The Booming Vacuum Excavation Industry

The market for vacuum excavation is expanding in all directions. What was once the realm of smaller contractors with one truck doing sub-contract work for larger contractors, the industry is now seeing more and more of the large contracting firms adding vacuum excavation to their portfolios.

“The growth in vacuum excavation is largely due to the increased focus on preventing utility strikes and improving job site safety. There’s a tremendous risk of injury and expense associated with power/service outages, burst waterlines, gas explosions and damaged property that can result when a buried utility is struck during mechanical excavation,” says Nick Bruhn, product manager of Vactor Mfg., in an interview with Forrestor Media. “Vacuum excavation increases work site safety and decreases the cost of digging by minimizing the risk of utility strikes.”

By most reports, growth in the vacuum excavation business is strong. As more contractors learn what hydro and air excavation can do, they are finding that its benefits more than outweigh its costs. Vacuum excavation contractors agree that the process is considerably costlier than using a backhoe, but it is infinitely less expensive than utility damage.

Vacuum excavation has its roots in the petroleum industry, where it has been used for years to expose underground oil pipelines and valves. According to the Vac-Con Inc. website, vacuum excavation in the oil and gas industry began in the 1960s where the vacuum truck operators began using a high-pressure water stream that, when heated, made easy work of turning frozen earth into muddy slurry that the excavator could suck into its holding tank.

The real challenge, however, came in the 1980s when the National Energy Board increased the safe zone for transmission pipelines. Only non-destructive methods of excavation were permitted to be used within the safe zone, of which hand digging was the only accepted practice at the time. That was fine but hand excavation is a time-consuming process and its application was limited. As a result, various companies began exploring for non-destructive alternatives, and vacuum excavation technology quickly became popular for those working around pipelines. This lead to a real increase in its use in the pipeline sector through the 1990s.

The drive for the growth to the whole vacuum excavator industry across North America was also the construction industry labor shortage. If the contractor is relying on manual excavation, the project will take longer and require more workers to complete the tasks in a timely fashion. Vacuum excavation has proven to be a safer and faster alternative and requires less manpower.

An increased focus on damage prevention to protect construction workers, homeowners, businesses and the infrastructure itself also continued to be a factor. Regulations are changing and new laws are being passed, it seems like every day, regarding safe digging initiatives. Operators and workers who accidentally hit utilities when digging, can cause contractors heavy fines, terrible publicity, and lost future jobs. Manufacturers say that these contractors are continuing to embrace vacuum excavation largely because of these safety issues.

Vacuum excavators are a great option however, not only because of the safety factor but also for its the rate of production, which in fact seems to be the real drive for the industries boom.

At the turn of the 21st century, the demand for vacuum excavation led to new designs focused on improving performance on a variety of job sites. Reduced noise, for example, supported the excavators’ growing use in residential neighborhood projects. Innovations within nozzle technology focus on increasing digging capability while reducing damage to underground utilities. Larger tank capacities kept machines on job sites longer and provided greater hauling capacity, improving contractor profitability. For example, some municipal operators improved time savings by nearly 50 percent with larger tank sizes.

As vacuum excavators made the move from the oil patch to the city, vacuum excavator manufacturers also began designing smaller trucks to fit smaller job sites making them lighter and easier to operate in urban environments. The smallest units even fit into the back of a pickup truck. These trailer units cost less than vacuum trucks, and they can gain access to difficult places, like parking ramps.

Vacuum excavation is cost effective, and it works faster, and it avoids tremendous financial liabilities. As the awareness of vacuum excavation is increasing, and more vacuum excavators are used for damage prevention and utility location around the U.S., market demand is surely accelerating the need for these machines.

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