Air Excavator, Portable Vac Unit Combo Prove to Be Efficient Digging Solution

Air Excavator, Portable Vac Unit Combo Prove to Be Efficient Digging Solution

 Employees at Hawaii Private Locators pose with AirSpade pneumatic excavators and a Pacific Tek truck-mounted PV150 portable vacuum machine. From left to right are: Dwayne Costa, field engineer; Dave Dickey, company owner; and Billy Massey, technician.

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Workers at Hawaii Private Locators dig a lot of holes every year while locating underground utility lines.

In fact, employees do about 500 potholing jobs a year in order to expose and locate underground infrastructure without damaging the very things they’re striving to locate. To maximize efficiency — and profitability — Dave Dickey, owner and CEO of the Honolulu-based company located on the island of O’ahu, depends on a one-two technology punch.

The first punch comes courtesy of pneumatic excavators from AirSpade (a division of Guardair Corp.), which use compressed air to knife through soil. And two portable vacuum units manufactured by Pacific Tek — a PV500 and a PV150 — deliver the second blow by sucking the loosened soil from the holes.

“They’re a match made in heaven,” says Dickey, who also owns two other related companies, Subsurface Utility Engineers and Damage Prevent Hawaii. “Those machines are the bread and butter of our vacuum excavation operations.”

Plenty of power

The PV150 is a skid-mounted unit affixed to the flatbed of a Ram 3500 dually pickup truck. It delivers 325 cfm of vacuum power, and the debris tank can hold 150 gallons of material. The PV500 is a larger unit that’s mounted on a tandem-axle trailer. It generates 525 cfm of vacuum power, and the tank can hold 500 gallons of material.

The company owns two AirSpade models: an AirSpade 2000 construction kit (225 cfm output) and a Utility AirSpade 4000 (105 cfm output).

About 80% of the work performed by HPL is done on military bases in Hawaii, while municipal, state and federal contracts chip in the balance.

“From the time we get up in the morning to the time the sun sets, we’re working, mostly on military bases,” Dickey says. “The military is spending billions of dollars to upgrade its facilities in Hawaii. 

Bevy of benefits

Dickey invested in the machines mainly for three reasons. For starters, the AirSpades (about $1,700 for the 2000 model and roughly $1,800 for the 4000 model) and the portable vacuum units (about $23,000 to $33,000 for the PV150 and around $60,000 to $98,000 for the PV500, depending on options ordered) cost significantly less than buying a hydroexcavation truck.

Secondly, his three employees can use the technologies in tight spaces that a standard hydroexcavator could never access.

“You just can’t get those big trucks into small spaces,” Dickey says. “But the Pacific Tek units are small enough that we can even use them in some parking garages on military bases.”

And last but not least, the soil sucked up by the Pacific Tek units is dry, not wet. As such, it can easily be used as backfill for the excavated hole, as opposed to having to dispose of the slurry, which takes time and increases labor and fuel costs.

“Air excavation is much cleaner and more efficient,” Dickey says. “The AirSpades have sort of made us air-excavator pioneers here in Hawaii. Everyone is starting to use them now.”

On the PV150, soil or other debris has to be shoveled out. But the PV500’s tank features a tilt mechanism for easy dumping of waste. 

Does more than just dig

Furthermore, the PV150 also does double-duty as a water extractor, Dickey points out, which enables it to generate even more money.

“In Hawaii, there’s a lot of water in manholes because of the high water tables,” Dickey explains. “So we often get called out to suck out the water, then dispose of it in sewer manholes designated by the military base, which then processes the water with its private wastewater treatment system. We probably do about 100 water extractions a year.”

Moreover, the units are very easy to use.

“Operating them is almost elementary,” Dickey says. “They’re really easy to use. That’s one of the main things I love about them. Almost anyone could learn how to operate one in short order — you don’t need to be a rocket scientist to run them.”

Great ROI

The units also generate a great return on investment. Dickey says he charges $350 an hour to use them with an 8-hour minimum charge.

“If we run them five days a week, they’re pretty profitable,” he says. “They pay for themselves fairly quickly.”

But Dickey cautions that they’re not as well-suited for residential work because it’s unlikely that homeowners would want to spend that kind of money to excavate a hole in the ground.

Does Dickey think the portable vacuum units could have applications in other industries, such as sewer cleaning and maintenance? Absolutely, he says.

“It will suck up sewage and water. You could use it anywhere you need to extract water. They’re very versatile machines.”


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