When it comes to the lineage of vacuum excavation, many people point to the Canadian oil fields and the ingenuity of vacuum truck operators looking for a more efficient way to dig through the frozen earth.

As the industry grew, safety when digging near a pipeline came to the forefront and mandates, like the National Energy Board in Canada increasing the safe zone for transmission pipelines to 30 m on either side of the pipeline certainly helped the industry grow.

Though still very much a part of the work in the oil patch, vacuum excavation equipment is ubiquitous on underground infrastructure installation projects across Canada. By all accounts, given safe digging initiatives across the country, vacuum excavation will be a growing part of projects going forward.

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Joe Johnson Equipment used vacuum excavator

However, with supply chain issues induced by the pandemic, natural disasters and the conflict between Russia and the Ukraine, as well as inflation taking place across the globe, contractors looking to get their hands on new equipment might be having some difficulties. This is prompting them to look to the used market or rely on aftermarket components to keep the equipment they have on the road running in top shape.

To gauge where the industry stands, we reached out Joe Johnson Equipment to discuss some trends and what these times hold for the vacuum excavation industry.

“The status [of the market] is stable and on the brink of change. As the world has changed dramatically over the past few years, the market is starting to change a well,” says Jason Woods, director of used equipment at Joe Johnson Equipment. “Rising prices in fuel and supplies have slowly started to drive the price of projects upward. The work force is starving for people in every industry, which is driving the use of the technology and efficiencies.”

With the larger trucks geared more toward work in the oil and gas pipeline space, how have these changing times impacted those contractors? According to Michael Rugeroni, vice president of the Federal Signal Aftermarket Group, from what he has seen, those contractors who have the drive to keep their wheels turning are looking for projects outside of their core markets to pick up new projects and some are looking to right-size their fleets.

Joe Johnson Equipment used vacuum excavators

Woods agrees. “It has made our resilient customers look outside their core work and projects for new opportunities and fill voids left in the industries from the effects of the pandemic,” he says. “Large-scale construction and telecommunications projects are taking shape across the country providing opportunities for the equipment to be utilized.”

He adds that customers are being more conservative with fleet replacements or planning replacements farther out to account for longer lead times due to supply chain issues. As customers move to more conservative replacement timelines, the importance of fleet maintenance is even more critical.

Speaking to the supply chain end of the world, Rugeroni says that every day there is a new challenge. From the initial slowdowns due to pandemic-related shutdowns and now the war between Russia and the Ukraine, the ability to fulfill signed orders has slowed.

Joe Johnson Equipment used vacuum excavator

“New unit business is strong, [but] supply chain disruption is pushing new unit delivery times out further than expected which drives a need for rentals and used equipment,” Woods says. “Used equipment has seen in increase in demand, pushing the values upward as the supply of new units are delayed coming into the market.”

As contractors look to the used market, Rugeroni says there are things that they should look for when buying equipment. “One thing is simple. Look at the service records,” he says. “If you can follow the service history of a piece of equipment, you’ll feel better about it.”

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He adds that buying equipment from large fleets that consist of one brand tend to have a better service life than those with mixed fleets. He also suggests having someone familiar with that brand of equipment look at it to verify there is nothing major that needs repaired.

Woods offers this additional suggestion, “Companies that have long standing operators and little turn over typically have well maintained pieces of equipment as the operators care for the equipment and treat it as their own,” he says.

Joe Johnson Equipment used vacuum excavator

On the flipside, when is it best to walk away from used equipment?

“Knowing what the value is for a piece of equipment is critical, you want to try and minimize overpaying for equipment,” Woods says. “Once too many large repairs are required, you may want to take a deeper look at the piece. The supply chain is strained, lead time and repair times are longer then they have been in the past.”

“You need to do your homework,” Rugeroni says. “But if you’re a buyer and want some level of certainty, you’re better off going through a dealer than an auction house.”

Before Joe Johnson Equipment puts a piece of equipment on its lot for sale, its team has done the records review and inspection. They’ve also addressed any known issues and using its deep bench of knowledge, as part of Federal Signal, they’re able to source the proper aftermarket parts for the repair.

“Having a trusted and reputable dealer provides confidence to our customers that we are here to stay,” Woods says. “It shows our relentlessness and dedication, market focus and commitment to our people and customers.”

Mike Kezdi is the managing editor of Trenchless Technology Canada.