurred at a construction site along railroad tracks between Chicago and Milwaukee. The second cut, an aerial line, occurred somewhere between Seattle and Portland. Passengers were stranded throughout the west coast, and some experienced lengthy delays. This situation could have been prevented had they not used conventional digging methods.

Safety and versatility remain the biggest advantages of vacuum or hydro-excavation. Using water and vacuum to dig can definitely save in costly repairs and in time.  Its versatility allows for increased flexibility when working on a difficult job. The vacuum and hydro-excavation market is still in its early stages in the U.S., but the future certainly looks bright.

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