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HDD Proves Valuable in Rural Iowa Water Projects

Thu September 18, 2003 - Midwest Edition
Jeff White

As one might guess, a rural water district in the Midwest — especially Iowa — by its very nature may cover hundreds of square miles of farmland, prairie, and forest, with a small to mid-sized town here and there. Not typical surroundings for an HDD crew.

But, Kevin Lyons, construction superintendent for a district covering 10 counties in central and west-central Iowa, has spent the last six years developing a cost- and time-effective strategy that involves HDD and trenching crews working together.

He noted that trenching makes up about 95 percent of their installations.

So, they probably own an HDD rig or two just to get by? Actually, they own more drills than trenchers, and they’ve proven to be tremendously valuable in performing jobs trenchers simply cannot.

Xenia Rural Water District covers all or portions of Adair, Boone, Dallas, Greene, Guthrie, Hamilton, Madison, Polk, Story and Webster Counties. And, preliminary engineering is completed for all or portions of Calhoun, Humboldt, Pocahontas and Wright Counties.

The district was founded during the drought of 1977, when many area residents were forced to begin hauling in water as their wells went dry. It’s now organized under Chapter 357A of the Iowa Code, funded in part by USDA Rural Development, as well as by Community Development Block Grants.

By August 1981, when the district officially received initial funding from FmHA, 640 users had contracted for service.

At the end of last year, there were more than 6350 users and about 2700 mi. (4,345 km) of pipe in the ground. The district has expanded at a steady pace over the last 20-plus years, and officials estimate the growth rate now to be as high as 400 to 500 users per year when new projects are at their peak.

Between land development and repairs, Lyons has three teams out in the field, and tries to keep crews on all three of his regular drills working at once.

In addition to running three mid-sized Vermeer NAVIGATOR HDD units — a D18x22 model and two D40x40 models — Lyons also manages the use of a Vermeer D55x100 for occasional longer bores.

“We have our drills working out ahead of the trenching crews,” Lyons said. “We primarily use them at roads and creeks, and sometimes in tough, crowded right-of-ways, or when the area is wet and we’re concerned with erosion problems.”

Typical bores are about 200 ft. (61 m), he added. Engineers will specify HDD on some projects, and when discussion regarding the most effective method is warranted, Lyons is brought in to help decide what’s best.

The rationale is simple: open-cut or trenching is faster and less expensive when there are no underground or above ground obstacles to contend with. But when there are, his HDD crews and units are ready, and trenchless methods are usually imperative. This is a testament to the fact that neither trenchless nor open-cut methods can or should completely replace the other, no matter what the setting, Lyons said.

“Sometimes, we encounter property owners that want us to bore everything, primarily because they’re concerned with the need for restoration.” “But, obviously, it does not make sense to bore all the time. So when we’re trenching, we just do our best to get the area back to its original condition, and homeowner satisfaction is top-of-mind.”

One recent job west of Madrid, IA, provided an ideal setting for an HDD application — conditions that would have been very challenging, if not impossible, for open-cut methods. After a Xenia crew had used a trencher to bring water service to an area where there were six houses along a county road, 4-in. (10 cm) water mains were necessary.

The final portion of the job required a challenging crossing of a deep culvert that drained a pond from one side of the road to the other (underneath).

Xenia Rural Water employee Vern York and his crew used the Vermeer D18x22 NAVIGATOR drill for the 400-ft. (122 m) bore. Although the bore length was a bit longer than is usual, and the line size was an inch or two bigger, it took the crew only about four hours to complete that portion of the job. It would have been very difficult, if not impossible, to use the trencher in this instance.

For a rural water district, Xenia was a bit ahead of the curve, buying its first HDD unit, a Vermeer D16x20 NAVIGATOR., in April 1997.

Although Lyons was not part of that original purchase, he came on-board shortly thereafter. He believed then, and still does, that the purchase made sense.

Six years later, Lyons is responsible for assigning work to four drills and three trenchers — all Vermeer models also (a T555 track trencher, a T655 track trencher and a V5800 utility trencher).

Underground Challenges

Roads, creeks and the occasional building or parking lot are obvious instances in which HDD is used rather than open-cut. But Lyons also refers to “crowded right-of-ways.”

Some areas have a large amount of marked fiber, phone or utilities in the ground. “Whenever we have existing lines, it’s easier to pothole locate and bore. Most of the time, we’ll try to go around a crowded area, but sometimes it’s unavoidable,” he said.

Lyons’ crews encounter challenges rarely faced by their counterparts working in urban settings: underground field tiles, often near farmland and roads. These are particularly difficult to work around, because unlike existing utility or cable, they’re virtually unknown and undetectable. Luckily, Lyons said, they’re easily repaired, if necessary. But it’s still a hazard of working in rural settings.

Crew Training

Lyons is quick to note that HDD operation is a specialty that requires extra training. He takes the need for experienced operators very seriously, sending crews to schools conducted by the Vermeer Iowa dealer once a year.

In addition, Vermeer salespeople and mechanics have conducted extensive training on maintenance and safety on the job site and at the shop. “The Vermeer salespeople have really gone the extra mile with training our employees,” Lyons said. But, in the end, crewmember time around the machine is still crucial.

“On-the-job experience is a great thing,” Lyons added. “Some of our guys have been around for awhile, and we depend on them to pass knowledge on to the new guys.”

Lyons predicts that HDD will continue to be a crucial part of his operations, particularly as right-of-ways become more crowded and as semi-suburban development spreads into rural areas.

(Jeff White is a writer for Two Rivers Marketing Group in Des Moines, IA)