High-Tech Work Drives Healthy HDD Market

July 29, 2015

The horizontal directional drill market has been healthy in recent years, as utility contractors and their fleet managers have seen this country’s dependence on new technology lead to additional work.

More on how equipment managers handle HDD fleets.

“Whether we’re talking about advanced technology in energy sources like natural gas, wind and solar, or connectivity technology like telecommunications, DSL and fiber optic installations, directional drills have become an extremely popular solution in connecting infrastructure where excavation or trenching isn’t practical or cost effective due to rehabilitation requirements,” says Josh Beddow, marketing manager, Toro.

Cost of Ownership

Pullback (lb.)Avg. priceHourly rate*
To 7,000$90,558$40.22

*Hourly rate represents the monthly ownership costs divided by 176, plus operating cost. Unit prices used in this calculation: diesel fuel, $3.46 per gallon; mechanic’s wage at $52.33 per hour; and money costs at 2.125 percent.
Source: EquipmentWatch.com

“Overall, HDD unit sales have been increasing over the past three years, with an average increase last year of about 10 percent,” says Seth Matthesen, senior product manager, HDDs, for Ditch Witch. “Smaller, more compact rigs are driving the improved sales, while larger rigs that were popular during the oil and gas boom are seeing less overall unit sales.”

Properly sizing the HDD rig to the application is a key factor in the decision-making process. There are a number of factors for fleet managers to consider throughout the selection process, Beddow says.

First and foremost, the fleet manager should consider the general size and scope of the project. A few questions that need to be addressed before making an equipment decision are: the total length of the run; the outer diameter of the pipe to run; the materials and ground conditions at the boring site (clay, soil, cobblestone, boulders, etc); and challenges above ground to consider (tight spaces, traffic, fences, existing infrastructure, etc.).

“When the unit will be used primarily for longer applications, contractors will also want to select a unit that offers faster connection and breakout speed,” according to Beddow. “Rigs that fit this description will offer open-top vice wrenches that provide the operator clear visibility to the tool joint.”

Fleet managers should also look at personnel. If the crew is made up of operators with minimal experience, the fleet manager should consider features that will help new operators become highly productive—such as the ability to operate a drill using single or dual joystick modes depending on the conditions.

Beddow also recommends that managers take the time to talk to operators before making a selection.

“To ensure that the drill they purchase matches their needs, fleet managers should work hand-in-hand with operators to determine the minimum thrust, torque and drilling fluid requirements that will allow them to complete all the bores they plan to perform—not only now, but also for the life of the machine,” he says.

Contractors need to remain cognizant that even by selecting a directional drill that has integrated features that help keep the operator safe and comfortable, operator fatigue is still a challenge on the job site.

“Toro’s horizontal directional drills offer operators the ability to switch from single joystick mode to dual mode, depending on the complexity of the bores,” Beddow says. “This gives operators the added control when needed, but doesn’t require the dual mode in simpler boring projects.”

Operators’ stations have also evolved to fit user needs. The Ditch Witch JT9 operator’s station features an advanced display that provides all engine diagnostics, and an ergonomic seat that slides fore and aft so drill-pipe handling requires less operator reach. “A compact frame combines 9,000 pounds of pullback force with easy maneuverability, a combination required on many residential job sites,” Matthesen says.

In addition, crews have driven changes in HDD attributes such as sound reduction and speed. Vermeer’s new D23x30 S3 Navigator used customer input to achieve sound reductions

The company says its D23x30 S3 offers significant gains in sound reduction, making it well-suited to working in congested commercial and residential areas, as the quieter working environment makes for less neighborhood disturbance. The unit has a 99 dB(A) guaranteed sound power level and an operator ear rating of 78.7 dB(A).

“The D23x30 S3 is the ideal drill for utility installations up to 6 inches in diameter and in compact or congested areas,” says Jon Kuyers, senior global product manager, underground, for Vermeer. “The D23x30 S3 helps address today’s operational challenges and provides a low cost of operation due to its power-to-footprint ratio.

“It has a carriage speed of 206 fpm, a rotational speed of 219 rpm, and enhanced rod breakout efficiency,” Kuyers says, giving operators the ability to install more linear feet per day.

“An onboard self-diagnostic system empowers contractors to make machine adjustments when required and helps to maximize productivity,” he says. Telematics-wise, the Vermeer InSite Fleet remote monitoring system is an option on the D23x30 S3.

Safety considerations

Fleet managers will want to look for features in their HDD rigs that minimize risk to their crew. For instance, Toro’s DD 2024 and DD 4045 HDD units feature dual stabilizers on each side of the unit that can be independently adjusted for increased stability on uneven ground.

It’s also important for the crew to know where existing utility infrastructure is located.

“To help keep operators safe, some manufacturers offer integrated alert systems that notify the operator of a potential electric line strike,” Beddow says. “Toro’s Zap Alert system allows operators to perform the functions of a specific job safely and without the added risk of coming into contact with existing electrical infrastructure.

“Another feature on premium HDD rigs that can help minimize risk on site is the exit-side lockout system,” Beddow says. “This is essentially a device that crew members on the end of the drill string must use to lockout any potential inadvertent drill string activation while tools are being changed or products are being hooked up for the pull back.”

Ditch Witch’s Matthesen stresses that rotating product is a safety risk. “Stay away from product being installed,” he says. “Ensure swivels are operating properly and that there are no kinks in connections. Also, never use pipe wrenches on the drill string. Use the proper tools provided with your drill to change out tooling.”

Have a maintenance plan

A non-functioning HDD rig can mean delays that negatively impact contractors’ bottom lines.

“Fleet managers should work to develop and implement a preventive maintenance plan to ensure that the HDD rig lives a long and productive life,” Beddow says.

“Managers should consider a maintenance plan that includes time for cleaning and a machine inspection at the end of each day, and use the opportunity when applying grease after cleaning to take a close look at various areas of the machine. This will allow them to easily identify and resolve maintenance issues in order to be ready for the next day’s job.

“These are long-term investments, and by working with a reputable equipment dealer, fleet managers can protect that investment,” Beddow says. “With a proper preventive maintenance plan, HDD rigs can provide utility installation solutions for decades.”