Hydrovac Trucks: How Did They Become So Popular?

Hydrovac trucks have become incredibly common over the past two decades.

Prior to that, the oil-and-gas, utility, and construction industries relied on backhoes and shovels to do their digging. There were a few hydrovacs around but for the most part, they were pretty much non-existent.

In the 90’s, more popped up here and there. You saw them driving around, but you had no idea what they were. A hydrovac looked like a monstrosity out of science fiction or a monster truck show.

Today, they are everywhere, especially if you live in an oil-dominated economy like Alberta. Here in Edmonton, there are dozens of hydrovac companies and hydrovac trucks are seen all over the city.

How did hydrovac trucks become so popular?

Excavation before 1990

Before 1990, most excavating was done mechanically, using backhoes.

This made life a lot more difficult, and a lot more dangerous. This was the wild west, and statistics show it. In 1987, OSHA estimated the average annual number of excavation-related fatalities at 90 in the U.S. Most fatalities were from cave-ins of excavations or trenches, but many were also from hitting underground utilities, causing electrocutions and explosions.

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, some construction companies modified vacuum trucks and sewer cleaners for excavation, which could be used to find and daylight buried utility lines, but there were few and far between.

By 1990, the average number of deaths had dropped to 70. A big part of this was the development of sloping and shoring practices, and also trenchless technologies. Hydrovac trucks also started to be implemented as a safer way of finding buried utilities before excavating with a backhoe. Innovations made hydrovac trucks a much easier, safer, more efficient, and more environmentally-friendly way of excavating on industrial sites.

History: hydraulic mining during the Gold Rush

Early miners in California discovered that the more gravel they could process, the more gold they were likely to find.

During the California Gold Rush, miners started using steam pump-pressurized water to wash away soil and gravel as a more efficient method of digging for gold. Water was redirected into an ever-narrowing channel, through a large canvas hose, and out through a giant iron nozzle, called a “monitor”.

Earliest hydrovac
Hydraulic mining during the Gold Rush

The resulting slurry was directed through sluice boxes to remove the gold. It was also used in mining kaolin and coal.

Although this worked great for mining, it was an environmental disaster, causing massive erosion as well as blocked waterways and damaged farmland. Towns in the Sacramento Valley experienced a number of devastating floods. It also made navigating rivers by steamboat extremely difficult. You can still see the effects of hydraulic mining at Malakoff Diggins State Historic Park with the spectacular eroded landscape that has been left behind.

This led to the practice being banned and later regulated by the US government.

Early modern industrial use

In the late 60’s, the “ExcaVactor” was built by Vactor and started to be used in non-mining excavation work. It was later put on the back of vehicles and the modern day hydrovac was born. At first, they were used for cleaning sewers and cutting trenches, but soon more sophisticated hydrovac trucks were being used to locate underground utilities and do large-scale industrial excavation in more remote areas.

In the 70’s and 80’s, some contractors rigged up their own hydrovac trucks by modifying vacuum trucks. A few took the vacuum components off the trucks and installed them on ATVs for use off-road and in the oilfields.

It wasn’t until the 90’s that hydrovac really started to take off, especially in Canada.

The present era and new hydrovac technology

Once they were introduced in the Canadian oilfields in the 1990’s, hydrovacs steadily increased in popularity. Several manufacturers entered the market and started producing a variety of hydrovac trucks that were meant for different contractors: smaller ones for residential use and larger ones for oilfield and industrial excavation.

The new hydrovac trucks were efficient, could dig with accuracy, didn’t damage underground utility lines, were safer than backhoes and could reach hard-to-get-to spaces using extension hoses.

Boilers were also added making them the best option for digging in the frozen ground during harsh Canadian winters. Remote control systems were developed allowing operators to control the water pressure and turn systems on and off while simultaneously digging. It became a pretty sweet setup and everyone started adopting it.

In the early 2000’s, the demand for hydrovac excavation led to new designs that improved performance and made working on job sites easier. Noise reduction was a big development (although they’re still pretty loud) for working in residential neighbourhoods. Better spinners made for more efficient digging. Larger tank capacities for both water and slurry waste allowed the hydrovac to stay on site and work longer in between having to dump. This made hydrovacs even more profitable while saving time for clients.

Smaller units were also developed for working on softer ground and in more congested areas. These were better able to get into tighter spots without damaging fields or more vulnerable roads and concrete.

Government regulations

Occupational Health and Safety, utility and pipeline companies, and different government agencies such as One Call enacted laws making it illegal to dig without first locating underground utilities in the area. This often includes a visual inspection by a utility or pipeline company representative, which means a hydrovac needs to daylight.

Pipeline crossing agreements also state that before excavation can take place, existing pipelines need to be daylighted and exposed for a certain distance around the crossing. These laws differ between states and provinces, but they have made hydrovac digging legally required in many cases.

Statistics still show that line strikes are common and cause deaths and damage to utilities as well as excavating equipment. For example, in 2017 there were more than 1200 incidents of line strikes in British Columbia causing damage to natural gas lines from excavating. Explosions, electrocutions, oil spills, and power outages are the usual result from line strikes, as well as deaths and injuries to workers.

So why use a hydrovac when digging?

Avoiding line strikes: Excavating without damaging underground utility lines tops the list. An underground utility strike can be catastrophic, affecting thousands of people and costing millions of dollars.

Using a hydrovac to excavate avoids line strikes and the resulting damage, the high costs of repairs and heavy fines, interrupting utility services and the resulting negative PR, serious injury, and death to your workers, increased insurance costs, and production downtime when the site is frozen by safety and emergency crews.

Efficiency and accuracy: Hydrovac operators are able to dig with pinpoint accuracy, making the smallest holes deep enough to see where utilities are located. This is also perfect for digging piling holes that are used for concrete foundations and holes for fence posts.

Using a hydrovac saves time, not only digging but also backfilling. Less ground is disturbed which makes it perfect for residential work or excavating in environmentally sensitive areas, or avoiding the roots of old-growth trees.

Reaching those hard to get spots: by using extension hoses, hydrovac trucks can snake their way down into pits, valleys, open excavations, sewers, behind houses, and anything else you can think of.

Spots that would be impossible to get to with a backhoe without causing a ton of damage can be handled quickly and safely by a good hydrovac crew.

Avoiding damage to the environment: hydrovac trucks dig using potable water, which simply runs off and drains or absorbs into the ground harmlessly.

Hydrovacs can also be used to clean spills, drill mud, or contaminated soil, as they can then be unloaded into designated safe disposal facilities.

Saving money and increasing profit margins: increased productivity, reduced excavating time, and certainty of no line strikes means more money saved.

Hydrovac trucks are used to get jobs done fast, such as:

• Line location, installation, and repair for utilities and pipelines
• Sewer and pipe rehabilitation
• Telecommunications maintenance and repair
• Slot trenching
• Waterline maintenance and repair
• Directional drilling
• Sign and pole installation
• Repair work or excavation in tight spaces and congested areas
• Potholing

A well-operated hydrovac truck is the safest, fastest, and most environmentally-friendly method of excavating available.  A hydrovac company such as Summit can save you time and money on your next job.

As the economy recovers in 2018, it’s likely that the hydrovac industry will keep moving forward with new innovations and better trucks.

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