The Right Choice

Every day, contractors, utilities and municipalities excavate for the installation of underground facilities, or must locate existing pipes, cables and lines for maintenance and repairs. In the past, this usually involved digging by hand or with a mechanical excavator, backhoe or similar machine.

“There are numerous reports of injuries, deaths, explosions and fires each year from unsafe or poorly planned excavations that strike underground facilities or result from collapsed trenches,” says Brett Hart, product manager at Vactor Mfg., a manufacturer of air conveyance, high-pressure water and vacuum technology. “Many of these incidents can be avoided and the risks minimized by using techniques such as vacuum excavation, which is a general term that may include processes using either water (hydro-excavation) or high-pressure air to loosen soil.” 

In both cases, an air vacuum is used to move the loose soil and rocks, often into a debris tank for later disposal or back-filling the hole that’s been made.

“Non-destructive vacuum excavation is quickly gaining acceptance by contractors, utilities and municipalities in a wide range of applications,” says Hart. “These applications include excavating remotely at long distances, line location, installation and repair for utilities and pipelines, slot trenching, waterline maintenance and repair, directional digging, sign and pole installation and precision digging.”

Hart adds that vacuum excavation can improve overall productivity and efficiency for contractors, municipalities and utilities, and can help avoid:

• “Hits” or “strikes” on underground utility lines, cables and pipes
• High costs to repair damaged infrastructure
• Costs and inconvenience of interrupted utility services
• Serious injury or death to workers and the public
• Liability and increased insurance costs
• Loss of a company’s reputation, revenues and employee morale

Selecting the Right Unit

Vacuum excavators come in a variety of sizes and options, so it is important to select the unit that best fits the contractor’s intended use. Hart recommends that a contractor consider the following before purchasing a vacuum excavator:

• What is the main application?
• What options does the contractor want on the machine?
• Do you want the ability to dig with water, air or both?
• Do you want a powered boom to manipulate the vacuum hose or manually handle it with brute force?
• How much vacuum power do you need?
• How large of a storage hopper is required?
• Will the unit be expected to work in extreme cold weather applications?
• How well are the parts and services for this machine supported?

“For the contractor, the equipment needs to be reliable and durable,” says Hart. “Downtime costs money, period. There are several manufacturers to choose from, so find out whose equipment is being used and how well are they holding up over time.”

Features and Options Maximize Productivity

Contractors should be aware of the features that improve overall productivity of the vacuum excavator they select. Such features may include extendable or telescopic booms offering a wide range of rotation and mounted on the curb side, large-capacity water tanks and debris bodies, heavy-duty solid construction, heated pump and hose reel cabinets, convenient operator controls and tool storage.

“For added versatility, contractors should choose a vacuum excavator that offers plenty of options to meet their specific needs so they can achieve maximum productivity on the job,” says Hart.

He offers a number of option choices, including an air compressor for excavation or air tool use, water heaters to help cut through frozen ground and clay, a hydraulic tool package, a second operator’s station, stainless steel water tanks and additional tool boxes.

“For many of our contractor customers, increased payload and improved fuel economy are essential considerations when using a vacuum excavator,” says Hart. “You don’t want to compromise performance or productivity on the job.”

Hart adds that contractors should also pay special attention to the filtration system and select a system that will filter the spoil and avoid clogging.

“The right tool for the job means selecting the right digging media (air or water), the right nozzle jets, the right flow and pressure, and the right amount of vacuum,” he says.

Many novice operators will simply turn the equipment to the maximum settings, but this can be counterproductive. Through experience, the operator will know where the sweet spots are for certain applications and soil conditions.

Safety First

Safety is extremely important for the contractor operating a vacuum excavator. Safety features on vacuum excavators should protect both the operators and the equipment from dangerous situations. “Vacuum excavators are big, powerful pieces of equipment that pose unique hazards to the novice or untrained operator,” says Hart. “A reputable manufacturer will have safety designed into the equipment in the form of emergency stops, guards, specialized tools and safety interlocks. Know and understand the equipment before putting it to work, and make sure that all operators are completely trained on the equipment and use safe work practices associated with vacuum excavation.”

Before getting to work with a vacuum excavator, there are certain steps a contractor should take prior to starting up the machine. “Vacuum excavation often takes place in or near traffic. Safety cones, work signs and hazard warning lights should be used as much as possible,” says Hart. “The operator needs to wear the appropriate personal protective equipment and high visibility outerwear.”

Seek Dealer Input

Hart says the equipment dealer can aid in the decision-making process by determining what product, features and options best fit the individual contractor’s application. “The dealer can provide a demonstration of the vacuum excavator in the specific application to ensure the contractor is selecting the right tool and to show how the productivity and versatility of a vacuum excavator can impact their work,” he says.

Hart mentions that after-sale support is also important for the contractor. Dealers provide training, parts and service in an effort to keep the contractor on the job and productive. “A good training program will guide the contractor through all the functions of the vacuum excavator and demonstrate the correct way to operate the equipment for maximum results,” he says. “And the contractor will also have the peace of mind knowing their vacuum excavator will be serviced by factory-trained technicians at the dealership.”

This article was submitted by Vactor Mfg., which produces a wide range of combination sewer cleaners and jetters for sewer line maintenance, as well as specialty products including vacuum excavators and glycol recovery vehicles.

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