How Vacuum Excavators Support Pipeline Operations

From diversification to controlling operational costs, investing in a vacuum excavator makes sense

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How Vacuum Excavators Support Pipeline Operations

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Vacuum excavators are an essential machine for the oil and gas industry, from potholing utilities and leak detection to ongoing pipeline and refinery maintenance. For many of these applications, contractors and pipeline companies depend on vacuum excavator specialty companies to do the work, but as the need for this type of equipment grows, so does the need for more contractors to get into the vac market. 

Opportunities in the field

According to Dan Sharpe, corporate account manager for Vermeer pipeline equipment, the use of vacuum excavators has taken a bit longer to expand in the pipeline industry compared to the utility market, but there has been a dramatic increase in use within the last few years. “Almost every utility horizontal directional drill contractor owns their own vacuum excavator and uses them daily for drilling fluid management and daylighting existing utility lines,” he says. “It’s taken large-diameter HDD contractors more time to embrace owning and operating their own vacuum excavators because mud recycling systems and pumps are more widely used for drilling fluid management; they are used to bringing in specialists, like steering hands, to support their operations. However, a growing number of these same contractors are now adding vacuum excavators to give their team better control of project timelines.” 

Mike Young, Vermeer MVS regional sales manager for Texas, has worked in the oil and gas market for most of his career and understands the value of contractors being able to control their own timelines. “Pipeline companies and contractors all regularly employ vacuum excavators to assist on projects, which means these trucks are in high demand. These specialists do a nice job, but they can’t be everywhere all at once, and many general and subcontractors are investing in their own vacuum excavators to keep their projects on their schedule. It just makes sense, because it gives them better control of timelines and costs.”

Taking control

Young says new pipeline construction is often delayed because vacuum excavation crews aren’t able to keep up with all the different aspects of a project they get pulled into. “Hired specialists can’t be daylighting utilities on the next phase of a job if they are assisting a contractor with drilling fluid disposal on the current phase. So, crews are either waiting for vacuum excavator operators to suction slurry pits or waiting for them to expose existing utilities for the next drill shot — and waiting can be expensive.” 

Analyzing the expenses of hiring a vacuum excavation service and crew idle time, many pipeline contractors have concluded it makes more financial sense to invest in their own vacuum excavation truck. “The upfront investment of a large vacuum excavator is the reason why many contractors, large and small, choose to hire someone else,” Young says. “But, when they compare what they are paying someone else to do the job against the costs of owning the machine, they usually find that adding a vacuum excavator is a good investment. Now, they can better control their operational costs on a project because they don’t have to pay whatever the going rate is for vacuum excavation services in the area and can better manage the timeline of the project.” 

Transmission line support opportunities 

Pipeline contractors with vacuum excavators can usually find many additional opportunities to put their fleet to work. “Here in my territory, there is a significant number of large-diameter transmission lines buried deep underground, and all those need to be located and daylighted before any new construction,” said Young. “It doesn’t matter if trenchless or open-cut installation methods will be used. Everything needs to be exposed, which means employing a powerful enough vacuum excavator to dig up to 30 feet deep. So, small utility vacuum excavators aren’t going to get the job done — it’s a job for 6-inch and larger vacuum excavators.”

Sharpe adds that transmission pipelines also subcontract out ongoing transmission maintenance and repair jobs. “Transmission lines need to be checked regularly to make sure they are holding up well in the ground. Crews need to spot exposed pipelines and look for corrosion, and they typically will only allow soft excavation methods around active transmission lines. Also, if a leak is suspected, vacuum excavators will be employed to verify a leak and aid with repairs.” 

At the refinery

Companies with large vacuum excavators are also finding additional opportunities at refineries. According to Young, many plants have a stringent mechanical digging permitting process that can take up to six months before access is granted. However, plant owners are much more accepting of excavating on-site with vacuum excavators. “Vacuum excavators are used for everything from repairing leaks to cleaning separators. There is almost always a vacuum excavator or two working at every refinery to make sure everything is working properly, and there is a need for more support to keep everything running at peak efficiency.” 

A trusted partnership

Of course, getting into a new line of work can be a challenging endeavor for contractors looking to expand their business into vacuum excavation services. Having a trusted network of professionals in the oil and gas field is always helpful for making the transition go smoothly. Vermeer and its global dealer network have served the oil and gas pipeline industry for decades, from delivering the equipment needed for new pipeline construction to providing hands-on expert advice for crews in the process of expanding their operations. They will be there for you, too. So, give your local Vermeer dealer a call or visit to learn more about how adding a vacuum excavator can help provide more operational and timeline management control, while helping to diversify your company’s service offerings. 


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