Covering All the Bases

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At Northwest Boring Co., a trenchless contractor based in the Pacific Northwest, good people make good business. With a well-trained crew operating an extensive fleet of equipment, the company can offer its clientele a broad range of services — making it a one-stop shop for trenchless applications.

“We’re successful in what we do because of the skilled people we have working for us,” says Dennis Molvik, vice president of Northwest Boring. “Even though we’re equipped with state-of-the-art machinery, it’s our crews that are always ready to adapt to new technologies and eager to perform when needed.”

Northwest Boring Co. was started in 1951 in northern California by Hooley “Hoot” Gonzales when the latest and greatest innovation was digging with a pick and shovel.  The company first began performing auger boring crossings and moved to Woodinville, Wash., in 1962, where it still remains today. Over time, Northwest Boring evolved in the trenchless market and added a variety of services to its offerings including pipe jacking, pipe ramming, microtunneling and much more.

With the company based in the Pacific Northwest, its crews perform work in areas throughout Washington, Idaho, Oregon and Alaska. Its customer base is comprised of utility owners and municipalities that need undercrossings for their utilities such as sewers, storm sewers and water systems.

As Northwest Boring evolved its offerings over the years, its equipment fleet needed to grow as well. In order for the company to perform a variety of trenchless applications, it boasts an array of auger boring machines and pipe jacking machines (that range up to 170 in. in diameter). It also has slurry microtunneling machines, pipe ramming equipment and three pilot tube systems for guided boring.
“We want to be a one-call resource for the trenchless world around the Pacific Northwest, whether it is a small auger bore or a large concrete pipe jack,” says Don Gonzales, president of Northwest Boring. “We need to have the fleet to perform the work, so it’s just a matter of having all the different trenchless installation tools in our toolbox.”

Meet, Greet and Learn

When the crews at Northwest Boring are not busy on the jobsite, Gonzales and his company attend different industry events in hopes to share their knowledge and take in what other professionals have to offer. One event that the company has been involved with for many years is the Microtunneling Short Course presented at the Colorado School of Mines.

This annual three-day course is designed with education and networking in mind. Through informative sessions, industry professionals present the latest innovations, products and technologies in microtunneling. Over the years, Gonzales and Molvik have been presenters at some of the Short Courses and the company attends the event about every two years.

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“The Short Course is a great industry forum for owners, engineers and contractors to participate in,” says Molvik. “Tim Coss and Levent Ozdemir [the course’s creators and organizers]do a great job as far as putting together a program that’s educational, as well as provide a forum for those involved in the industry to come together, rub shoulders and learn from one another.”

Recently, Gonzales participated on a panel at Louisiana Tech University where he presented the latest technologies and methods in microtunneling in the Pacific Northwest. Then, Louisiana Tech hosted another seminar in the Pacific Northwest and Gonzales went to the event as an attendee — hoping to learn about an area of trenchless that he did not know about.      

“It was very interesting to go to the seminar to see and hear what the speakers had to present on some of the other disciplines in the trenchless marketplace,” says Gonzales. “There’s always something to learn from other professionals in the industry.”

On top of the Short Course and other educational seminars, Gonzales and Molvik find trade shows such as the annual No-Dig Show and ConExpo to be beneficial for both networking and learning opportunities.

“Although our industry is pretty small, these events give us the opportunity to get to know companies from all over the country,” says Gonzales. “Besides the fact that you’re going to these shows for business, you also end up having some camaraderie time where you can swap war stories and ideas. It’s good because you never know what you’re going to learn. People will tell stories where they had a problem, solved it and you may come across that problem eventually and have that knowledge when you need it.”

The trade shows also give the company a chance to check out new products and technologies available in the marketplace. Gonzales points out that these venues offer manufacturers time with contractors looking for solutions to problems out on a job and often lead to new equipment being developed.

“Trade shows allow industry professionals to keep in touch with the manufacturers and let them see what’s needed out on the job,” explains Gonzales. “The manufacturers are getting nationwide input as to what people have tried in the field. Oftentimes, a lot of the manufacturers’ developments come from things they have seen and heard about contractors modifying on the jobsite. The equipment manufacturers will say, ‘Wow, that works really well.’ And they’ll begin to develop it until they can sell it as a commercial product.”

Aside from trade shows, the company also networks through industry associations like the National Utility Contractors Association (NUCA). Gonzales and Molvik are active members of the Utility Contractors Association of Washington (UCAW), which is NUCA’s Washington state chapter.
“Networking is a very important part of our business, and our involvement in UCAW allows us to stay connected with contractors here in the Pacific Northwest,” says Molvik. “Both Don and I are past presidents of UCAW.” In 2009, Molvik was named UCAW’s Ditch Digger of the Year.  

Monitoring the Market

As with any industry, the trenchless market faces challenges for its professionals to overcome. One obstacle that Gonzales has noticed throughout the industry comes during the design process where the design team may not match the right trenchless methods with the project at hand.

“I think that there are a lot of projects that get designed and put out to bid that include specific trenchless method requirements that don’t necessarily match what’s required to accomplish for that specific project.  This may cause problems down the line,” says Gonzales. “There are designers out there that may be somewhat familiar with one trenchless discipline, but they’re not aware of the alternatives that are available to them and the machinery that can do the work and so therefore they may not choose the appropriate method for the project.”

Gonzales notes that this freedom to design outside the parameters of the available equipment can hinder contractors from getting work done. Since different machines boast unique capabilities, such as in microtunneling, design professionals must pair their project proposals with equipment capabilities that are accessible in the marketplace today.

“Every discipline and its machinery have limitations,” explains Gonzales. “There are some things that machinery can’t do. For example, a pilot tube machine won’t go through hard rock. It just won’t happen, not yet at least.”

Although there can be difficulties in equipment selection, Gonzales says that the development and innovations in today’s trenchless machinery have come a long way — making advancements in projects possible.  

“We just finished up a 7-ft diameter microtunnel that was more than 1,900 ft long from one push, which  would’ve been unheard of 30 years ago, and now it’s very much a doable process,” says Gonzales. “There are still things that each and every tool cannot do. The project needs to be designed so it can be completed with the machines that we have available in the marketplace today and in the geotechnical environment that it’s placed in.”

Another challenge within the trenchless market has been the economy. As the recession hit plenty of industries and businesses hard across the country, trenchless contractors scrambled to find work and keep crews busy. With reduced work to bid on, professionals have been under pressure to stay working and be profitable.

“The trenchless market is very competitive, especially in these economic times,” says Molvik. “We’re having to continually adapt. Our long-term experience in underground trenchless construction, especially in the Pacific Northwest dealing with the challenges of glacial soils, helps keep us standing above the rest. This knowledge base along with our knowledge of ground support issues and our broad span of microtunneling experience are keeping us in the game.”

Aside from experience, good communication throughout the construction process is also important. By keeping everyone up to date about the project, the company’s crew can stay productive and keep clients satisfied.

“We’re committed to proactive communication with the design and construction management teams as
well as with owners when we’re engaged in a project,” adds Molvik. “Keeping these lines of communication open helps ensure a seamless process throughout the entire project timeline.”

Thanks to a set of skilled workers, Northwest Boring can continue offering a broad range of trenchless services throughout the Pacific Northwest. With an equipment fleet that has grown extensively over the years, the company can be ready to perform when clients need it the most.

Pam Stask is assistant editor of Trenchless Technology.

Portsmouth Force Main

Northwest Boring Completes Record Microtunnel on a Portland, Ore., Project

Currently, Northwest Boring is keeping busy with the Portsmouth Force Main Segment 1 Project in Portland, Ore. Acting as a subcontractor on the project, the company was hired to microtunnel nearly 3,000 ft of 81.6-in. OD steel casing.

“This is the kind of project that we love — one that has never been done,” says Gonzales. “We’re fortunate enough to work with some wonderful contractors. Part of the reason we’ve done well is that the people that we work with are good with what they do too. When we see a project and something that needs to be done, we figure out how to do it and get it done.”

In March, Northwest Boring set a record during its first run when it drove 1,902 lf of welded steel casing — a U.S. record length for microtunneling steel pipe in a single push. The run incorporated five intermediate jacking stations that were not engaged. The crew’s average jacking force was approximately 130 to 140 tons and the run was completed at around 115 tons. Northwest Boring’s first run was accomplished in 40 tunneling shifts. Molvik credits the company’s success to their skilled labor along with the technology that was employed. including the tunneling system, guidance system, slurry management and tunnel lubrication systems.

“It’s just an outstanding project,” says Gonzales. “In all the years I’ve been involved in trenchless, this last microtunnel run we just completed has got to be the finest one I’ve ever seen. In terms of safety, production, alignment control and cleanliness, it was a very successful job. We’re a business that takes a couple projects on at a time and really focuses on those projects to make sure they’re done right.” 

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