Pipe Bursting Provides New Path in Texas

Texas contractor retools and refocuses his business to take advantage of the growing pipe bursting market.
Pipe Bursting Provides New Path in Texas
Crew member Oscar Gutierrez stows rods as new pipe is pulled into place on a municipal pipe bursting job.

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“I happened to be driving past a sewer line replacement job and saw a very long piece of pipe on the ground,” recalls Newell, the owner of No-DigTec, based in Dallas. “I was so curious about what was going on that I had to pull over and find out. I couldn’t figure out what in the world they were doing with such a long piece of pipe.

“I talked to the contractor and he told me about pipe bursting,” he continues. “I thought to myself, ‘Wow – this is the future.’ At the time, I was seeing (horizontal) boring rigs everywhere, putting in fiber-optic lines, and I knew that eventually it just wouldn’t be economically feasible to do open-cut utility installations, because all those dry utility lines would be in the way. That’s what prompted me to get into pipe bursting.”

The chance encounter turned out well for Newell. 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). Moreover, since Newell founded the company in 2000, No-DigTec has invested about $3 million in equipment, employs about 25 people and will gross about $10 million in revenue for 2015.

“Like I tell people, every now and then in life opportunity knocks on the door,” the folksy, plain-spoken Newell says. “You have to at least open the door and greet it to see if it’s something you want to take advantage of. Lots of opportunities exist if people just stop and look around. It turned into a pretty good little thing for us.”

Along with the financial success, Newell has become a recognized expert in the field. His company has worked with HammerHead (a brand owned by Charles Machine Works) to test new trenchless equipment. He also periodically serves on expert panels at trenchless technology trade shows, sits on the board of directors of the Underground Construction Technology Association and lectures seniors in the engineering program once every semester at the University of Texas at Arlington. Not bad for a guy who 15 years ago didn’t know a bursting hammer from an expander head and whose company generated only several hundred thousand dollars in gross revenue in its first year of operation.

“I’m self-taught and knowledgeable about pipe bursting,” he says. “And I believe I should share that knowledge with all those young engineers. They can take this technology and refine it — take it to the next level. This is an industry that’s just getting started and has a bright future ahead of it.”

Powerful technology

Pipe bursting technology was developed in England during the 1980s. In essence, it involves pulling — under extremely high pressure — a conical-shaped device called an expander head (also referred to as a bursting head) through the pipe that’s being replaced.

A length of pipe — typically sections of high-density polyethylene (HDPE) pipe that are fused together — gets connected to the rear of the expander head. Because the back end of the expander head is larger than the host pipe, it fractures the pipe as it’s pulled through, clearing a path for the new HDPE pipe following behind it. With the right equipment and soil conditions, almost any kind of pipe — from clay and cast iron to concrete and malleable steel — can be burst, Newell says.

No-DigTec does both pneumatic and static pipe bursting. The former method is used primarily for replacing gravity-fed pipes, and the latter mainly for replacing pressurized pipes. Pneumatic bursting relies on a percussion hammer action to help the expander head break the host pipe. A winch located at ground level maintains constant tension on the bursting head via a thick metal cable. In static pipe bursting, a downhole unit pulls the expander head through the host pipe with series of interconnected rods.

Pipe bursting offers many advantages compared to open-cut installations. First and foremost, the new pipe follows the path of the host pipe, so there’s rarely a problem with hitting other kinds of lines. Other advantages include:

  • About 85 percent less excavation required (the process still requires some excavation — an insertion pit on one end and a receiving pit on the other, plus pits for service reconnections).
  • Significantly faster and more cost-effective installations.
  • Minimal chance of damage to landscapes and things such as trees, patios, buildings and so forth.
  • The ability to upsize pipes for additional flow capacity, sometimes up to five times larger than the host pipe’s diameter.
  • No long-term lane/road closures.
  • Less carbon dioxide emissions from excavation equipment and hauling materials.

Big market potential

Newell didn’t do any formal market research when he founded No-DigTec. What he did know, however, was that a lot of water and sewer infrastructure installed between the turn of the century and the post-World War II years is reaching the end of its useful life span.

“I just knew it was coming,” he explains. “And you can imagine all the stuff — fiber-optic lines and such — that they’ve put on top of those utility lines since then.”

Originally, No-DigTec focused on residential and commercial work because it dovetailed well with a plumbing outfit Newell operated at the time. But the company gradually switched over to commercial work — replacing lines at malls, high-rise buildings and industrial complexes, for example — before it settled on the municipal market.

As for marketing, Newell says he did very little except for cold-calling during the company’s early years. “Once you explain the technology and show that it involves 85 percent less excavation, can save them a little money and get the job done faster, the work kind of sells itself,” he notes. “If you sell your services with confidence and knowledge, they’ll give you a chance. I don’t call on people anymore — the phone just rings. We’ve got a good reputation — especially for clean, efficient work sites — that has spread by word-of-mouth”

The majority of No-DigTec’s work centers on not only replacing damaged lines, but upsizing them as well. More and more municipalities are converting to 8-inch-diameter pipes as the standard for water and sewer lines instead of 6-inch lines, Newell says.

Competitors emerge

As more and more engineers see the advantages of pipe bursting and specify bursting instead of open-cut methods, demand for No-DigTec’s services has increased. That, in turn, has drawn more competitors into the market. However, several things help his company maintain a competitive advantage, Newell notes.

First of all, many project contracts require that contractors have pipe burst a certain amount of linear feet of line; this makes it tougher for inexperienced companies to break in. Moreover, a typical bursting rig setup can cost north of $150,000, which erects somewhat of a barrier to market entry. And last, No-DigTec has been in the business long enough to give customers confidence in its ability to do the job, Newell says.

“Bursting looks easy, but there are lots of tricks of the trade you learn only by experience,” he observes. “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.

“You really have to plan ahead,” he adds. “Sometimes, for instance, you have to disrupt traffic because there’s no other space to lay out, say, 500 feet of pipe. Again, it looks easy, but there’s so much more to it in terms
of planning.”

Equipment drives productivity

In the past, No-DigTec has burst around 30,000 feet of pipe a year, Newell says. This year, the company could do as much as 50,000 feet. To accomplish that kind of production, No-DigTec has acquired a large fleet of vehicles and equipment aimed at boosting efficiency and customer satisfaction. The company’s machines include five static and six pneumatic pipe bursting rigs made by HammerHead; three HammerHead winches (one 20-ton winch and two 12-ton units); three air compressors made by Sullair (a division of Accudyne Industries) used to power pneumatic hammers; five HammerHead hydraulic power packs that supply power to the static rigs; and three HDPE pipe fusion machines made by McElroy Manufacturing.

In addition, the company owns two tandem-axle dump trucks made by Mack and International (a brand owned by Navistar); eight excavators built by Takeuchi Manufacturing; three backhoes and two skid-steers made by New Holland (a brand owned by CNH Industrial America); six 1-ton flatbed trucks made by Chevrolet, Ford and Dodge; and three pickup trucks made by Dodge and Chevrolet.

The company also relies on a trailer-mounted water jetter made by US Jetting (18 gpm at 4,000 psi) used to cut roots from and clean debris in pipelines; an SPV800 trailer-mounted hydroexcavator built by VACMASTERS (a brand owned by Barone) used for potholing to spot gas and telephone lines or excavating around existing utility lines; 16 assorted trailers made by Interstate Trailers, Belshe Trailers, AmeraTrail and Ranch King Trailers; one International 2-ton utility truck; and six pipeline-inspection push-camera systems made by HammerHead, RIDGID and Vivax-Metrotech.

Bright outlook

Looking ahead, Newell envisions continued growth driven by aging water, sewer and gas infrastructure and increasing acceptance of pipe bursting as an alternative to open-cut pipeline replacements. How much infrastructure needs replacing just in the metropolitan Dallas area alone? “If I gave a number, it would be just a guess,” Newell says. “But it’s a bunch. Let’s just say I’m not worried about job security.”

On a microlevel, Newell hopes to one day tie a local record for the large-diameter burst: a 2,234-linear-foot pull of a 42-inch pipe. “I would at least like do that much or more so I can get some bragging rights,” he says.

But until then, Newell says his company will continue to thrive as long as it follows his simple business model: Do professional, quality work; stand behind the work that you do; and charge a fair price. “As long as you do those things, customers will keep coming back,” he says. “It’s worked for me.”



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