Lafontaine Inc. trenchless project

2024 Trenchless Technology Canada Contractor Roundtable

Assessing the Status of Trenchless Works Across the Country

Each year, Trenchless Technology Canada reaches out to a cross section of the trenchless contracting community to delve into their perceptions of the market across Canada.

Is the market growing or stagnating? What is the pain points they are seeing and how are those being addressed. These are some of the questions we ask in our 2024 roundtable discussion.

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Taking part in the conversation this year are a mix of contractors representing new installation and rehabilitation trenchless work.

Mathieu Asselin, ing., co-director, construction department, Lafontaine Inc., Levis, Quebec

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John Bowles, MscE, P.Eng, president and CEO, Inversa Systems and Eastern Trenchless, Fredericton, New Brunswick

Matt Braithwaite, business manager, Brathwaite Drilling, Peterborough, Ontario

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Tyler Calvert, vice president of operations and technical services, EnviroBore Directional Drilling Ltd., Grand Prairie, Alberta

Ryan Slagerman, operations manager, Uni-Jet Industrial Pipe Services, Winnipeg, Manitoba

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Eastern Trenchless CIPP

How would you rate the overall health of the underground infrastructure (fibre, gas, oil, sewer, water, etc.) construction market?

BOWLES: On the trenchless engineering side of our business, we are seeing a far more proactive approach by provincial/state level clients. Most are recognizing the need to locate, accurately assess and apply proper asset management philosophy to their drainage assets, both gravity and pressure pipe.

In our region we are also seeing existing clients consistently release trenchless rehab tenders. They still generally remain small but are coming out more regularly. The overall outlook is improving each year for trenchless adoption.

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BRAITHWAITE: In Ontario, we have been enjoying a fibre boom that has seen network growth through rural portions of Ontario. Inversely, it seems that natural gas is running into roadblocks when it comes to community expansion and the use of the product is under major scrutiny and decisions about payback to the distribution companies are causing some uncertainty.

CALVERT: Slower than previous years, but overall strong and growing. We have seen a slowdown since the initial push to catch up during the pandemic.

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SLAGERMAN: Sewer infrastructure is deteriorating due to age, Winnipeg has a excellent sewer condition cleaning and assessment program in place to verify/identify failing pipes.

Are you seeing more system owners turning to trenchless methods to complete their underground infrastructure projects? What is driving this trend?

ASSELIN: Year after year, interest from different customers is growing. Different cities, engineering firms or private corporations are frequently calling us to ask questions about trenchless methods. Most of these questions turn into a project a few months after. This increases as we complete more trenchless projects. For some customers, trenchless works have many advantages compared to open trench construction.

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BOWLES: As knowledge of local services exists more clients each year are at least considering trenchless options. As consultants become more aware of what is possible, we are seeing more projects come to fruition.

BRAITHWAITE: Recently, we have witnessed an increase in open slot trenching using hydro vac operators particularly for natural gas installation. My concern is that decision-makers are reverting to how utilities were installed prior to the growth of trenchless and are ignoring the progress made in the technology. Educating project managers, engineers, and field operators on the improvements, efficiency and environmental benefits of trenchless methods is at a pivotal moment.

CALVERT: Yes, EnviroBore has been approached by many segments of construction that would not normally think of trenchless. We have provided and completed some unique and innovative solutions.

SLAGERMAN: Cured-in-place pipe (CIPP) is commonly used within the cities in Manitoba and becoming more popular in rural areas. This is being driven by costs and reduced construction disturbance.

Uni Jet Edmonton cleaning work

Is there a market sector that is growing faster than others? What is driving this growth?

BOWLES: Gravity CIPP is the most common request, largely small diameter mains through difficult access areas. Clients seem to need to be desperate before they try new things. Then, once they see the benefits firsthand, they become converts and other work follows.

BRAITHWAITE: It is evident we have seen a major growth in fibre-optic installation in the past three to five years and we may be coming to an end of that growth as the network has reached the critical masses. Looking forward, we have a push for electric cars and the use of heat pumps as the main source of heating, major improvements to the hydro network may be on the horizon. In Canada and particularly Ontario, the utility growth is dictated by policy and not the market, so it could change based on political cycle.

CALVERT: Locally, I believe municipal infrastructure projects in Western Canada are utilizing trenchless technologies and specifically HDD more than ever before.

SLAGERMAN: There is growth in microtunnelling, and it is being driven by its reduced construction footprint and the overall project costs.

Lafontaine Inc. trenchless crew

After a few years of supply chain issues and higher than normal materials costs, are you seeing these stabilise/returning to a normal or more manageable level?

ASSELIN: Material costs are still very high, but we are seeing a stabilization in those costs. They are no longer increasing week-after-week like they were a few years ago.

BOWLES: No, costs have continued to increase.

BRAITHWAITE: Supply chain issues have improved and are getting back to a normal status. The pricing that we saw increase has plateaued, but has not returned to pre-pandemic levels.

CALVERT: Costs are still quite high although stabilized, I believe the uncertainty of the carbon tax and other Federal policies in Canada will continue to have an impact.

SLAGERMAN: Material lead times have slightly improved but are still delayed when compared to pre-pandemic times.

What are some of the pain points you are seeing? How are you combating them?

ASSELIN: In Quebec, knowledge of trenchless processes is still too small. Too frequently, some impossible things are being asked in the bid process. As an example, a recent bid asked that a lining project repair a collapsed pipe.

Also, CIPP liners are evolving quickly, and it could be difficult for engineering firms to keep up with the changes.

To combat these points, it’s very important to explain to the customers and to the engineering firms what the limits of trenchless works are. We also need to better educate on which kind of trenchless process is the best for a particular project.

BOWLES: Personnel is the largest problem we face. In our region there are few if any people experienced in trenchless methods. We also are very short on general labor. Overall retention is excellent but finding people in general is difficult.

We have a significant training program to build skills from the ground up. It takes longer but seems to lead to a very high level of competence and staff satisfaction.

BRAITHWAITE: For years the trenching industry has been able to set a price per metre and for the most part they know within a percent or two they will be able to deliver. When trenchless contractors attempt to price work by production rates the risk is exaggerated because projects rely on experience of the contractor in the ground conditions given, these are NOT predictable therefore pricing has to make sure you are covered for the worst-case scenario. An additional pain point is dealing with extra layers of bureaucracy causing interference with progress, creating roadblocks and fear mongering before a project is ever scheduled.

We have a two-fold strategy to combat these issues, keeping current with the industry trends and educating our utility providers on best practices. The other is innovating and finding new strategies to keep trenchless top of mind. That is what we have done by developing the X-TRX pipe extraction attachment that helps to keep same path techniques, reduce damages, and increase efficiency.

CALVERT: Manpower supply and commitment. There is a lack of training and new tradesmen/women entering the industry. Government-related red tape is a problem in the industry, especially when it comes to environmental issues.

EnviroBore has an exceptional mentorship program and as our business grows, we will be able to train personnel in not only oilfield drilling, HDD, and equipment operation but also electricians, mechanics and welders.

SLAGERMAN: The lead time on new equipment purchase and delivery is the biggest pain point. We are refurbishing more of our older equipment.

What can the local, provincial and/or federal governments do to help address these paint points?

BOWLES: We need trade schools and universities to offer courses pertinent to our industry in our local region. We don’t need government subsidies or funding; we just need people to willingly fill the roles.

BRAITHWAITE: I believe if all levels of government took the time to understand the environmental advantages of trenchless methods, they could build good political platforms that the public would get behind. An example of this is that every trenchless project can reduce the carbon footprint significantly and in some cases by 75 per cent. This should be a huge talking point and rarely is it brought forward.

Envirobore One

What technologies are at the forefront that will improve the trenchless industry?

ASSELIN: Liner and equipment suppliers are very important in the process to grow the trenchless industry. Liner suppliers are now working to produce bigger and bigger liners. At the same moment, equipment suppliers are working to design faster curing equipment. Obviously, one cannot be without the other. As suppliers work to push the boundaries of trenchless processes, the general contractors will be present to install their products.

BRAITHWAITE: Two come to mind for our business in 2024. The first is pipe extraction, we know that much of the steel natural gas and water infrastructure has passed its useful age and is now starting to fail, so extracting that pipe to install new lines makes a lot of sense. The other major improvement could be in the GPS tools that can be used with underground beacons and help to improve the record keeping for future utility locates.

CALVERT: EnviroBore utilizes a wireless steering system, electronic EDRs and state-of-the-art fluid handling equipment, as well as the most recent advances in tooling and equipment to make every job extremely cost effective and successful.

SLAGERMAN: High-definition sewer inspection equipment with laser profiling to mitigate man entry into sewer lines to ensure tight fitment of CIPP liners.

Do you have any closing thoughts?

BRAITHWAITE: I believe we need an avenue to be all inclusive with think tanks to discuss all concerns as it relates to trenchless technology. I am not sure how to make this happen but think about this; if we could set aside our own self-interests and work with all involved on any trenchless project with the shared knowledge, the jobs would be less complicated.

CALVERT: I really like to advocate for early engagement of service providers across all industries. The experience of field personnel, especially those with many years of hard work and trials behind them, can be invaluable to the designers, engineers and project managers.

Mike Kezdi is the managing editor of Trenchless Technology.

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