HDD: Fundamental Change

By Robert Carpenter, Editor | June 2011 Vol. 66 No. 6

Increasingly, horizontal directional drilling contractors come from every walk of underground construction life. Gas and oil pipelines, telecom, electric and gas distribution were the early adopters of the technology. But as the rigs and affiliated add-ons/complimentary equipment evolved, other underground niches have steadily became believers in the technology.

Water, sewer and a wide assortment of other niches have emerged as viable markets for HDD. For example, installation of geothermal loops is beginning to have a positive impact on HDD work.

“Kind of changed our life,” admitted a Southwest U.S. contractor in Underground Construction’s annual HDD Survey (available online June 13). That simple statement has become very telling for several thousand utility contractors in North America and indeed, around the world. The number of operating rigs continues to steadily climb, even in the midst of a severe recession.

Issues remain. Working for cash flow is still a major problem expressed by contractors in various regions of the country. “How can we stay in business when our competitors are giving work away,” lamented a Midwest contractor. There were several contractors who admitted they averaged only $5 per foot in 2010. Those prices, even for very small drilling projects, are frightening; one hiccup and the job can take your entire company south.

Crossbores remain another issue that industry is struggling to solve. However, constant attention and unfortunately, occasional accidents, continue to keep crossbores on the mind of most contractors. Work progresses on best practices, verification and better pipe locating technologies but there is no silver bullet at this time. Good contactors continue to frequently do their own locating or verification. While not cheap and time consuming, the prevailing attitude is that preventing accidental utility hits is a lot better for business than running the risk of severe damage or loss of life. The industry has come a long ways towards being a good industry citizen compared to the “cowboy” days of the late 90s when risks were ignored and only the job mattered.

For many contractors, life is good. Project backlogs are solid in several parts of the country. Telecom is having a good year. Diversity of directional drilling applications has played a key role for many contractor success stories throughout the recession.