Take Care of Your Pipe Bursting Tools

Pre-job inspections and regular maintenance can keep your equipment working hard for many years.
Take Care of Your Pipe Bursting Tools
A worker stows rods from a pneumatic pipe bursting system as the new pipe is pulled into place. Pneumatic bursting systems use an air compressor to operate the bursting tool, so maintaining the air hose is critical.

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According to the International Pipe Bursting Association, open-cut excavation can typically be reduced by at least 85 percent and sometimes as much as 95 percent when employing pipe bursting. And since it’s a complete pipe replacement rather than a simple pipe rehab, it can be an attractive option when the job calls for it.

Here are some maintenance tips to keep in mind so your pipe bursting tools can stay a boon for your business and not become a headache.

1. Beware of a compromised cable

Prior to tackling a job, it’s important to inspect the length of the cable and look for any strands that are broken or frayed. Not only could an issue with the cable shut down a job, it’s also a safety concern.

“We’re mainly referring to static bursting, where you’re pulling a great deal of force on either a cable or a rod string, depending on the model you’re using,” says Brian Kelly, owner of Pow-r Mole. “If a rod string breaks or a cable parts, there are inherent safety issues. For example, the smallest machine we make pulls at 30 tons, and if any of those rod strings or cables part, that energy gets released.”

If there are portions of a cable that are frayed, it should be cut off at that point and re-terminated as a shorter cable or replaced with a brand-new one, Kelly says.

2. Preventing premature cable wear

To avoid cable wear, Kelly recommends taking good care of the jaw assembly.

“You don’t want worn jaws because that’s your first point of contact on pulling all that force,” Kelly says. “And on cable machines, most will have a sheave, essentially a pulley, and that should always be inspected to make sure it’s greased properly and turning with ease.”

With a rod string, Kelly says operators should keep all threads clean to prevent excessive wear or damage. “And during the pipe bursting process, you should make sure all those threads marry up properly and completely.”

3. The pipe-gripping system

The end result of a burst should be a new pipe pulled into place. That’s why the pipe-gripping system is an important maintenance item. “You should make sure that’s all lubricated properly and in good working order so you never lose the pipe that you’re pulling in,” Kelly says.

4. Know the job

One of the best maintenance practices for pipe bursting tools is having a thorough understanding of the job that awaits you in order to head off any opportunities for equipment damage in the first place.

“Prior to performing the bursting process, identify any potential issues or areas like concrete pipe repairs that you could get stuck at,” Kelly says. “That’s why doing a video inspection is important, as well as gathering knowledge from people who have worked with that system, whether it’s the municipality or a property owner.”

If you fail to identify such issues, you could be in store for an equipment breakdown.

“You need to know where there may be unbreakable repairs in a pipe because if you come to an immovable object and pull and pull, obviously something has to give,” Kelly says.

“You could either stall completely or if you have a slightly compromised cable, you could pull until you overstretch it and break the cable. If you know where there’s an issue, you can stop immediately, dig at that point to resolve the situation, and then continue on with the burst. Acquiring knowledge is the most important factor in bursting.”

5. The right machine

In addition to having sufficient knowledge about the job at hand, it’s vital that operators also know what tools they’ll need to successfully complete the job.

“If you’re just running, say a standard non-fracturable pipe blade setup and you run into a valve, you could potentially damage your tooling because it won’t be strong enough to break through a valve. You’re going to have to run a specialized slitter,” says Ryan Ley, service manager for HammerHead Trenchless Equipment.

Even if equipment damage doesn’t come into play, not having the right machine for a job can hurt your business’ bottom line.

“For example, more compact soils will need a bit larger bursting machine as far as static force than you would need with a standard soil,” Kelly says. “So if you have a lot of shells or rock, you may need a larger piece of equipment than you’re normally accustomed to for that diameter of pipe and material. Soil conditions can affect the profitability of a job greatly.”

6. Keep a simple routine

“Bursting equipment should always be cleaned thoroughly after each job, brought back into a shop environment, and all fittings and connections appropriately greased,” Kelly says.

“Anything to prevent excessive wear, just like any mechanical piece of equipment.”

The main wear items that will need to be replaced from time to time are the rod string or cables and the jaw assembly. Staying on top of the inspection of those items and a simple post-job maintenance routine can go a long way toward equipment longevity. “For our equipment, we’ve had people use it for 15 to 20 years with no issues whatsoever,” Kelly says.

7. Power source recommendations

In static bursting, you’re going to have a hydraulic power source running the equipment. Kelly says the maintenance for the power source is straightforward.

“Hoses are important to inspect to make sure there’s not excessive wear so they don’t burst and expel hot hydraulic oil. Then there’s changing the oil in the engines and changing filters. I would always point to the manufacturing specs for the maintenance schedules because it varies depending on what the manufacturer uses, whether it’s Honda or Kohler or a Deutz diesel. They’re all on different schedules.”

8. Inspect air hoses

With a pneumatic bursting system, you’ll be running an air compressor to operate the bursting tool. One of the most important items to maintain is the air hose.

“Always be checking your air hoses to make sure nothing has rubbed through, that there are no holes,” says Ley. “It’s especially important on longer jobs, because the more air leakage you have the less performance you’re going to get at the other end of the tool.”

During a job, Ley says operators should make sure air hoses aren’t encountering any sharp edges or rubbing on anything that would produce a leak. He also notes that oftentimes operators overlook the connections between hoses.

“You connect the hoses together and there’s a gasket in there,” Ley says. “A lot of times there can be a leak there and people don’t really think about that because they have a big enough air compressor to get the job done. But you actually do lose some performance if you have air leaking out of connections. I’ve seen that quite a bit.”

9. Keep the bursting hammer oiled

During a burst, Ley says it’s important to make sure your tool is getting enough oil.

“Our equipment is actually designed so that if you need to, you can keep a tool running, bypass the tank on the oiler, and just keep filling it up with oil. You never want to run out of oil during a burst.”

That’s because oil can help prevent other maintenance issues.

“Typically, with pneumatic bursting, when you start seeing the hammer decrease in power is when you would do a service job on it,” Ley says. “But if it’s a well-oiled machine, and depending on the conditions, you may not have to change the wear rings in the hammer for quite some time.”

10. Pit prep

Though pipe bursting reduces the need for traditional digging considerably, every job will require at least one pit. That can play into equipment maintenance as well.

“If the pit is not well prepared and just thrown together, you could easily damage your equipment,” Ley says. “People will use the pit wall as a load plate, and if that’s not properly shored it could cave in. Then the machine could move around and create more of a headache for everyone, as well as being a safety issue.”


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