Michigan Contractor Builds Own Trenchers to Get the Big Jobs Done

With massive trenchers, Michigan’s DeWind One-Pass Trenching goes after the tough work.
Michigan Contractor Builds Own Trenchers to Get the Big Jobs Done
The team at DeWind One-Pass Trenching includes, front, from left, co-owners Greg and Becky DeWind, and employees Lis Smith and Ryan DeWind.

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When Greg DeWind broke away from the family business to start his own irrigation company, there wasn’t much money for buying new equipment. So he took out his drawing board — literally.

“Being pretty poor, we couldn’t afford a $350,000 machine, so that’s when my husband decided to build them,” says Becky DeWind, co-owner. “He built his first machine probably 20 years ago now. It was successful, it did what it was supposed to do, and then he built another one. He always improved on it.”

Soon after starting with irrigation, the DeWinds saw an opportunity to expand into dewatering and trenching. “It was my idea to go into environmental applications where the soils are contaminated and customers don’t want to excavate a lot of soil or pump and treat the water,” Becky says. “Now we’ve evolved into civil work where the focus is on the installation of soil, cement and bentonite walls for dam and levee remediation.”

Twenty years after they started the business in Holland, Michigan, DeWind One-Pass Trenching has nine trenchers in its fleet — all designed and built by Greg.

A NEW IDEA

Going into the irrigation business made sense to the DeWinds. They were already familiar with wells and how water systems worked since Greg worked with his father in the well business. There was also a large nursery farm right near Holland that would provide plenty of irrigation work.

“Greg and I learned how to put in multi-well irrigation systems,” Becky says.

The couple discovered dewatering and learned how it was similar to irrigation. “We saw a dewatering system going down the road and didn’t know what it was, but it looked exactly like our irrigation systems,” Becky says. “So I had to find out what exactly it was.”

A conversation with that contractor gave the DeWinds the idea of going into the dewatering business: They hoped it would help them keep busy year-round. “I thought, ‘Well, when it’s dry out, we’ll put in irrigation for the farmers and when it’s wet, we’ll dewater, and we’ll never be out of work,’” Becky says. “That’s how it all started.”

The DeWinds developed different installation methods for dewatering systems and discovered they could put other things in the ground, as well. “We could put in walls of mulch or iron for remediating contaminated groundwater and also construct barrier walls,” Becky says.

The company expanded into doing more trenching work. Now, half the company’s focus remains on dewatering; the other half deals in civil and environmental work.

POWERFUL MACHINES

The DeWinds learned quickly that there were no trenchers on the market big enough for what they needed. Building them was the next best option. “We couldn’t buy machines big enough, so we kept building our own,” Greg says. “Out of necessity, my family always built things, so I was familiar with that. We built our first one and then realized the things we were building were bigger than you could buy, so we continued to build them.”

The first machines he built were used to install underdrain for dewatering jobs, but now they are being used to install much larger structures, such as collection trenches and slurry walls. “There continues to be a need for deeper and deeper trenches and slurry walls, so we just keep upsizing what we’ve built in the past,” Becky says.

The machines include technology to mix soil, bentonite and cement directly into the ground and create perfectly homogenized containment walls. “The cutters are spinning fast,” Becky says. “It’s a bloody blur and it’s homogenizing everything from top to bottom at the same time.”

The deepest trencher reaches 80 feet, but the company is building one to be deployed in late 2015 that will reach 125 feet.

The DeWinds have never thought about selling the machines because the company has the market locked up. “They can put in soil-bentonite walls four times faster than excavators, so they have a huge advantage over the competition price-wise,” Becky says. “It’s like having the golden goose. You don’t really want to start mass producing these.”

The machines are attractive to municipalities hiring DeWind because of their small carbon footprint. A wall installation requires only one trencher and one supporting machine to haul materials to the trencher. “If you don’t have one of these, you’re bringing tons and tons of yellow iron to a work site,” Becky says.

“The one-pass trenchers are also cheaper, so that means the dollars go further and you can remediate more sites.”

Becky says it would take years for other contractors to train on the machines if DeWind were to sell them. “They’re complex, they’re fussy and they take years of training and understanding the nuances of trenching that deep and putting in these different systems.”

THE RIGHT CREW

Finding the right crew to operate the trenchers can take time — several years of training on smaller machines and even more training when operators jump up to the one-pass trenchers. The company has a staff of 35, of whom 15 work on one-pass trenching and 20 on dewatering.

Becky is proud that DeWind has a 100 percent success rate with its jobs and credits the employees for that record. New employees start on the dewatering side of the business. “The employees will set vertical casings and 300 feet of perforated pipe, and they have to do that over and over again for a few years,” she says. “They have to learn how to set up the machine, assemble the machine and fix the machines.”

After several years of working on the dewatering trenchers that only go 20 to 25 feet deep, qualified employees move to the one-pass trenching side, where they apprentice for a number of years. “They’ll be five years in training, plus coming here with skill,” Becky says. “We don’t get them out of high school. They have to be a mechanic first, or an equipment operator with mechanical abilities.”

The company prides itself on having long-term employees; many spend their entire career with DeWind. “Our guys are lifers,” Becky says. “These guys on these big machines are getting paid pretty well and aren’t going anywhere.”

VARIETY OF WORK

Having the large trenchers has brought in some unique jobs for the company. “We do get calls for specialty applications,” Becky says. “A big company is asking us to put in 24-inch HDPE SDR11 pipe. It’s huge, and Greg will design the installation attachment for that to make it happen.”

The company has also been hired to do custom work for the New York Department of Engineering, installing pipelines on sites highly contaminated with nuclear waste. Becky says that job, at the West Valley Nuclear Facility in western New York, was one of the most difficult.

“Greg had to design a conveyor system so no spoil would touch the ground,” she says. The spoil would be conveyed to a platform for drying and would be hauled off on a train to a disposal site. “We couldn’t make any mistakes there. If the machine hit nuclear waste, the customer would have to buy the trencher.”

The DeWinds had to assess its liabilities before undertaking the project. They concluded that if the machine contacted nuclear waste, they would have to cut the boom off and leave it in the ground. Before the project, DeWind conducted a dry run at its own yard with engineers from the Department of Engineering on site.

“They were real happy with the dry run and we got the OK to proceed on the project,” Becky says. “The project took two weeks to complete with no loss of equipment. It was a pretty stressful job.”

FUTURE IN DAMS AND LEVEES

As for dam remediation, the Association of State Dam Safety Officials (ASDSO) says there are 87,000 dams throughout the U.S. and 4,000 of those are at risk of failure.

From 1998 to 2008, the recorded number of deficient dams — those with structural or hydraulic deficiencies leaving them susceptible to failure — more than doubled from 1,818 to 4,308. The number of dams identified as unsafe is increasing at a faster rate than those being repaired, according to the ASDSO.

“There are so many levees and dams that are in need of repair, and we’ll be doing lots of that,” Becky says. “Our machines are so compact that they fit right on top of the levee. We only need 15 feet of platform to work.”

Becky admits that when her husband began building the machines, they had no idea that dams and levees required remediation. “We were just headed for environmental installations where you couldn’t touch the water or the ground, and we developed applications to work underground with very little disturbance to the ground.

“There is plenty of work out there to be had,” Becky says. “We’ll go anywhere as long as the money is right.”



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