Serving most of Northern Illinois as one of the largest gas distribution companies, Nicor Gas supplies natural gas to more than 2 million customers in 643 communities.
Nicor Gas customers are connected to the company’s 34,000 mi. of distribution system that interconnects with Nicor’s own storage facilities which supply the distribution network. From connections to individual homes and businesses through main pipelines, maintaining this distribution system is a key element in providing safe and year-round natural gas to all of its customers.
To accomplish this requires trained construction and maintenance crews and a variety of equipment, much of it highly-specialized.
Any time construction or maintenance is performed; the goal always is to safely limit disruption of normal activities and possible damage of surface improvements made by property owners. And in many residential areas, work is complicated when it must be done in areas with limited access.
In such conditions, the company has used compact walk-along vibratory plows with a small backhoe attachment, said Arnold Hartley, fleet management supervisor for Nicor Gas. Vibratory plowing permits direct burial of small-diameter pipe without trenching and can reduce the amount of restoration necessary. The small backhoe can be used for a variety of excavation tasks at the meter and also at the main if requirements are within the range of the backhoe’s depth capabilities.
Two years ago, Nicor Gas decided to try a new type of machine that had just been introduced. Designated an “excavator/tool carrier,” Nicor Gas configured the compact, track-mounted machine with a backhoe on the rear. Dual attachment arms on the front can accommodate more than 70 specialized attachments. The operator is seated in an operator’s station that provides a clear view of all front work operations; the seat pivots to the rear for backhoe work.
What sets excavator/tool carrier equipment apart from other equipment is a dual-pivot design that enables the backhoe to make offset excavations along a drive or walk, building, or fence — a task that is impossible for conventional backhoe or the small backhoe attachments on the compact walk-along machines previously used. The boom has one pivot point at the front of the machine where the boom is connected to the tractor. A second pivot is near the center of the machine beneath the floor of the operator’s station which rotates the boom assembly, including the boom swing pivot while the cab remains stationary.
To offset dig, the assembly is rotated in one direction by the center pivot, and the boom is swung at the front pivot point in the opposite direction. The maximum excavator range from side to side is 260 degrees.
“The design of the machine and the variety of changeable attachments available were definitely the two main factors in the decision to try it,” said Hartley. “As far as we know, these are the only machines with these features. Since purchasing the first unit — a Ditch Witch XT850 — we have added 15 more to our fleet. We also recently purchased a larger one, the Ditch Witch 1600.”
Hartley said the machines are primarily used to install service lines of half-inch diameter HDPE pipe. The compact size is important, he added, because machines must go through gates to work in fenced back yards and in courtyards of multiunit housing.
“The machines give us far more versatility than a machine with limited functions,” he said. “The primary attachments we use are a trencher unit, vibratory plow, and hydraulic breaker. With one basic machine we can dig a trench, load dirt, do vibratory plowing, and connect a hydraulic breaker for concrete, asphalt, or frozen ground. Attachments for the XT850 do not fit both models. The XT1600 utilizes a common industry standard mount that most skid-steer-type attachments fit.”
The excavator tool carriers have changed the makeup of the Nicor Gas equipment fleet.
“The XTs,” Hartley continued, “have predominantly replaced the walk-behind machines and in some cases enabled us to downsize from large 90-hp rubber tire trenchers, allowing us to reduce fuel and replacement costs, and to use smaller trucks and trailers to transport them.”
Each machine is transported on a special trailer with special mounts to hold attachments and accessories, so the crew has everything needed for a job.
Another benefit of the XTs has been extending the work season.
“The walk-behind models were considered nine-month-a-year machines,” said Hartley. “During the winter months they couldn’t be used. We first thought of the new machines in the same way, but we’ve discovered that even though we can’t trench or plow in deep frost, we are able to work more in the colder months of the year and use the breaker attachment to cut through frost for tap holes and other types of gas line maintenance.”
Based in Naperville, Ill., Nicor Gas is owned by Nicor Inc., a holding company. Nicor Gas has provided safe and reliable natural gas services for more than 50 years.