Vacuum excavation – especially of the hydro excavation variety – in Canada was long thought of as an oilfield-specific practice. Over the last 15 years, that mentality has changed thanks to a keener focus on safe digging around underground facilities.
This focus on safe digging, coupled with an increased need for more underground facilities. led to a sharp increase in the number of vacuum excavation contractors across the country.
Looking to capitalize on the growth of the industry from the oilfield and into the municipal sector, and with a fleet of six brand-new Rival Hydrovacs, is Edmonton, Alberta-based I-Dig Hydro-Vac Services. The company is a new division, but not a completely new market, for Big Bore Directional Drilling Ltd., of Lloydminster, Alberta. The horizontal directional drilling (HDD) contractor had a vacuum excavation division from 2012 to 2015, but sold it off to focus on HDD operations.
“The time was right to reinvigorate the hydrovac division,” says James Duphay, general manager of I-Dig Hydro-Vac Services. Duphay has been in the industry since 2001 and was manager of the Big Bore Directional vacuum excavation division in its previous iteration as well.
Why, if it was just relaunching a vacuum excavation division, did Big Bore Directional Drilling go with a relative newcomer in Rival? Duphay was familiar with the Rival Hydrovacs through a relationship with Foremost Vac Trucks, which manufacturers the trucks for Rival.
“Tim Dell, a partner in Rival and a consultant for Foremost, told me they were developing a tandem-axle hydrovac that is DOT compliant, hauls more than a tri-axle and is more user-friendly in the city,” Duphay says. “When we started I-Dig, and we saw the Rival units, we knew we needed to implement them into our fleet.”
I-Dig Hydro-Vac Services has 25 employees, and in addition to the six tandem-axle Rival units, has three lease operators that own their own tri-axle trucks. The company also operates a Universal HDD UNI 22×22 rig, two Vermeer D 6×6 rigs and all of the necessary support equipment to perform fibre-optic work across Western Canada.
“Our focus, as evidenced by our equipment, is on utility work in the cities. There are a lot of infrastructure projects in Edmonton that keep hydrovacs busy. We will do pipeline work – parallel pipelines, slot trenching crossings, drill support and the like – in the winter when the city work slows down,” Duphay says. “The benefit to us is that it keeps equipment utilization high, it keeps the revenue growth going and, most importantly, it keeps our team member busy year-round. It is no longer a seasonal job.”
In his early days in the industry working as a vac truck operator, Duphay says there were only three main operators in Alberta and all heavily focused on oilfield work. This meant that there was high demand for the trucks – especially during the winter freeze months – and operators would go for months without seeing their homes.
“The demand was high for their services. As the years went on, more companies opened,” he says. “There was a survey completed in about 2008 that noted, in the Edmonton region, there were about 300 to 450 hydrovacs. Since that time, more companies have started and we are pushing about 600 hydrovacs in Alberta.”
Why the spike? Duphay quickly points to safety and the need for new infrastructure in an already crowded space. Edmonton, Calgary, Fort McMurray and Grand Prairie all grew thanks to the oil boom.
The boom came at a time when utilities were more cognizant of underground safety and many enacted ground disturbance rules whereby a contractor can not dig near existing utilities with an excavator. The options were to hand dig, which during a cold Canadian winter is next to impossible, or adopt an alternative. Many contractors, Big Bore Directional Drilling included, started adding vacuum trucks to their fleets.
These trucks were, and many still are, tri-axle units that could handle the work, but were a bare to maneuver in congested municipalities. And due to department of transportation (DOT) regulations could not operate at full capacity in municipalities due to weight restrictions.
That’s where Rival Hydrovacs came in as a cost-effective and easy to operate vacuum truck in a smaller package.
“Clients were used to us carrying 13-yds of debris on a tri-axle truck. With the new weight restrictions, without water in the truck, you are looking at about 4 to 4.5-yds of debris going down the road to be within the weight limit,” Duphay says. “That is one of the main reasons we went with the tandem Rival units. You can fill them to 7 yds and not be over weight.”
These trucks, Duphay adds, because they are shorter in height and length can easily maneuver around in crowded cities and easily complete the required tasks. They are also large enough that – in the colder months when municipal and utility work slows – can head to the oilfields and do work there as well. This versality is important to a company that plans to keep the wheels turning on its equipment 12 months a year.
Because, as the industry continues to evolve and underground infrastructure needs updating, Duphay sees only growth ahead.
“The vacuum excavation market is here to stay and probably will grow vastly because there are a lot of people who do not know about all of the capabilities that these units have,” Duphay says. “It will be exciting to watch how it will grow, both in Canada and the United States.”