HDD: Fundamental Change

Increasingly, horizontal directional drilling contractors come from every walk of underground construction life. Gas and oil pipelines, telecom, electric and gas distribution were the early adopters of the technology. But as the rigs and affiliated add-ons/complimentary equipment evolved, other underground niches have steadily became believers in the technology.

Water, sewer and a wide assortment of other niches have emerged as viable markets for HDD. For example, installation of geothermal loops is beginning to have a positive impact on HDD work.

“Kind of changed our life,” admitted a Southwest U.S. contractor in Underground Construction’s annual HDD Survey (available online June 13). That simple statement has become very telling for several thousand utility contractors in North America and indeed, around the world. The number of operating rigs continues to steadily climb, even in the midst of a severe recession.

Issues remain. Working for cash flow is still a major problem expressed by contractors in various regions of the country. “How can we stay in business when our competitors are giving work away,” lamented a Midwest contractor. There were several contractors who admitted they averaged only $5 per foot in 2010. Those prices, even for very small drilling projects, are frightening; one hiccup and the job can take your entire company south.

Crossbores remain another issue that industry is struggling to solve. However, constant attention and unfortunately, occasional accidents, continue to keep crossbores on the mind of most contractors. Work progresses on best practices, verification and better pipe locating technologies but there is no silver bullet at this time. Good contactors continue to frequently do their own locating or verification. While not cheap and time consuming, the prevailing attitude is that preventing accidental utility hits is a lot better for business than running the risk of severe damage or loss of life. The industry has come a long ways towards being a good industry citizen compared to the “cowboy” days of the late 90s when risks were ignored and only the job mattered.

For many contractors, life is good. Project backlogs are solid in several parts of the country. Telecom is having a good year. Diversity of directional drilling applications has played a key role for many contractor success stories throughout the recession.

There seems to be no end as to the potential applications for HDD. I am constantly amazed at the breadth of uses being developed for HDD. As tooling and equipment continues to be refined, barriers to construction crumble. Jobs previously thought impossible – by virtually any technology – are now being designed with HDD in mind.

This growth of HDD has not been without cost. Traditional usage of small rubber tired trenchers and vibratory plows are falling. Sales of those units are down and probably will not rebound, replaced by HDD. Manufactures are adjusting to the new market dynamic.

It could be another couple of years before the U.S. construction economy is back on its feet and widespread construction is on the rise. But rest assured, as that recovery leads to new construction projects, HDD will be at the forefront, continuing its amazing record of growth.

Old is new
Also in this issue, we take a look at an old technology, primarily used on pipelines many years ago, that has found new life with the resurgence of pipeline construction across the world. Cradle boring machines (CBMs) were used extensively in the 1960s and 70s in the pipeline market. These machines were a fast and efficient alternative to auger boring. However, as the pipeline boom slowed, CBMs found their niche collapsing and have essentially been in mothballs since the early 80s.

Recently, The McLaughlin Group, in discussion with contractors, found a renewed interest and began to experiment with a new version of the cradle borings machines. To their credit, McLaughlin refrained from bringing the latest incarnation of CBMs to the market without solving some of the old safety concerns first. This interesting read begins on page XX.

Bursting of age
In this issue is the second installment of a series of articles presented by the International Pipe Bursting Association (IPBA), a division of NASSCO. These articles have been produced to provide a better understanding of pipe bursting technology. Many myths and misconceptions exist regarding this proven rehabilitation method for replacing existing underground utilities.

This particular article explores the extreme diversity of product pipes that can now be burst/sliced/cut by pipe bursting technology. Pipe bursting, like cured-in-place pipe, has become the benchmark for rehabilitation technologies. Turn to page XX.

World economies
Just when will the U.S. construction market pull out of this recession? That is probably the most asked question in the marketplace today. Parts of Europe are actually doing quite well, economically, while other countries (i.e. Spain, Greece and Ireland immediately come to mind) are essentially bankrupt. China has become the Holy Grail for many manufacturers hoping to sell abroad. However, China’s inflation rate is almost out of control and catching up with their double-digit growth rate, making that area a bit shaky. The Chinese are trying to figure out how to balance growth while keeping inflation in check – all part of a maturing economy, say several expert reports we’ve seen.

But most of the world still views the U.S. market as the lynchpin that holds the worldwide economy together. Until we get back on our feet, a true worldwide recovery will be fleeting and spotty.

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