According to the Common Ground Alliance, the United States includes more than 20 million miles of underground utility lines. Damages to buried water, sewer, gas, telecom and electric lines cost an estimated $30 billion a year. And those numbers are rising.
These two trends help explain the growing demand for vacuum excavators in underground utility work. Unlike backhoes or compact excavators, vacuum excavators use pressurized air or water to remove material. This minimally invasive method can reduce the risk of damage to utilities or worksite injury. It’s a versatile, efficient tool for a range of applications — from locating and excavating utilities to construction projects and drilling.
“Vacuum excavators give crews a safer way to excavate around utilities,” says Adam Bates, product manager for Vermeer. “It really is a soft digging process.”
“They’re not just being used to support horizontal directional drilling (HDD) anymore,” says Chapman Hancock, product marketing manager for Ditch Witch. “Vacuum excavators are ideal for jobs like mapping underground utilities, potholing or daylighting ahead of work crews and jobsite cleanup. In today’s world, vacuum excavation can be a standalone business.”
Knowing the right tool for the job
Manufacturers such as Vermeer and Ditch Witch offer a wide array of options — including trailer and truck-mounted models, vacuum pumps capable of excavating 500 to 6,400 cubic feet of material per minute, along with different-sized water and spoil tanks. Getting the most out of a vacuum excavator calls for understanding the equipment, the project and the conditions.
“The size of the vacuum pump depends on how much material you need to excavate,” says Bates. “The size of the spoil tank is determined by the volume of spoil generated — along with how far you need to transport it. How much time do you want to spend on the job versus on the road? If you’re excavating all day, you’ll want a large vacuum and a large tank. But if you’re mostly hauling fluid, you may have a small vacuum and larger spoil tank.”
“One of the first things to define is whether this is a CDL (Commercial Driver’s License) or non-CDL application,” says Hancock. “That can quickly narrow the choices. What’s the footprint of the jobsite; is it wide open or a narrow, restricted area? The bigger the tank, the longer the trailer or truck. Is there fresh water available? If not, you’ll need more fresh water capacity onboard to stay on the job longer.”
Soil conditions play a critical role. Air excavation is ideal for softer, loosely compacted soil or sand. Hydro excavation can break up hard, compact dirt or clay, even rocky soil. But with hydro excavation, contractors always need to factor in travel distance, state or local weight restrictions on transport and the cost of transporting backfill.
“Identifying cost-effective disposal sites close to the jobsite is really important,” says Bates. “To know what type of vacuum excavator you want on the job, you have to know what your fluid management strategy is.”
“With trailer-mounted models, you have to consider the tow vehicle, as well,” says Hancock. “You’re not only looking for the right vacuum excavator, but also the best vehicle to get it safely to and from the jobsite. You don’t want to put a lot of wear and tear on vehicles if you don’t have to. That goes straight to the bottom line.”
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Getting the support you need
When profitability depends on keeping equipment up and running, finding the right partner for service and support makes all the difference.
“Our worldwide dealer network includes locations in every state,” says Hancock. “They’re a go-to resource — offering expertise on local ground conditions, answering questions on what equipment to use and providing dedicated service and training. It’s all about preventing downtime and maximizing productivity and efficiency.”
“Different customers have different needs,” says Bates. “Some do all their own service work. Others rely on the dealer for everything. We’ve worked hard to make sure these are reliable machines. So they’re not going to require a lot of maintenance or be in the shop all the time. When they do need servicing, we try to get them back out on the job as quickly as possible to keep operating costs down.”
Where vacuum excavators go from here
As the demand for vacuum excavators grows, utilities and contractors expect even more from this versatile equipment.
“The market is trending toward larger, more powerful vacuum excavators,” says Bates. “They dig faster and transport more material in one trip, keeping them on the job longer so they can be more productive while they’re there.”
“The latest advancements in the industry focus on productivity,” says Hancock. “How do you get to the next job quicker, while still being safe and doing the job right? Blowers and water pumps are becoming more efficient — delivering more suction at the tool, yet drawing less power from the engine source. If you can run a larger blower on the same powerplant, that means you’re using fuel more efficiently.”
“Manufacturers are looking at matching the right tank capacity to the payload capacity of the chassis or trailer,” says Bates. “In addition, they’re paying more attention to noise levels. A vacuum excavator is not a quiet piece of equipment. Getting the noise level down improves operator comfort and minimizes the disturbance when working near homes and businesses. Customers are starting to ask for that.”
“Vacuum excavators aren’t just being towed over the highway; they go everywhere,” says Hancock. “Our new HX line is engineered with a lower, narrower profile and higher ground clearance. It’s engineered to get in and out of alleyways, hop curbs or go down rights of way. We’re also focused on ways to make this equipment easier to use, like using common controls across different models.”
“We really listened to customers about the challenges of finding disposal sites, wanting to stay on the job longer and operating at or below roadway limits,” says Bates. “Last year we launched the XR2 vacuum excavator. It actually separates solids from liquids while hydro excavating, combining the capabilities of a reclaimer and a vacuum excavator. Technology like this could be a game-changer for utilities and contractors.”
“We pride ourselves on knowing what matters most to customers,” says Hancock. “What kinds of issues are they facing, day in and day out? That drives everything we do.”
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