Hydroexcavation Contractor Gets Creative on Project in Downtown Philadelphia

From:  Dig Different Magazine   Written By:  Cory Dellenbach 

Pennsylvania’s Ecotech Hydro Excavation removes 3,000 cubic yards from below a hospital for an expansion project.


Ecotech Hydro Excavation crews got a big challenge when they took on a job to expand a Philadelphia hospital. The job called for removal of 3,000 cubic yards of debris using 400-plus feet of hose and pipe, working in tight spaces and finding a way to break up the material.

“It was definitely a challenge,” says Ryan Frank, operations manager. “We just needed to think outside the box and get creative.”

The air excavation and hydroexcavation company based in Quarryville, Pennsylvania, wasn’t afraid to tackle the job, which spanned nine months. The company takes on work throughout Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland and other areas of the Northeast.

“This has been one of our biggest and toughest jobs,” Frank says. “It was a lot of the worst-case scenarios of every aspect of what we do.”

Taking on the job

The downtown Philadelphia hospital was undergoing an expansion, but it couldn’t go any higher than its nine stories because of ordinances, and there was no room to expand laterally.

“The best option was to expand down,” Frank says. “There was an area in the center of the hospital that was just a crawl space and not a full basement, so that is where they would add extra offices.”

The general contractor was given the option of building a temporary hallway within a permanent hallway; laborers would hand-dig the soil into 50-gallon drums. The drums would then be carted out of the building and emptied into a dumpster. After the drums were cleaned out and brought back in, the process would repeat.

“One of their guys thought about vacuum excavation and they contacted us,” says Frank. “A total of 3,000 cubic yards of dirt, rocks and bricks had to be removed. Our estimate for the job was around $650,000 and the bid for doing it with the drums came in at $1.3 million, just to get the material out of the hospital. So there was a substantial cost savings going with vacuum excavation.”

Ecotech crews determined that the only way to get to where the excavation would take place was through crawl spaces and utility access areas in the lower level of the hospital. “We set up the vacuum truck outside at their loading dock area and ran 400 feet of pipe and hose into the center of the hospital,” Frank says.

The company’s GapVax HV-56 hydroexcavator was parked on the opposite side of the road away from the hospital, and its boom was stretched over the road to allow cars to pass underneath. The hose was positioned over scaffolding on the sidewalk closest to the hospital, giving pedestrians a safe place to walk.

A need for stronger pipe

Crews used 6-inch PVC pipe connected to 6-inch hoses from the hydroexcavator to the center of the hospital.

In the first few days on the job, workers were already running into issues. “Our initial problem was that everywhere there was a bend in the pipe, the pipe would want to blow apart from the rocks,” Frank says.

Crews also had two elevation changes to contend with: a 17-foot drop into the work area, and a 20-foot upward incline out of the work area. “Trying to keep productivity up in that long-distance remote excavation was a big factor,” Frank says. “One thing we found is that the elevation changes made a tremendous difference.”

Debris going down the hose became more of an adversity than the material going back up. “You had to have so much cfm to get the material to pull 400 feet, but you couldn’t have the cfm up too high,” Frank says. “When that material would hit the downslope it would come screaming down that hill, build up too much velocity and damage everything it came into contact with.

“Anything plastic or metal on the hose was just wearing through because the material was dry and very abrasive. The pipe also had to be light enough for two men to carry it through a crawl space.”

To deal with these challenges, crews switched to 5/8-inch thick-walled pipe made for waterline installation and used heavy rubber elbows to make the bends.

Finding easier ways to work

Finding a way to break up dirt to vacuum was another challenge.

“An air knife wasn’t a possibility and other air-spade tools like jackhammers were incredibly slow,” Frank says. “We ended up finding an electric mini-excavator that we pushed through the hallways of the hospital on a wood skid and dolly.”

Crews connected the mini-excavator to the available power source and as one worker used the machine to break up dirt, another vacuumed it.

“The GapVax kept up,” Frank says. “The material we were able to pull out of the building was going faster than what we could get broken up, so the truck and mini-excavator worked well in tandem.”

Ecotech was allowed just one truck on the job site. Two vacuum boxes were set up near the truck.

“Once we had the material in the truck, all we had to do in the middle of the day was switch hoses and move it to one of the two vacuum boxes,” Frank says. “We didn’t have to move the truck and we could just keep on working.”

Gaining confidence

The new offices in the hospital’s basement were completed in late 2015.

“Inside the hospital no one even knew Ecotech was there working or that there was construction going on,” Frank says. “We all worked really hard and did a great job. All parties involved were impressed and happy with the end result.

“More than anything it gave us confidence knowing there wasn’t a job we couldn’t successfully do.”


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Underground Maze of Utilities Solved with Ecotech

underground utilities

Next time that you get stuck in traffic, think about the traffic jam that is below you. There are over 35 million miles of in use and abandoned utility lines that are causing a huge traffic jam underground. Between the labyrinth of pipes, conduits and cables, it is difficult to tell what is dead or alive, because most utilities that are no longer in use remain underground.

Traditional digging can yield unwanted surprises and deadly consequences — especially in older parts of the cities where old utility lines (such as water and sewer) are still in use and undocumented.  When coming across these undocumented lines, all work must stop until workers know exactly if the line is live and if it is safe to dig. This delay costs time and thus costs money. While newer plastic pipes are often color-coded to indicate their function, older pipes were often made of similar materials, making them difficult to differentiate, adding even more to the confusion to the underground maze of utilities.

There are so many chances to get it wrong, to dig near unmarked (or incorrectly marked) lines: About 400,000 utility excavations occur every day across the United States, making it incredibly difficult to put something new underground without having some sort of conflict with other utilities underground.

The 811 “call before you dig” free service, is in place throughout all 50 states to help identify and locate underground utilities to prevent damage, injury and death; but industry experts say the system isn’t faultless.

The latest utility locating technology such as electromagnetic locating devices and ground-penetrating radar, have their limitations. Buried steel railroad, streetcar tracks, old brick or stones can all interfere with the locating devices making it difficult to know for sure if there is or is not an underground utility.

Records of what is underground and what is live are many times incomplete or nonexistent. In the past, recording what was underground was not as effective as it is today. Today, utility companies take their responsibilities very seriously when it comes to marking and protecting their utilities from strikes, but the utilities that were not marked in the past, are still present. No matter how accurate lines are marked going forward, the lines of the past will most likely always be there due to the high cost of removal.

It’s common to assume hand digging with a shovel is the safest way to dig when digging around known utilities, but this notion is not entirely true. Almost 20% of utility line hits are caused by shovels. Vacuum Excavation, whether using water or air, is the ONLY safe way to dig. The high pressure water or air is at a psi that will cut the soil with razor like precision, but is not strong enough to damage utilities.    Each year, millions of miles of new utilities are put underground, joining a mix of old and new pipes that snake through the ground at varying configurations and depths, increasing the amount of utilities and likeliness to hit something using traditional excavation methods.


Works Cited:

Excavating in Remote Locations

Vacuum Excavating in remote locations is similar to traditional hydro excavation, except instead of working right off the boom of the Vac Trucks, an industrial vacuum hose is run up to several hundred feet from the truck to the location that is difficult to get to.

Remote Vacuum Excavation is used to solve many problems in regards to difficult excavation locations. Some of these problems are:

  • Low overhead clearance, inhibiting the truck to get close to the location
  • Tight spaces, that the truck cannot fit through
  • Unstable soil, that would be dangerous for the truck to drive on
  • Underground utilities that are close to the soil, that cannot be driven over

Whenever these barriers occur in excavation projects, remote excavation is a great tool to excavate those hard to reach places. The truck can be parked away from the difficult excavation site and the pipe can run all the way from the truck to the excavation site.

Advantages to Remote Vacuum Excavation

  • There is no need for hand digging, that can be incredibly slow, strenuous, and can damage delicate utilities
  • Low Clearance spaces can be avoided
  • You can remove the material up multiple stories with the high powered vacuum
  • Excavating around the maze of underground pipes and utilities with vacuum excavation removes the risk of damaging the utilities.
  • Excavating in narrow spaces, places with low clearance, or anywhere else a machine or truck cannot reach is made easy and simple with vacuum excavation
  • You can excavate indoors (in basements for example), where other excavation equipment can’t reach without having to hand dig.

If you or your company has a difficult project, that you have no idea how you will be able to excavate because of its location or sensitive utilities feel free to call us at 1-855-463-2683. We will be happy to come to your job site, at no cost to you, to evaluate the project and provide you with some options that we can hopefully provide for you to complete your project.

Top Ten Myths about Underground Utilities

“Depths of utilities can be assumed.”

Locator depths are estimations, because the surface grade often changes since the time that the utilities were originally installed. Many times utilities are installed before excavation, fill and development happen that can change the surface grade dramatically.  The depth of utilities can never be assumed. Even small portions of utility lines that are as small as a city block can dip or rise in depth. It is important that utilities are exposed to verify their exact location and depth.


“It will never happen to me mentality.”

It is easy to think a utility strike will not happen to you, because you have never had a disastrous strike before, but utility strikes happen every day and it is important to never skip safety measures. Cutting corners, rushing to get the job done, getting lazy or complacent on the job, can all lead to major consequences.


“Exposing to the depth of the utility is good enough.”

Only exposing the depth of existing utilities is not proper practice and may violate OSHA regulations. Along with exposing the depth of utilities, you must also verify that no utilities are hiding underneath and always expose to the depth of the intended bore path. Visually observe the drill head as it passes the utility, and again during each pass of the reamer. The reamer can shift in the bore during pullback and strike a utility that appeared to have plenty of clearance.


“Just drill deeper to avoid existing utilities.”

Drilling deep creates problems such as locating and exposing for current and future excavation. At approximately 10’, locators become less accurate with locating the underground infrastructure. If the existing utility goes undetected, an underground strike can occur. Also, best practices dictate that the existing utility being crossed be exposed to the depth of the intended bore. That is difficult for deeper bores and if the line at that depth is ever damaged, the utility will have to dig deeper requiring a longer response time and greater expense.


“Sewer lines don’t need to be or cannot be located.”

If a sewer line is damaged during the installation of a utility, the sewer will eventually clog because of the intersection of the newly installed utility. To relieve the clog, a plumber will run a snake into the sewer and can damage the intersecting line. If it is an electric line, the plumber could be electrocuted. If it is a gas line, the gas can migrate into the sewer and ignite once inside homes or businesses.


 “No locate marks = no utilities.”

If there are no marks, this could mean that it was not yet located. Many states have a positive response system so that it can be verified that all utilities have cleared the area.

On-site, privately installed lines may not be recorded by the utility companies or located by the locating service. Inspect the area for evidence of underground activity, disturbed and repaired soil or pavement, utility boxes, conduit coming out of the ground, etc.


“My responsibility for damage prevention ends when I call 811. If something happens, 811 is liable.”

811 does not locate utilities. They coordinate with the utilities and their contracted locating services to have the area located. It is the responsibility of the excavator to verify that locates have been completed and are accurate. This includes contacting utilities that don’t subscribe to 811, looking in the area for signs of utilities (outbuildings, pipeline markers, light poles, utility boxes, meters, etc.) and exposing the utilities to verify the locates. If an excavator damages a line, there are always costs to bear and effects on reputation.


“Exposing utilities (potholing) is included as part of the contract price for the drilling.”

This shouldn’t be assumed. To ensure potholing activity is included and is not shorted, it is recommended to separate this activity from the drilling in the quote. The project owner and contractor should work together to emphasize this as an important and integral part of the job.


“We have to accept whatever the caller gives us.”

When a contractor calls the Call Center or Utility, both parties have to be explicit and detailed with the information provided so an accurate and safe locates can be made.


“Electric strike alert systems can predict an electric strike.”

In some cases, the system may activate in the proximity of an energized line, but it cannot be relied upon to detect the line before a strike happens.  If the electric strike system activates, always assume an electric strike has occurred.

Some strike systems detect a strike using only voltage detection via a voltage limiter. The voltage limiter is located away from the machine on a ground stake and detects the voltage difference between the ground stake and the drilling machine.

Other strike systems use both voltage and current detection. In addition to a voltage limiter, a current coil detects current flowing through the drill string.  The system will only activate the alarm when voltage, current, or a combination of both voltage and current is above threshold limits.

For either system, if the alarm sounds, assume a strike has occurred.

Other strike systems use both voltage and current detection. In addition to a voltage limiter, a current coil detects current flowing through the drill string.  The system will only activate the alarm when voltage, current, or a combination of both voltage and current is above threshold limits.

For either system, if the alarm sounds, assume a strike has occurred.

For the original article and more information, visit ICUEE.

Benefits of Vacuum Excavating

From:  Keeping Our Finger On The PULS

By:  Ryan Frank, Ecotech

Vacuum Excavation is a non-mechanical, non-destructive way of safely exposing buried utilities.  This process also allows for workers to stay on the surface and out of the excavation. By virtually eliminating accidental line damage and trench cave-ins.  This is the only true method for identifying the accurate depth of a utility. 

As part of an overall damage prevention program especially when dealing with high value utilities, we always recommend vacuum excavation to expose all utilities in the proposed path of excavation.  For projects where high volume vacuum excavation services are needed, and with large quantities of spoil being removed from the job site, we partner with Ecotech.

Ecotech’s hydro excavation team uses high pressure air or water to expose buried utilities.  This process allows us to dig through any type of soil including clay, rocky soil, or even frozen earth without damaging buried utilities or harming underground lines.  A vacuum hose then transfers both soil and water to the debris tank on the truck.

It is against the law to dig with traditional excavating equipment without a 1Call and the risk of digging without knowing where to dig is just too great.  Whether you are excavating near an electric line, water or sewer pipes, or a fiber optic cable, with traditional equipment and even digging by hand. 

This means that the ability to physically determining on-site the location, nature and depth of underground utility services is critical to reducing the risk and consequences of inadvertent damage during construction.  If it’s underground, and it’s delicate, expensive or dangerous, you should be using vacuum excavation in order to visually confirm the location of the utilities before you dig.   



Hydro-Excavation: Versatile and Safe

By Ron Weber, Assistant Marketing Manager, Vac-Con, Inc.

The real beginning of Hydro-Excavation dates back to the California gold rush of the 1800’s where miners used steam pump-pressurized water to erode soil. This process was called hydraulic mining.  It wasn’t for well over a hundred years that such processes as vacuum, water pressure systems and heat were introduced to better the “art of controlled erosion ”

Utility companies and contractors are becoming more and more aware of the benefits of hydro or vacuum excavation. The versatility and safety is certainly at the forefront of those benefits. As more and more customers focus on those two key areas, the industry will continue to develop and evolve in many different ways.

Safety made easier

When comparing vacuum or hydroexcavation to traditional digging, some of the advantages are that there is less material removal, cleaner cut footprint, and there is minimal post-excavation restoration. The big advantages of vacuum excavation as it pertains to safety is the ability to safely uncover buried utilities, i.e. no floods, explosion, fires or power outages causing inconvenience or damage to public and people. These are all important areas to consider before digging.  Trench rescue is another area related to vacuum excavation safety.  While it might be uncommon, it is an effective, safe and quick way to remove material.

Trench rescue situations usually are the result of mechanical excavation or a trench that simply collapses on a worker. It is a major safety-related issue when comparing traditional digging to vacuum excavation.

Versatility opens opportunities wide

The other big advantage of hydro or vacuum excavation is its versatility.  Most hydro-excavators come with either front or rear mount booms that have eight and ten foot boom extensions. Some of the versatile jobs that a hydro-excavator can do relate to plumbing, post installation (light posts, road signs, traffic lights, etc.), construction, landscaping, locating utilities (gas, fiber optics, etc.), potholing/day lighting, slot trenching, debris removal, cold weather and remote digging. Those are all examples of ways to safely, and effectively do many different jobs using hydro-excavation.

Safety can be compromised at any time when traditional digging occurs. One recent example of an underground utility strike happened in October 2012 and was fairly catastrophic. It affected thousands of people, disrupted traffic control and cost millions of dollars. On Monday, October 8th, 2012, Alaska Airlines, the 7th largest U.S. airline had to temporarily ground and delay hundreds of flights because their Sabre ticketing system was taken off line when two Sprint fiber optic lines were severed. The first cut, an underground line, occurred at a construction site along railroad tracks between Chicago and Milwaukee. The second cut, an aerial line, occurred somewhere between Seattle and Portland. Passengers were stranded throughout the west coast, and some experienced lengthy delays. This situation could have been prevented had they not used conventional digging methods.

Safety and versatility remain the biggest advantages of vacuum or hydro-excavation. Using water and vacuum to dig can definitely save in costly repairs and in time.  Its versatility allows for increased flexibility when working on a difficult job. The vacuum and hydro-excavation market is still in its early stages in the U.S., but the future certainly looks bright.