Editor’s Log: Mainstream

It’s really only been a little over 20 years since horizontal directional drilling effectively became mainstream for all rig sizes. In that time, the technology has progressed from a unique method for installing large diameter steel pipes under streams and rivers, to a procedure that can now shoot a tiny conduit from street curb to home.

Of course, big is still good. Everyone was amazed when large HDD installations crossed the Mississippi at its deepest and widest points. But that benchmark has long since fallen and today drills regularly exceed 6,000 feet and intersect boring reaches out much further.

Underground Construction’s 12th Annual HDD Survey is a snapshot into the current state of this amazing technology. Each year we conduct the survey it becomes even more apparent how HDD continues to relentlessly permeate every aspect of underground utility installations. For most market niches, HDD is no longer an afterthought; it is weighed and considered as an equal with other construction methods.

In the early years of the survey, telecom installation dominated the market for HDD market applications. As the technology has been refined and as equipment/supply costs fell more in line with other construction methods, HDD gained market share in virtually all segments of the underground industry. There is no longer one niche that dominates; rather, HDD has a strong presence in all markets.

Municipalities are among the last hold-outs for wide-scale acceptance of HDD, though that mindset is fast eroding. HDD is too fast, too efficient, tremendously less invasive and increasingly cost-effective in urban areas. But for the huge gravity sewer market, line and grade installation continues to be the Holy Grail quest for the HDD industry. HDD’s ability to change path or deflect upon hitting barriers pose significant issues for sewer installation.

There are methods for line and grade installation that work, albeit at a very slow, tedious process. The speed of HDD installations is one of its principal allures for contractors. Experienced operators can quickly push through a pilot hole to the exit point with deadly accuracy, but the bore path may have several minor twists and turns in getting there. That’s not a problem for pressure pipe, electric cable or telecom. But for gravity sewer, that’s a deal breaker. Ditch Witch introduced a system last year that does a better job of improving installation speed while maintaining line and grade, though improvements and R&D are ongoing. When the line and grade barrier does fall, HDD will be a technology for all sectors.

It has been argued that trenchless construction and rehabilitation is a “disruptive technology”: something that literally impacts and modifies an industry to the point that it is forever changed. While there were earlier trenchless methods that certainly have had substantial effects on the underground infrastructure market, I’ve no doubt that the advent of HDD was truly the primary trenchless “disruptive” force that has forever changed pipeline and utility installation.

Legal battles begin
The acquisition of HammerHead by The Charles Machine Works (Ditch Witch) effectively scuttled HammerHead’s long-standing relationship with Ditch Witch competitor Vermeer. While that development came as a big surprise to most in the industry, the subsequent initiation of legal battles has shocked no one.

Let’s hope the courtroom war is resolved quickly. All three companies are vital to the economic integrity of the underground construction market.

Tech Tips
In our April edition, NASSCO, in conjunction with Underground Construction, began a new bi-monthly feature called “Tech Tips.” The column offers insight on trends, best practices and industry advice from NASSCO’s trenchless membership professionals. The June installment of Tech Tips covers blockage removal for sanitary sewers. Read this valuable information here.

Going underground
While there are many reasons that going underground with electric cable for power transmission systems has historical been impractical, those inhibiting factors are not nearly as prevalent today. Improving transmission cable and installation methods have succeeded in reducing costs substantially. And, while still expensive when compared to traditional overhead methods, the reasons and benefits for going underground can outweigh overhead installation. The changing dynamic of power distribution systems is examined here.

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