Field Versus Shop Repairs, Maintenance for HDD Rigs

Featured In: Underground Construction

Underground Equipment Maintenance: 3rd In A Series

Owners and operators of horizontal directional drilling (HDD) equipment recognize the importance of keeping equipment in good operating condition. Well- maintained drill rigs perform better, are more productive, less likely to break down and maintain their value better than those that are poorly maintained.

However, the pressure of work schedules at times keeps machines in operation past scheduled maintenance. Equipment owners also must develop procedures that ensure equipment maintenance schedules are performed on time.

Equipment owners also must determine whether to self-perform maintenance or go to a third party, usually the nearest dealership of the manufacturer of the drill unit. That decision is influenced by many factors such as the number of HDD units operated, sizes of the machines, proximity to dealer facilities – to name just a few. Small operators may not have shop facilities or personnel to maintain and make repairs. Large contractors may have shops, mechanics and service trucks.

Underground Construction magazine asked representatives from construction companies of various sizes how they balanced the necessity of regular maintenance with heavy workloads and who performed routine maintenance.


Networx Cabling Systems (NCS) President Bill Tippett said experience has taught him performing scheduled maintenance is not an option, but a necessity.
“When we got started,” he said, “our attitude was ‘go, go, go.’ There wasn’t time to interrupt work for service. However, we learned short-term pain [stopping to perform service] brings long-term gain. Patience and wisdom come with experience.”

Networx is based in northern Arizona, about three hours from equipment dealerships.

“We do all routine maintenance ourselves, but for any heavy stuff, we send the machine down to the dealership or they come up to us, depending on workload and scheduling requirements,” Tippett said.

Tippett uses factory replacement parts for the company’s drill units. “We’ve found aftermarket products typically are not as good as those from the manufacturer,” he said.

The distance between NCS’s location and HDD dealerships affects immediate parts availability.

“Vermeer has put a parts locker in the shop and regularly stocks it with the most-often needed replacement parts,” Tippett said. “That has significantly reduced shipping expenses.” NCS operates four Vermeer and Ditch Witch drilling units, all with pullback of less than 50,000 pounds.

NCS has prime contracts with several local cable companies and provides excavation, directional drilling and other services to general contractors, electricians, plumbers and communications providers, as well as municipalities, state agencies and area gas utilities.


For Houston-based Triumph Cabling Systems, regular maintenance is simple.

“We have our dealer do it,” said Henry Garcia, Triumph president. “They have the facilities and trained people who know what they are doing and do it every day. Our job is installing communications cabling, and we are very good at it. We do what we do and let the dealership keep our equipment in good condition.”

Triumph operates 20,000-pound Ditch Witch HDD equipment and has an equipment manager responsible for scheduling needed maintenance. The dealership has service trucks that perform scheduled maintenance of equipment on job sites, Garcia said.

Triumph Cabling Systems is a full service low-voltage network cabling and underground contractor, specializing in the installation of voice, data, fiber optic, DAS, audio/video, outside plant and underground services.


Drillworx Directional Drilling, Choctaw, OK, does cable replacements for the electrical service provider in the Oklahoma City metropolitan area. The company currently operates eight Ditch Witch HDD units, all in the 20,000-pound pullback class.

“We do 90 percent of all maintenance,” said owner Rick Winsett. “We also make repairs. We have a shop with three mechanics. If schedules permit, we bring equipment to the shop for maintenance. During busy times, we may make repair over the weekend. We also have two service tracks equipped to do maintenance in the field.

Cable East

Robert Wall, president of Cable East, Statham, GA, said his company has reached the size it can justify an in-house service department and shop.

“Our goal is to maintain equipment internally – HDD equipment, vehicles – everything,” Wall said. “However, as equipment becomes more advanced, it’s a challenge to keep our maintenance people and mechanics trained. We use as much technology as we can, GPS to monitor location, hours of operation, maintenance schedules, as well as diagnostic tools for repairs. Yet, we depend on dealers for parts and support.”

Cable East is a specialist in telecommunications construction and currently operates 12 Vermeer HDD rigs ranging from 9,000 to 36,000 pounds pullback.


Gabe’s Construction Co., Sheboygan, WI, is a fourth-generation family business serving the utility and pipeline industry since 1942. Gabe’s services include HDD, telecommunications engineering, construction and locating, and underground utility civil work.

Gabe’s operates large American Augers and Vermeer HDD rigs ranging from 140,000 pounds to 625,000 pounds of pullback and Vermeer utility HDD equipment from 7,000 to 80,000 pounds of pullback.

“Performing regular maintenance is very important to keep drilling and support equipment running so crews can stay productive,” said Nick Atkin, vice president of operations.

Gabe’s has a full-time shop manager and staff that service and repair HDD equipment.

“Preventive maintenance is performed both in the shop and in the field, depending on circumstances. Most repairs are done by the shop and/or crews with support assistance of dealers/vendors. If we encounter difficulties, we call the dealer to assist in getting the machine back up and running. Both factory and will-fit parts are used,” Atkin explained.

“Utility rigs are repaired in shop unless there are electronic problems, and then we go straight to the dealer.

“If a rig comes back to the yard, we go through and do service and repair on it,” Atkin said. “If on the job, it is serviced there. When a machine is in between jobs in a lay-down yard, it is serviced by a mechanic in a field truck before the next job.

“On maxi rig projects, the foreman notifies the HDD operations manager of any needs for service and or repair. Also for maxi-rigs, a semi-van trailer is used as an on-site shop/warehouse for service and repairs. That’s common among maxi-rig contractors, because keeping machines going on jobs with large crews with schedules is crucial. Basically, we need to be self-sufficient and get factory people involved if we are having an issue in which our crews/shop cannot fix or problem solve.”

In conclusion, Atkin said it is much more efficient to be ahead of the curve in replacing/rebuilding equipment before a component is damaged or a machine fails.

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