Vacuum excavation systems on trenchless jobsites have come a long way over the decades. No longer unusual to see these powerful systems as part of the jobsite, they have evolved into a critical component in any trenchless project.

These systems are either collecting and/or disposing hole spoils or they are clearing the way for contractors to employ safe digging practices. They may not garner the most attention and take on a “going about their business” aspect, but make no mistake: These machines have the ability to make your jobsite safer and more efficient.

Given all of that, we want to know how today’s vacuum excavation market is going with the backdrop of a global pandemic? We spoke with a few vacuum excavation manufacturers for perspective on the state of the vacuum excavation market, especially in trenchless circles. How has it evolved over the last five to 10 years and what are some of the challenges it faces in the future?

To start off, the market is pretty darn strong in 2022, to paraphrase our panel. They cite more and more companies adhering to safe digging practices and contractors realizing that these incredible machines are a strong investment, as safely digging on a jobsite and maneuvering around all the existing underground utilities will always be a part of any project. On the flip side of all these positives is the continued labor shortage felt within vacuum excavation circles (and across the construction industry), as well as the higher cost of inflation and raw materials.

“We are seeing the market still going strong,” says Super Products vice president of sales Mike Reis. “More companies have recognized the need to use hydroexcavation for safe dig practices. They see the need for human safety and the benefits of finding hazards before digging or drilling. We also have companies asking for different size machines for different applications. Some want smaller units for easy access but also want the power of the big unit.”

Safe digging practices are driving this market sector. “Some cities are even going as far as only allowing air excavation to further reduce the chances of destructive digging as the locating of utilities becomes ever more important in mitigating risks,” says TRUVAC product manager Cory Schueller. “The limited visibility inherent in the trenchless industry means it continues to be a challenge to avoid underground utility lines that may been exposed in traditional open-trench excavations.”

Schueller also notes an aspect that has become more prevalent as these systems are being used to remove job spoils offsite: grabbing the attention of local law enforcement and overweight transporting issues. “With the increased use of hydroexcavation, the industry is getting more notice from law enforcement when transporting job spoils and [that] can result in overweight tickets,” he explains. “TRUVAC has responded with maximizing the payload of all of our hydroexcavators to reduce cycle times and increase job productivity.”

The evolution of vacuum excavation becoming permanently entwined with the trenchless market points to one downward moment in the construction industry: the downturn of the oilfield work. Vacuum excavation and the oil fields went hand-in-hand but when the oil and gas market slowed, a shift toward nondestructive vacuum excavation — i.e., safe digging — occurred, offsetting that lull.

“As the oil field work reduced, the vacuum excavation shifted its focus to nondestructive vacuum excavation with the mission of bringing safe digging to the utility and telecommunications industries,” Schueller notes. “Today’s current focus on the installation of new and resilient underground infrastructure will, we believe, benefit greatly from the minimally invasive method of vacuum excavation to expose underground utilities with speed, while minimizing damages in borehole and trenching applications.”

With the trenchless market creating a new construction avenue for vacuum excavators, the growth in the market has been incredible, the panel says. “The vacuum excavation market has evolved the most over the last 10 years,” says Ditch Witch vacuum excavation product manager Chris Thompson. “For example, we’ve seen vacs go from a potential tool to support directional drills to a requirement on most jobsites. Today, 41 states have requirements for soft digging around utilities and hydroexcavation meets that need perfectly.”

The TRUVAC FLXX is one of the latest additions to the vacuum excavation market.

Vacuum Excavation Market Evolution

Over this last decade of market expansion, the systems that make up vacuum excavation have evolved, as well. Taking the wants and desires of their customers, manufacturers improved upon the technology. Easier to operate, speed, safety features and other bells and whistles have been added. “Our trucks have become much easier to operate,” says Reis. “The equipment is designed for operator safety. The units have become lighter to achieve maximum payload.”

Schueller concurs and notes that TRUVAC has included improvements to reduce noise levels from the machines and more efficient ways of running the system to increase fuel efficiencies, as well as supporting increased productivity on the job.

“As the market grew, we have learned more about the versatility of vacuum excavation by watching how customers put them to use,” says Thompson. “It’s always amazing to observe the ingenuity of the end-user. In response to that, we have worked on improving dynamic engine loading and improving filtration options. We’ve also been mindful of jobsite constrictions. Based on our customer feedback, we’ve made our trailer vacs with a low-profile design, lowering the overall height to ease maneuverability.”

Looking Ahead

No market is challenge-proof as there are issues beyond the market players’ control, as well as market evolution challenges. Among those noted by our panel are the labor shortage, finding viable dumping sites, weight laws and individual state regulations. “The lack of skilled labor is a challenge facing the construction industry as a whole and vacuum excavation is not immune to this,” Thompson says. “In addition, finding properly licensed drivers can be a challenge to some contractors when looking to add heavier vacuums to their fleet.”

Reis agrees, saying, “Safe digging practices are being implemented by more companies. The market is being affected by rising steel costs and inflation. The labor shortage with operators is a big issue. Companies have jobs to work but can’t get enough operators to do the work.”

Schueller also notes the vac market also has the challenge of convincing those who still aren’t sure about vacuum excavation technology. “We need to let people know the benefits of vacuum excavation and the opportunities that nondestructive digging affords many industries across a variety of digging applications,” he says. “Some potential customers are still skeptical and believe they won’t have enough work to keep a vacuum excavator busy. “

And that position is simply not true and these machines are worth the investment, Schueller adds. “Looking at the speed of vacuum excavation, the reduced risk of damaged utilities, or the cost to subcontract out to uncover underground utilities, the ownership cost of a vacuum excavator is supported by these substantial benefits,” he says.

“These machines are critical at trenchless jobsites today as they help avoid damaging underground utilities,” he says. “Preventing costly and destructive utility strikes remains everyone’s priority while meeting the increasing demand for underground installations.”

Sharon M. Bueno is the editor of Trenchless Technology.