Vacuum excavation has been around for nearly half a century, though it wasn’t until the 1980s that dedicated equipment became available and was widely adopted in the United States. As one of the few non-destructive methods to safely dig around buried infrastructure, vacuum excavation has gained great momentum over the last few decades, and its applications in construction digging continue to become increasingly valuable.
Given the array of advantages this method offers to construction teams in all sorts of environments, vacuum excavation has been broadly embraced as a best practice. It is easily considered the future of construction digging across the industry, based on some of the important factors highlighted in this article.
What’s involved in the process of vacuum excavation?
Vacuum excavation is characterized as a method of employing high-powered suction machines to dig deep, precise underground holes, daylight below-surface utilities and remove associated debris. In combination with a high-pressure water source or air lance, this vacuum approach enables workers to dig safely, quickly and with the least amount of damage or disruption to buried infrastructure.
In more traditional methods of construction digging, crews are challenged to excavate with slower, less accurate and more dangerous mechanical equipment, such as backhoes, augers and hand tools. These present greater opportunity for contact with pipes, cables and lines, threatening both the property and the people involved in the construction project.
Water and air-based digging methods that rely on vacuum excavation are far more reliable in removing the necessary soil and material, as well as far less likely than sharp, cumbersome excavation machinery to pierce underground utilities.
What’s the difference between hydrovac and airvac excavation?
In construction digging, vacuum excavation is deployed in combination with one of two pressure sources: water or air. Each features its own applications and advantages, and understanding the difference is critical to planning effectively for specific construction projects.
Hydro excavation—also referred to as hydrovac, hydro trenching or soft digging—leverages highly pressurized, heated streams of water to break up soil, which is then suctioned out through heavy-duty vacuums and stored in nearby debris tanks or trucks for later transport.
When managing larger projects as well as those that involve lower-temperature and/or more compact soil conditions, hydro excavation is the most ideal option. That’s because it’s a faster, more economical, more versatile method. This softer approach avoids the potential sandblasting that can occur with air excavation and is a more efficient means of moving ground material. Acting as a natural lubricant, water is less harsh on the excavation equipment, thereby minimizing wear and tear on the vacuum machinery.
Air excavation—otherwise known as airvac, pneumatic or air-knife excavation—uses compressed air to break up the ground soil before siphoning it through a vacuum hose. This process has the unique ability to backfill dry soil and debris so there’s no need to transport or dispose of wet, muddy material after digging.
As a resource, air is much less limited than water. Because air compressors provide for an infinite supply of the pressure needed to dig, you don’t have to worry about “refilling” during the excavation process (as you would with water). It is also nonconductive, which typically makes this method a more suitable choice when working around live electrical wires.
What outcomes make vacuum excavation so valuable?
If you’re wondering what exactly it is about vacuum excavation that positions this advanced method of construction digging as the wave of the future, here are some fundamental factors to consider.
Without a reliable way to locate and bypass crucial underground utility infrastructure, excavation can seriously endanger the lives of work crews. Strikes on natural gas lines are particularly concerning. Vacuum excavation via water or air pressure is a monumentally safer approach, enabling construction teams to locate dangerous infrastructure more accurately. This reduces the risk of explosions, fires and digging-related deaths and injuries. A major part of the reason why vacuum excavation is becoming the future of construction digging is its capacity to prioritize safety.
When digging around critical underground cables and pipes, vacuum excavation supports damage control by mitigating the risk of puncturing lines or wells. Because there are no moving parts making contact with underground utilities, construction workers can carry out digging projects without disrupting essential infrastructure or incurring the major expense of property damage. It also leaves a minimal impact on the environment and eliminates the need to employ tools that could destroy the surrounding ecology.
Cleaner Work Sites
Since vacuum excavation enables crews to simultaneously vacuum soil and debris into tanks while digging, it prevents the buildup of large piles of dirt and debris. That helps prevent soil deposits from significantly tarnishing streetscapes and clogging up storm water systems. An essential result of digging via vacuum excavation is both cleaner holes and less cluttered work sites.
With organizations and associations pushing for both safer working conditions and less risky digging methods, state and local regulations are evolving in such a way that construction managers must pay attention. In order to fully heed government mandates, it’s necessary to employ the most compliant methods for digging. Vacuum excavation, with its safety-centered approach, makes proper compliance much more attainable.
The equipment employed for vacuum excavation is immensely more advanced than traditional options. This equates to faster, more precise, safer projects requiring less manual labor and overall risk. Ultimately, these factors contribute to decreased project expenses and greater profitability in the long run.
With so many smart advantages to vacuum excavation, it’s no wonder why the market for equipment is exploding. Construction operators are poised to leverage this technology now and into the future to keep their crews safe, optimize project plans, minimize risk and maximize profitability. As the technology continues to advance, so will the opportunities for employing vacuum excavation at construction sites everywhere.
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