During the past 25 years, there has been a continuous demand for hydro excavation equipment and services. Due to this demand, more industrial cleaning contractors and public utility contractors are now offering these services.

This demand has also driven the need for improved designs that are more efficient, more operator-friendly and more safe. As an example, the old corded type pendant controls have evolved to the advanced wireless type remote controls, which can be programmed to allow the operator to operate the unit from the palm of his hand. The increased positive displacement blower performance allows the units to be operated at lower RPMs, which conserves diesel fuel and reduces the noise levels around the unit. The variable hydraulic drive for the water pump allows the operator to “dial-in” the exact pressure and flow he needs to do the work without the risk of damaging the underground utilities.

When discussing the advantages of hydro excavation, the focus normally falls to the preservation of underground utilities, pipelines and other infrastructure. Indeed, this is an important reason to use hydro excavation equipment vs. traditional excavators or shovels.

However, there is another important reason to choose hydro excavation over traditional excavation methodologies: Hydro excavation is a far safer choice for laborers.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 271 workers died in trenching or excavation incidents from 2000 through 2006 (reference http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/topics/trenching/). There are numerous ways that trenching and other excavation projects can pose danger to crews when using traditional excavation equipment or hand tools. The most common issue is cave-ins. Workers will be working inside a hole or trench when suddenly the walls collapse, trapping or burying them. This can occur for any number of reasons ranging from a change in the fluidity of the soil to the type of soil in the area. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) reports that 64 percent of fatalities in trenches occurred at depths of less than 10 ft (reference http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/docs/wp-solutions/2011-208/pdfs/2011-208.pdf).

Other dangers tied to traditional excavation or trenching work include exposure to either extreme heat or cold or having to use a truck or other equipment that is parked in a precarious position, such as on a road close to traffic. Workers can also be at risk if they are trying to dig by hand through frozen or extremely hard material. A lack of precision can also mean the potential of cutting through pipelines or utilities.

Hydro Excavation – The Safer Choice


Hydro Excavators like the X-Vac X-6, X-12, and X-15 from Hi-Vac Corp., are beneficial in part because they make worksites safer for the people doing the excavating and trenching. The following factors make hydro excavating a safer choice for excavation and trenching projects.

Wireless, Remote-Controlled Boom Functionality
Truck-mounted units like X-Vac Hydro Excavators use wireless booms that can be operated via a control panel. This means that workers onsite do not have to enter the hole or trench, thus minimizing the risk caused by cave-ins. Although this feature was added primarily to increase convenience for the operator, safety for onsite workers is an added benefit.

Distance from Worksite
A major safety obstacle, as well as a headache, when working within busy municipalities is that the area around a worksite can become congested if the excavator needs to be located very close to the worksite. A truck-mounted hydro excavator can be stationed and operated at a distance from the actual work site. This allows increased safety for the workers involved and also prevents traffic congestion and other complications near the site.

Hardened Soil Can Be Softened Safely, Quickly, and Efficiently
Instead of workers needing to loosen soil within the worksite manually, the water jetting feature of a hydro excavator means that tough soil conditions can quickly become more liquid and easier to work with in a shorter period of time. The distance workers can maintain away from the site also means that as the soil softens, no one is in danger of being caught in a cave-in.

Heated Water Helps Thaw Frozen Soil
Instead of having to try to work through frozen ground by hand or with a conventional excavator, truck-mounted hydro excavators can heat water through the jetter, which helps thaw the ground quickly and easily. This also protects the workers from exposure to frigid temperatures, which can be dangerous over long periods of time. Additionally, in the case of X-Vac Hydro Excavators, the In Motion Recirculation System circulates heated water throughout the water system while traveling to and from jobsites. This feature helps eliminate the need to drain the system during extremely cold weather.

Even in non-freezing conditions, the heated water that a hydro excavator can bring to a jobsite can help increase safety, as well as efficiency. Some soils are easier to cut and remove when using heated water. Jetting eliminates the need for workers to use hand tools to do back-breaking work.

Low Risk of Utility Strikes
The ability to control the water pressure via a control panel means that pipelines and fiberglass wire can be uncovered/discovered before they are inadvertently struck. This is far more difficult to prevent using shovels, backhoes or traditional excavators.

Air Flow and Water Pressure Can Be Controlled Separately
X-Vac Hydro Excavators allow the operator to control the water pressure, the air flow, and the vacuum produced by the blower to create the ideal mixture for any application. This allows everyone on site to monitor the work area and make sure stability is maintained for the duration of the project. Being able to control the water pressure is essential, as the operator does not want to damage the protective coatings or casings of the buried utilities.

Safe, Fast Backfill Replacement
Unlike with traditional backhoes and excavators, hydro excavators disturb very little of the soil around the site and, therefore, require less backfill. This again prevents any workers from having to enter the excavation site directly, thus significantly reducing the risk for injuries or deaths due to cave-ins.

Additional Safety Measures
Even with the added safety of a hydro excavator, certain safety precautions should be taken surrounding any excavation or trenching project. According to NIOSH, these steps should include:

• Making sure there is a person on site to monitor all safety measures
• Making sure all operators are properly trained on safety guidelines
• Monitoring the excavation site to seek out any changes in conditions or any potential hazards

Bonus: Hydro Excavation Is Better for the Budget
Few things are more important than the safety of work crews on excavation or trenching sites. However, hydro excavation also allows for faster, more efficient work. Many of the factors that make hydro excavators safer also help make them more effective and efficient.

A hydro excavator will naturally work more swiftly than workers using shovels or backhoes. Avoiding injuries means projects can be completed more quickly and cost-effectively. The ability to swiftly replace backfill means that projects can be completed sooner than traditional excavation or trenching projects, and of course avoiding utility strikes will mark the entire project as a success.
Jim Carnathan is manager, X-Vac and Ultravac, Hi-Vac Corp.

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