Pipe bursting provides advantages and opportunities, but don’t go in blind.
Your business is growing. You’ve diversified services and now you’re thinking about adding pipe bursting to the mix. Where do you begin?
Pipe bursting offers many advantages compared to opencut installations. First and foremost, the new pipe follows the path of the host pipe, so there’s rarely a problem with hitting any other buried utilities. Disruption to roads, yards and other surfaces is also greatly minimized because excavation is only required for entry and exit pits.
The same can be said of other trenchless solutions like CIPP lining. Unlike lining, however, pipe bursting offers the ability to up-size pipes for additional flow capacity, sometimes up to five times larger than the host pipe’s diameter.
There are two main types of pipe bursting machines — static and pneumatic. Pneumatic machines use a hammer in conjunction with a constant tension winch, while static machines use high-tonnage static pull.
Static machines can be used for all types of jobs while pneumatic machines work more quickly, but cannot be used in potable water systems since the hammer exhausts liquefied petroleum products into the pipe being installed and would find its way into the water system, says Kent Westendorf of HammerHead Trenchless Equipment. Pneumatic systems also have a footprint 50 percent smaller than static systems, which means crews need to do less excavation — a plus for many contractors.
“You need to decide between the two which one will work better for your project,” Westendorf says. “A lot of contractors like the advantages of the pneumatic machines, but then find out it might not work the best for every job they have.”
Static and pneumatic pipe bursting machines come in a variety of sizes and can handle pipes ranging in size from 4 to 24 inches in diameter, even larger in some cases. The equipment should always be sized to install a pipe of the same size or one size larger.
“Size is related to power and choosing the right power is related to the pipe size,” says Brian Kelly, president of Pow-r Mole Sales in Lancaster, New York. “The physical footprint can be especially important on certain jobs, especially if the site is crowded. You need to have enough room for the selected machine.”
No-DigTec is a Dallas-based contracting firm that specializes in pipe bursting. The company uses both the pneumatic and static processes. The former method is used primarily for replacing gravity-fed pipes and the latter mainly for replacing pressurized pipes.
Company owner John Newell says he immediately saw the future the first time he saw a contractor doing a pipe bursting job 18 years ago. Today, No-DigTec is the largest pipe bursting contractor in north Texas and one of a handful of firms nationwide that has the expertise and equipment to burst large-diameter pipes (generally defined as 24 inches and larger).
Since Newell formed the company in 2000, No-DigTec has invested about $3 million in equipment and employs about 25 people.
“Bursting looks easy, but there are lots of tricks of the trade you learn only by experience,” he says. “For instance, there are things you can do to minimize the chances of your hammer stalling during critical bursts, like under roads and highways. If it does stall, they’re not going to close down a highway so you can dig it out, so you’ll have to get another line under the highway. So a $200,000 job could turn into a $1.5 million liability because you didn’t have the experience to set it up right.”
Murphy Pipeline Contractors, based in Jacksonville, Florida, is another successful business built around pipe bursting and other trenchless work.
“It all comes down to education and working with clients to explain the processes and the benefits,” says company owner Andy Mayer. “It’s taken about 15 years, but what I’ve seen in the U.S. — particularly with pipe bursting — is that trenchless technologies have become very accepted. It’s now gathering a lot of momentum.”
Education has been an integral part of Murphy Pipeline’s growth since the company’s founding in 1999. It remains so today. Company educational director Todd Grafenauer leads those efforts from the Murphy’s Milwaukee office.
“That’s primarily what my involvement has been since day one,” says Grafenauer, who was introduced to Mayer during one of the company’s first major projects. “It’s the first step we need to do before we can actually work because human nature is what it is. People do things they’re comfortable with. Why are there communities that only do opencut? Because that’s the way they’ve always done it.”
The company uses a variety of different educational methods. Grafenauer often travels to potential customers’ locations to give technical presentations about the trenchless methods. He’ll cover the history of the technology, show videos of the work in progress, highlight case studies, explain the technology’s value from a construction and design standpoint, and spend time afterward answering questions. Murphy Pipeline also holds “open days” at working job sites and sends out invitations so people can see the technology firsthand.
For contractors who rely heavily on customer education to ultimately sell their services, Grafenauer says it’s important to understand the full scope of what customers need to learn. He also says contractors should be prepared to do a certain amount of work up front with no guarantee that it will turn into a profitable job.
“There are all these companies that will bring salespeople in. We truly don’t have salespeople,” Grafenauer says. “Our main goal is to educate communities on these technologies and the value involved. If we do a good job, it’s a pretty easy decision for them to move forward.”