Pneumatic Tools Offer Low Cost Alternative to Raw Excavation for New Water Line Installation

September 29, 2008

Had any callbacks from customers lately demanding that you fix their landscape after you open cut their front lawn to install a new a water line? 

Maybe you've had confrontational comments such as, "You put in the wrong flowers;" "The grass isn't growing back like it was;" "There's a ditch line where you excavated;" "The new tree you planted is dying;" or, "The concrete you poured is flaking!" 

If you have heard any of these complaints - or ones like them - you have a lot of company. 

Many plumbing contractors, asked to replace worn out, leaking water lines from the meter to the house, have opted in the past to dig up their customer's yard using a small skid-steer excavator or a backhoe. Both doing the excavation yourself and subbing out the actual cutting can put you in the hot seat for complete restoration of the landscaping once you are done. 

As a result of the decision to open-cut the yard to install a new water line, a contractor never really knows what his costs for a replacement project will truly be. Callbacks are always costly in terms of time and labor, fuel, materials and even machine rental. Open cutting is considered by many to be the cheapest method - up front. But is it really cost-efficient if you consider the potential for backside expenses related to callbacks? 

A technology that has been around for a number of years is getting extra notice by plumbing contractors who now see extra business and lower overall costs in replacing water lines. Pneumatic boring tools, powered by air compressors, have been increasingly used to punch a hole under the landscape from the city connection to the home. With only two small operating pits, boring with small-diameter pneumatic boring tools minimizes excavation, and the jobs are typically done at one-third the costs and one-third the time. Listen to what some experienced water line installers have to say. 

Oroville-Wyandotte Irrigation District
Oroville, California

"We have been using pneumatic piercing tools for two types of service-line installations for the past eight years. We currently use the 3-inch HAMMERHEAD MOLE pneumatic piercing tool to install 1-inch diameter or 1 1/2 -inch diameter copper lines in both rural and urban locations. 

"We will often use the tool when we provide new water service to a rural customer. We have 6500 customers and 141 miles of treated water pipeline. Frequently, we will get a new rural customer. If the main is on opposite side of the road from the new customer, we will use the HAMMERHEAD MOLE tool to pierce under the blacktop at a depth of three feet for roughly 25 feet. 

"We could open-cut the two lane blacktop, but the costs are much greater than using the pneumatic tool. By using the pneumatic tool, we have to dig only two small pits. With open cutting, we would have to cut a 1-foot- to 2-foot-wide trench, 3-feet-deep all the way across the road. With the line in, we have to haul in sand, backfill, and base rock, and often have to come back and pave it. In our area, delays in getting material are frequent. We often cannot get backfill material on time, or the asphalt plant might not be operational. Then, we have to lay down a temporary cold mix until we can get the paving material. 

"I am sure the material costs vary region to region, but the biggest cost is time. With the pneumatic tool, we can do one of these jobs easily in a day. Open cutting often would take three days, and those often are not consecutive days, so rescheduling of men and machines was a constant headache. 

"The second type of installation in which we use the pneumatic tool rather than open-cut is our rehabilitation program. In any given year, we are replacing 34,000 feet of urban water lines. Last year, we were working in a location where the deteriorating, existing main was in an alleyway behind the homes. We relocated the new main to the street and in front of the homes. In this case, we took the responsibility of running the service lines from the main to the meter and from the meter to the homes themselves. 

"We used the 3-inch HAMMERHEAD MOLE exclusively on 100 house drops. We punched 2-feet-deep under retaining walls, with average run lengths of 20 feet, to get to the service to the house. 

"Once the tool punched through, we attached a cable on the end of it and then reversed the tool back to the launch pit. Then, we used the cable with a compression sleeve that hooks on to the end of the copper and pulled the copper through the hole. We could have used a small excavator and dug up the front yards, all the way up to the house. But then, we would have been responsible for replacing their sidewalks and lawns, making sure everything grew back, with the same trees, and same flowers. It was really nice to have this tool. We never had to get adversarial with the property owner over their perception of the restoration job. If we had open-cut, it would have been significantly more expensive with the replacement of landscapes and sidewalks." 

Fleet foreman
Baton Rouge Water Dept.
Baton Rouge, Louisiana

"In Baton Rouge, the road crews have been rebuilding roads milling the asphalt down 18 inches before repaving with concrete. We have a lowering crew, which has been checking out the location of the existing water lines to make sure they are deep enough. In some cases, they have been running new services under the roads. This crew has been using the 2-inch HAMMERHEAD MOLE tool to punch anywhere from 30 to 50 feet under these roads. The crews have been getting a lot of use from these tools, putting in an average of 50 new services a month. 

"In these situations, we have been pulling in 1-inch-diameter PVC lines for the new services. We never had the option of open cutting; the city would not let us do that because of their road-milling and repaving project." 

Mr. Rooter Franchisee
San Francisco, California
Former Regional Director for Mr. Rooter, Central United States

"When I was regional director for Mr. Rooter, the franchisees in Texas used HammerHead pneumatic tools all the time so they could go trenchless and save excavation time and money. Typically, a customer would build an addition to their home, and all they would currently have is a 1/2-inch waterline. Because of the addition, they would need to get larger diameter service to the entire residential system. 

"To get more water volume into the house, they would upgrade to a 3/4-inch line, or to a 1-inch line. To reroute the water line, they would use the pneumatic tool to punch in a new bore for the larger new line. This has the potential for saving the owner of the product time and money when doing a job. Instead of digging a 40-foot trench, you'll only be digging two small holes, which create a huge cost savings. 

"I told the Mr. Rooter franchisees that the pneumatic tool technology gives the franchisee and the homeowner another option. With more than one way to put in a new line, the Mr. Rooter franchisee can say to the homeowner, 'Instead of jack-hammering your driveway or sidewalk, we can punch in a new line under the driveway or sidewalk; instead of removing the big tree in your yard that goes over the line, we can go underneath.' By giving the customer a choice, chances are the homeowner will choose the option that will be the fastest and do the least damage to the landscape." 

The pneumatic tool technology offers the franchisee a way to grow his business. Since there is a lot less restoration work, and the actual job can be done in one third the time it takes for an open- cut job, there's plenty of extra time for a greater volume of business - which means increased revenues.