Tunneling Company Uses Technology to Continue Growth

Arizona contractors take over family business, expand services, grow customer base and have no plans to slow down.

Tunneling Company Uses Technology to Continue Growth

Albares (right) and Murrietta shovel soil into a dirt bucket on a job under the Beardsley Canal in Surprise, Arizona. The company is safety-oriented and blocks off one day a month for safety training.

Ernie and Chris Romero believe in two things: making customers happy and having a strong family-relationship.

The brothers have been accomplishing both of those with Arizona-based Horizontal Boring, a company they took over from their father and uncle in the middle of a recession. They jointly run the company, specializing in tunnel and auger boring, but have plenty of help from their family.

In the seven years the brothers have owned the company, they’ve expanded the service area to most of the Southwestern U.S., have added services like directional drilling and opencut excavating, and the jobs have continued to get bigger.

“We could limit ourselves to just the auger boring and tunneling, but to us, our customers have needs and we really would like to serve them where they don’t have to go elsewhere,” Ernie says. “We can handle boring for them, tunneling, trenching and the directional drilling. We’re here to serve them and give them what they need, and we really focus on that.”

A STRONG FOUNDATION

The company was originally founded in 1962 as Horizontal Boring & Tunneling, but Ernie and Chris’ dad and uncle — Guy and Manuel — came to own it in 1981 after completing a job for the previous owner.

“Our father and uncle were already doing tunneling and boring for another outfit here in Arizona,” Ernie says. “The owner of Horizontal Boring & Tunneling ran into a problem where they had a tunnel seized and were having a lot of trouble with it. The gentleman was ready to exit the business anyway and told my father that if he and my uncle could get that tunnel completed, he would give them a great deal on the business.”

Guy and Manuel held control of the company through the 2008 recession but experienced tough times because of it. The two were nearing retirement in 2010, and Chris and Ernie saw their opportunity to take over.

“We had a strong understanding of the industry and the positives and negatives, and I guess we were just real optimistic on what we could accomplish with it,” Ernie says. “Even through the rough patch, there was still a need for trenchless work.”

The two reorganized the business as Horizontal Boring.

“You always learn from the past, and that is something we really looked at,” Ernie says. “We set the company up to withstand rough patches better and make sure the company doesn’t fall on tough times again.”

A CLOSE FAMILY

Ernie and Chris don’t have to go too far to find family; they just have to look around their shop. Working alongside the brothers are their three other brothers and one sister, plus extended family.

“We have uncles and cousins who work in the business with us,” Ernie says. “We also have employees who have been with us 20-plus years who are like family to us.”

After growing up in the family business, the two brothers say they don’t know it any other way than having family involved.

“We all have different views and opinions at times, but I think we’re fortunate to be here,” Ernie says. “We work well together and enjoy it. Whether we’re working or we’re off and it’s family time, we’re still together. It’s really a blessing to be here and work with people you get along with.”

TUNNELING AND MORE

Since the two brothers have taken over the company, they’ve added services to complement the tunneling and boring focus the company still holds. Horizontal Boring now offers directional drilling and potholing services, as well as traditional excavation and trenching.

“We’re doing more open excavating because that goes along quite a bit with some of the other work that we do,” Ernie says. “We’ve also expanded our tunneling and boring machine lineup because of advancements in technology.”

On the directional drilling side of the operation, the company runs Vermeer drills, while on the auger boring and tunneling side, a majority of the machines are American Augers, Michael Byrne, and Akkerman. Support equipment includes a boring tunneling machine attachment made by Barbco and vacuum excavators from McLaughlin.

“On the auger boring side, we can bore as small as 8 inch in diameter and then as large as 84 inches,” Ernie says. “The tunneling machines can go anywhere from 48 to 96 inches and then our excavator shields can go up to 120 inches.”

Most of the work the company sees comes from the DOT. Currently crews are working on two projects with the Arizona DOT tunneling under freeways and one in Colorado going under a freeway.

“We’ve really seen the bores increasing in length and the tunnels increasing in length and diameter over the last few years,” Ernie says. “We’re seeing more and more 500-foot bores coming up, whereas in years past, we’d be looking at 200- or 300-foot shots being the long ones. It’s incredible seeing what is being accomplished now.”

A big part of the longer tunnels and bores is thanks to the technology changes the company has seen, from steering capabilities of the machines to tracking of line and grade. “The technology has really improved,” Ernie says. “The companies are doing a great job with the technology on this trenchless equipment.”

HIGH-PRESSURE JOB

Horizontal Boring crews completed a job in 2017 for the Arizona DOT where technology played a big part in helping meet deadlines.

The company had to cross a busy interstate with existing underground structures. A 78-inch steel casing was being used for the bore, but they were only allowed 3 feet of cover in unstable soil conditions because of the existing structures.

“It was also an extremely tight schedule due to shutdowns and the schedule the general contractor was under to get that job completed,” Ernie says. “We were running seven days a week around the clock to meet deadlines.”

Three crews of four to five men worked in eight-hour shifts on the job site using a 72-inch Michael Byrne machine that was brought in specifically for the project. Ernie says once auger bores start getting larger than 72 inches, they get more difficult, but this time, the process was more practical than going with tunneling.

“It was really one of those pressure projects where if one thing goes wrong, it throws everything off,” Ernie says. “We had our share of issues that we had to jump on and overcome. You’re pushing a lot of pressure because you’re advancing that casing out into that material, so your pressure is building up and your line and grade are critical.”

To help keep the path on line and grade, Horizontal Boring crews used a new method to track it. Similar to how they track directional drills, crews inserted a sonde in front of the casing with a tracer sonde.

“It tracked back to our computer in our bore pit and enabled us to know right where grade was as we were drilling,” Ernie says. “It sped up our process, which allowed us to meet the scheduled deadlines.”

Ernie says they’ll use that technology — and others — again on future jobs. “It saves us a heck of a lot of time, a lot of problems, and it allows us to be more efficient,” he says. “Without some of this technology, I don’t know if those types of jobs would be options for us. We like those big, difficult jobs. That’s where we learn and grow, on jobs like that.”

DOWN THE RIGHT PATH

With seven strong years already in the business, neither Ernie nor Chris see themselves or the company slowing down anytime soon. “We’re going to continue on this trajectory that we’re on,” Ernie says. “We’ve been going a lot over the last few years in expanding.”

The two expect to see the directional drilling division expand, add additional machines to the fleet, and still add to the tunneling and boring fleet as technology improves. One of those new boring machines is already in use as the company is working on a project in Arizona where they are using a guided boring machine from Akkerman.

“This guided boring machine — it’s a tool we’re getting to use more of,” Ernie says. “As we implement some of this technology in our operations, we’re going to continue to see the growth as a company.”


It takes one of a kind

Crawling 500 feet through a tunnel 70 to 90 inches in diameter takes a certain type of person, but Horizontal Boring believes they have the right person — or 45 of them to be exact.

“Our employees are what we can’t work without,” says Chris Romero, co-owner of the Arizona-based tunneling, boring and directional drilling company. “You can’t get a job done without good guys, and we definitely value our employees. It takes everybody working as a team, and when it boils down to it, it’s those key guys out in the field that make this company go.”

While many of the company’s employees are family to Chris and his brother Ernie Romero, the other co-owner, the company also has several employees with 20-plus years and newer ones as well.

“When times are booming like this and you need specialty skills, it can be tough to find the right employee,” Ernie says. “You don’t have a lot of guys out there on auger boring machines or tunneling machines. It can be pretty difficult, and that’s why when you get good guys, you work hard to keep them.”

Before an employee even gets to operate the equipment, they’ve likely been at the company for multiple years.

“There’s a lot of things to understand before jumping on the machine,” Ernie says. “There’s a lot of in-house training involved when you hire new guys. Safety is the most important aspect here and then understanding all the elements involved.”

The company does a whole day of safety training once a month to make sure it’s on the forefront of employees’ minds. “It’s important to never take it for granted,” Ernie says. “Something could go wrong at anytime.”

That safety training needs to happen, especially with the equipment the crews are working with and the type of work being done. “There’s a lot of different aspects in this job when you’re crawling through small tunnels,” Ernie says. “You don’t find a lot of guys that are up for that. It takes a certain character.”



Discussion

Comments on this site are submitted by users and are not endorsed by nor do they reflect the views or opinions of COLE Publishing, Inc. Comments are moderated before being posted.