Compact horizontal directional drills have evolved over the past decade to include more features that not only have expanded their capabilities but also made them easier to operate. This evolution has also helped spur the growth of these machines as the focus on improving our utility infrastructure has increased.

The catalyst in this growth during the past 10 years has been the need to upgrade existing fiber and communications lines in residential and commercial developments. These short-distance installations from the street to the home or commercial building have increased the overall demand for these machines during the past 10 years.

Even though the demand for this type of work is down at the moment, the need still exists and there are pockets of activity across the world.

“The demand for compact drills really cycles with the volume of fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) projects,” says Ed Savage, a trenchless segment manager for Vermeer Corp. “Municipalities and telecommunications companies really drive this market with new fiber installation or upgrade projects. Overall the market is down right now, but we’re seeing pockets across the world where a good share of work is still under way.”   

The majority of this work is being done in backyards and confined easements. Manufacturers are keenly aware that these units must offer a compact footprint, but also pack the power needed to complete a bore in sometimes difficult ground conditions.

Compact HDD rigs are specifically designed for shorter, smaller-diameter installations — typically connecting a home or business to a mainline running up and down the street. Service connections can include fiber, gas, telecommunications, electric and water lines. Horizontal directional drills with 9,000 to 20,000 lbs of thrust/pullback force typically fit into this class, and with their small footprint, these compact rigs offer better maneuverability in confined spaces.

Depending on the manufacturer, most compact rigs offer many of the operating features found on their larger counterparts. These features — such as auto-drilling functions, joystick handles with integrated controls, remote lockout features and rack-and-pinion carriage drives — help enhance the operation and performance of the drill rig. This can be important in an industry that, unfortunately, has a high operator turnover rate.

“For a number of reasons, contractors in this market typically have a higher than desired turnover rate among their HDD operators,” says Savage. “So manufacturers have taken steps to design compact HDD rigs that offer easy training and operation.”

Contractors also have the option to select machines that can accommodate either 6- or 10-ft long rods.
Machines with 6-ft rods are shorter in length, offering the operator more maneuverability on the jobsite. However, these machines require the operator to manually load the rods, a task that can reduce overall productivity. Rigs equipped with 10-ft rods feature mechanical rod loaders designed to enhance rod-loading speed and ultimately overall drilling productivity. Using 10-ft rods also means fewer connections compared to using shorter rod lengths — which means fewer makeups to complete the bore. Either way, contractors can expect their compact rig to have anywhere from 300 to 400 ft of rod-carrying capacity. More than enough to complete the majority of service connections.

Earth Energy, located in Boise, Idaho, was formed in 1989 by Erv and Darrin Hoge. They began by placing drops for the phone company, which included plowing, trenching, splicing and a variety of underground operations. In 1993, the company expanded into larger utility installation projects, and today Earth Energy specializes in providing HDD services for the installation of fiber optics, phone, power, gas, water and sewer lines.

Erv Hoge has been using compact drills for decades. In fact, he estimates that these smaller units are used on 50 percent of the projects his company completes annually.

“Manufacturers are packing more power into these compact units today, and that allows us to use them on a wider range of projects,” says Hoge. “We work on a number of projects with confined space restrictions, and being able to use a drill with a compact footprint that has the power to complete a 500-ft bore with ease is important to us.”

Hoge also says that manufacturers are enhancing the operator features on the compact rigs with rod loading systems, operator creature comforts and enhanced display systems.

“These units are easier to operate, and the creature comforts reduce operator fatigue,” says Hoge. “It’s a world of difference from the units we were purchasing just 10 years ago.”

Ease of transporting these compact rigs has also been a priority among manufacturers.

“We’ve taken into account more efficient trailer configurations,” says Savage. “These machines are designed to fit on a trailer side-by-side with the mix tank. This helps make the trailer package more compact and can lead to the use of a smaller towing vehicle as well.”

Compact rigs make up close to 50 percent of the overall horizontal directional drill market. But as with any market, it moves in cycles.

“Right now the market for compact rigs is steady,” says Savage. “We don’t foresee the market dropping off, and hopefully this segment of the market has seen the bottom. Demand for compact rigs is really dependent on the decisions of the large telecommunication companies. If they have a large project, it can really drive up demand.”

Savage also notes in a down market like we are experiencing currently that the market for used compact machines tends to see more activity. However, he cautions prospective buyers to carefully take note of the hours of operation and condition of the drill.

When it comes to a replacement schedule, it really boils down to hours. Savage says the expected useful life on a compact rig is between 2,500 and 3,000 hours. However, this really depends on the condition of the drill and how it is maintained. If an owner takes care of the machine and follows the manufacturer’s recommended maintenance schedule and operation procedures, then that owner can expect the unit to last longer.

Looking to the future, Savage anticipates manufacturers will continue to concentrate on ease of operation and reduced maintenance schedules and design drills for the service installation market.
“Manufacturers are listening to the market, and customers continue to ask for features that help with ease of operation and more overall power,” says Savage. “Plus they want enhanced support. On a large fiber project they can’t afford to be down and need to know the dealer has the parts and service personnel to get them back on the job.”

Despite these advancements, the market for telecommunication and fiber installation has stalled and that is evident in the Mountain West region.

“We’re still seeing strong demand from the local power and gas utilities, but the fiber market is nonexistent in certain areas,” says Hoge. “The one bright spot is that some rural areas are accessing stimulus funding to expand fiber access. That’s showing some promise in our region, but the funding process is moving pretty slow right now.”

Manufacturers know that compact HDD rigs are vital to improving our utility infrastructure and are working to ensure contractors have the solutions and products in place when the market rebounds.

Greg Ehm is a features writer based in Des Moines, Iowa.

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