While fiber-optic cable installation work appears to be getting ready to ramp up once again,
in some places around the United States, like Iowa for example, the work hasn’t ever really stopped. Several companies across the state have been building out their fiber network for years.
The extensive last mile work has turned Iowa’s well-known agricultural soil into a bumper crop of trenchless conduit installation through compact directional drilling. The work has also put quality utility contractors like Lemke Equipment LLC, Hinckley, Minnesota, in high demand.
Lemke Equipment was founded in 1999. In the beginning, the company focused on installing copper telephone drops for various regional telephone companies in Minnesota and Iowa.
“My dad had a company called Lemke Equipment when I was a kid back in the 1970s. He actually had dragline equipment and dug ponds for people,” said owner Ron Lemke. “I’ve always been with the communications side of the utility business. I worked for another company for many years before I went out on my own. But when I started my own company, I wanted to use that name, Lemke Equipment. For the first few years, I installed copper phone lines. That changed quickly over the next several years as companies began moving away from copper wire and began fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) installations.”
In the early days, Lemke concentrated on trenchless installation through the use of piercing tools. A few years ago, Lemke added a Grundrodrill 4X compact HDD unit from trenchless equipment manufacturer TT Technologies, Aurora, Illinois.
“If you’re going to stay relevant in this business, you better keep up with the technology. It started out with their Grundomat boring tools and GrundoAir compressor. I used to bore under sprinkler system yards over 100 feet in one shot! Now I can bore under yards with sprinklers over 300 ft and turn corners with the 4X HDD rig,” he said.
Compact Directional Drilling
According to TT Technologies directional drilling specialist Mark Schneider, the smaller drills have been popular for last mile work. “The technology put into these smaller drills has given them greater capability and made them easier to use,” he said. “They’re well suited for fiber-to-the-home work. They’re built for residential and commercial areas. They’re lightweight and can be transported on a trailer pulled by a pick-up truck. Plus, they require minimal crews to operate.”
Compact directional drills, like the one Lemke Equipment uses, can offer as much as 9,800 lbs of thrust and pullback. That allows them to accomplish a wide range of installation tasks. At Lemke Equipment, crews are using the drill to install a variety of conduit and duct for underground fiber-optic cable installations. The user-friendly nature of the drill helps contribute to productivity.
“These drills are very easy to operate. The computerized Smart Vice system simplifies the drilling process by automating the drill’s vice cycling operations,” said Schneider. “The operator has single push button control of the function. That helps improve efficiency and speeds up drill times. The vice is also self-centering, reducing wear and tear. The operator can return to manual control with the flip of a switch.”
High Production HDD
Lemke Equipment does a considerable amount of work as a subcontractor for Central Cable Contractors, Waupun, Wisconsin, one of the leading installers of fiber-optic cable in the Midwest. Most of Lemke’s work right now is in northern Iowa. In the larger towns, for larger projects, Lemke and his crews can be in the same area for up to six months at a time or more. Smaller towns can be completed in just a few weeks working 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., Monday through Thursday.
“When we started working with them about five years ago, they were doing work for Winnebago Cooperative Telephone Association (WCTA),” Lemke said. “If you’re going to work for WCTA, you need a lot of experience doing flawless work and have good people skills. You also need to know how to, ‘read the job’ so to speak. You need to know what could be buried underground and know how to see it, without actually being able to see it.”
While Central Cable does the main line work, Lemke and his crew work primarily in the neighborhoods, drilling under yards, driveways and parking lots. Lemke recently completed work on a WTCA project in Northwood, Iowa, which is located just south of the Minnesota-Iowa border.
Lemke utilizes a four-person crew, two on the drill and two taking care of other parts of the project. For this section of the project, Lemke crews were installing small diameter micro-duct. Typical distances range between 50 to 100 ft, but his HDD operators have achieved longer distances of several hundred feet.
“The most unique part of that installation was the micro-duct. It has a diameter that’s less than the size of a dime,” Lemke said. “We were only doing a pilot bore, no reaming, and then pulled the duct back without spinning. So, we pulled it back ‘dead.’ Because the micro-duct is tiny, you can’t attach a swivel and spin it. The micro-duct would never hold up. But that duct was ideal for WCTA. It’s easily repaired if damaged and it’s orange in color, so it’s easy to see when digging.”
Fiber-to-the-Home and Homeowners
Currently, Lemke Equipment crews are installing 1-in. duct for a FTTH project for another telecom in northern Iowa, Titonka-Burt Communications (TBC), Titonka, Iowa. In addition to installing the duct for this project, crews are also installing the pre-spliced fiber optic cable, as well.
According to Lemke, the crews have gotten very proficient and can really be productive in the right settings. “We’re working in neighborhoods, so you don’t have to pack up, trailer and move,” he said. “When we’re really pushing we can get up to 14 installations done a day. We’re probably averaging six or eight per day right now with the 1-in. duct. Once installed, we basically pushing the pre-spliced flat fiber in place by hand.”
Lemke pays close attention to homeowners and makes sure to limit disruption. “The design of the drill helps in that regard. A special steel track with bonded rubber pads offers excellent traction and durability while minimizing potential damage to concrete and turf, which is important in residential settings,” Schneider said.
“We’re typically drilling at depths of 18 in. to 2 ft. The ground conditions are quite nice, beautiful black dirt. We pothole all adjacent utilities, but after we restore the area and re-seed, I can come back in a week and see new growth already,” Lemke said. “We rarely get a complaint. I talk to every homeowner before we do the job. You tell them what you’re going to do. And they’re happy. They shake my hand. If you don’t pay attention to the homeowners and do a quality job, you’re gone. You won’t last long in this business.”