Vacuum excavation has been an integral component of underground construction and mining operations for such a long time now that many industry professionals rely upon it without considering just how difficult life would be without it. But what was life like before the advent of vacuum excavation?

For underground construction service providers, the short answer to this question is exceedingly simple but absolutely essential. Life was considerably more problematic, more expensive, and more dangerous. There’s no doubt about it. As long as you can find the right equipment and modalities to meet the specific requirements of the project at hand, vacuum excavation can save considerable time and effort while keeping your workers safe from harm.

California Origins

In the early 1800s, people of all walks of life began flocking to California in a race to access the rich deposits of gold and other valuable minerals that had been discovered there. By the mid-1800s, these same California minors had grown tired of the all the dirt, danger, and hard work that goes hand in hand with the mining process. Thus, hydro-excavation emerged as a precursor to the modern vacuum excavation processes that are prevalent today.

From Hydro-excavation to Vacuum Excavation

Rather than digging out mines entirely by hand (a tedious and dangerous operation if there ever was one!), California miners began employing pressurized water, developing a process that they called hydraulic mining, braking up soil without the need to resort to pickaxes and shovels. Historians are unsure exactly when this practice began, but they generally agree that hydrualic mining was relatively widespread by the late 1800s.

Using pressurized steam pumps, the hydraulic mining system was able to wear away the terrain cleanly in record time with considerably less effort and fewer injuries. It was rapidly hailed as a revolutionary way to dig. Rebranded as hydro excavation, it quickly spread throughout the United States and Canada as a widely accepted and often indispensable underground construction practice.

By the mid 1900s, industrial engineers began expanding upon the usefulness of hydro excavation by adding suction into the mix. Pioneered for underground cleanup duties and sewer applications, ad-hoc and prototype “vac” machines used suction excavation methods to rapidly and efficiently remove water and debris from the dig site.

As time passed and technology advanced, excavation equipment rapidly improved throughout the mid to late 1900s, ultimately yielding the “ExcaVactor” and other proprietary hydro excavation machines. Underground Services designed its pioneering SoftDig system in 1959, offering non-destructive vacuum excavation with a specific focus on locating utilities.

The Expansion of the Vacuum Excavation Industry

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, more and more underground construction companies began modifying vacuum trucks and sewer cleaners for vacuum excavation use. Many of these companies removed vacuum components from these units and transferred them to all-terrain vehicles to better access construction and repair sites at remote locations. In order to capitalize on the booming interest in mobile vacuum excavation, manufacturers of heavy machinery began producing new and improved machines, many of which were designed to mount easily to vehicles and trailers.

Spurred in large measure by the innovative releases of these heavy equipment manufacturers, the vacuum excavation industry grew by leaps and bounds in the 1990s. From the center of its popularity in Canada, vacuum excavation machinery and processes spread rapidly across North America. The practice was (and still is) particularly prevalent at horizontal directional drilling (HDD) sites. A fixture on HDD projects, vacuum trucks proved indispensable in cleaning up the drilling slurry and fluids that were inevitably exposed at the entry and exit pits. In general, vacuum excavation aided operators by improving their detection of buried utilities and offering an efficient method of fluid disposal.

By the 2000s, vacuum excavation had established itself within the United States with considerable force. The process is now widely used by utility contractors for a wide range of non-destructive locating and digging operations.

Vacuum Excavation Today

The reasons for the popularity of modern vacuum excavation practices are numerous and varied. Each new generation of machines has evolved to fit the needs of smaller and smaller job sites. At the same time, industry professionals have created larger and larger machines in order to maximize productivity on bigger projects.

Thanks to greater tank capacities, operators are now able to keep machines on the job for longer than ever before. Particularly helpful on projects with tight scheduled timeframes, larger tank sizes lead have led directly to improved contractor profitability.

Other critical design improvements may be less obvious. For example, much care has been taken in recent years to develop vacuum excavation machines that produce less noise pollution. As machines got quieter and quieter, the use of vacuum excavation machines in residential neighborhoods became more and more prevalent.

Within the past 7 or 8 years, vacuum excavation has received a tremendous boost from increasing municipal efforts to avoid damaging existing underground utilities. More and more underground construction contractors are relying on vacuum excavators for damage prevention and utility location throughout the United States.

In 2005, the US Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration found excavation damage to be the leading cause of pipeline accidents. This revelation has created significant incentive among contractors to employ vacuum excavators for utility locating of all sizes.

Much of the R&D efforts of today’s vacuum excavation industry are centered on enhancing manual operation and reducing user error. The ergonomic designs of the latest vacuum excavation machines have helped to keep operators safe and comfortable while working under even the most strenuous conditions.

For More Information about Vacuum Excavation

If you want to learn more about the evolution of vacuum excavation technology and the benefits provided by the vacuum excavation industry contact a qualified underground utility location professional at Underground Services. Doing business as SoftDig, this professional utility locating organization offers a full suite of subsurface utility engineering (SUE) services throughout much of the United States.

A SoftDig representative will be happy to discuss its unique non-destructive vacuum excavation process and answer any questions that you might have. Customers can contact us at (610) 738-8762 or use our request an estimate form. Feel free to also take a look at our portfolio of past work. We look forward to helping you!


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