Rock Trenching Opens Door To Growth

By Randy Happel | September 28, 2010

Here's a look at how the decision to buy specialized equipment opened the door to business growth for a Tennessee contractor.

There was a time when some folks in Lebanon, Tenn., were concerned that Eddie Conrad had gone a little crazy. His company, Conrad Construction, was primarily in the business of building roads. So why would he suddenly decide to buy equipment designed to cut through rock? Most told him to stick with building roads.

"It actually became a joke," Conrad recalls. "When we first started talking about trying to cut rock, people laughed. They would say 'Can you believe he is trying to saw a rock?' Fortunately the joke turned out to be something that actually does work and that can be done. It's a good thing because I would have never lived it down."

It's safe to say that he hasn't had to.

To be sure, Conrad has built this company by sawing rock. Today Conrad Construction has 40 employees and a fleet of 16 trenchers — the company workhorses and the foundation of the business.

Conrad Construction has been doing battle with the rugged Tennessee terrain since 1974, when Conrad got bored with the aircraft industry and decided to buy some equipment and start paving roads. But it wasn't long before the he ventured into trenching in advance of the building boom. Now trenching is pretty much all they do.

"As time went on we got into trenching infrastructures, waters, sewers — pretty much anything to do with subdivision work," Conrad recalls. "I bought my first Vermeer trencher by accident and it did a remarkable job so we just stuck with the one brand. They pretty much got us where we are today."

Trenching Versus Other Methods

When blasting rock, or when using hammers and excavators, it is nearly impossible to control the resulting composition of the spoil, limiting the amount suitable for backfill without additional steps and added expense. Blasting is also not suitable within close proximity of buildings or homes.

By contrast, rock trenching equipment produces spoil that is uniform in size, making the majority of the spoil available for backfilling. It also reduces concerns with noise and safety.

Environmental And Logistical Concerns

Conrad is serious about his company's obligation to do whatever it takes to preserve the natural landscape and topographical integrity at every site and on every project.

"In all probability, if you blast within 50 feet of a creek bed, the creek will have a tendency to branch out and follow the blasted ditches," explains Conrad. "Streams that struggle just to maintain merely a trickle during dry months would most likely be dry 90 percent of the year. This is devastating to aquatic life and the balance of the ecosystem. But by trenching we can dig along, or through — even underneath a creek bed and not risk disturbing the natural flow."

A Challenging Sewer Project

Currently, Conrad Construction is installing 47,000 feet of PVC pipe for a new sewer system in a subdivision near Mount Juliet, Tenn., to connect with the city's main sewer system. The subdivision has long been established and is comprised primarily of homes that are 40 to 50 years old — all situated on some of the hardest rock in Tennessee.

When the area was first developed, there was no sewer system so each home required an individual septic system. After several years, many of those systems began to fail, prompting city officials to take action — and to begin asking whether or not such an undertaking would even be possible.

Conrad Construction came to the rescue.

"Without trenching, this project would most likely not have been possible," asserts Conrad, adding that blasting might well have compromised the structural integrity of most houses in the development since most have concrete block foundations and stucco.

After being awarded the contract, Conrad dispatched a crew with two Vermeer T955 track trenchers, plus a Vermeer T855 model, and went to work. The project includes a 10-inch main trunk line along with adjoining 8-inch lateral lines, installed in a 24-inch-wide track and dug on 4-percent grade. A Vermeer T755 trencher was subsequently added to tackle the final leg of the project, trenching an additional 6-inch service line that will ultimately connect each house to the system.

"This part of Tennessee has very little topsoil," explains Conrad. "There's normally only about a foot of dirt, and then you start to hit the rock. And the rock can run very deep. It takes an extremely skilled and knowledgeable operator because the type of rock keeps changing. We've encountered some stuff that's running in the 40,000-psi range, but we just keep grinding away. We're making good headway."

Operator Skills Critical

Conrad is quick to emphasize that trenching equipment is really only as good as the operator.

"It's all about the operator," he says. "A good operator can just sense and feel that machine. He knows when to load it, and knows when to back off. It takes his constant attention to know how the rock is changing and how to adjust the machine accordingly. It takes several years for an operator to acquire the skills that maximize the machine's performance while minimizing repairs and breakdowns."

Depending on the composition and density of the stone Conrad's operators may encounter on any given day, each machine will travel about 50 feet per day through tough limestone. Conrad is pleased when his operators report a 120- to 130-foot day, but he is well aware that the stubborn Tennessee stone can, without warning, humble his operators once again. On those days, Conrad believes that it's not necessarily about the amount of distance traveled, but more about the fact that eventually the stone will surrender.

Sure, he's pleased to be winning. But he's more proud that he's setting a good example by not dismantling the integrity of the terrain or defacing the property of the residents whose foundations are firmly established on his opponent — the tough Tennessee rock.