Versatile Vacuum Excavators Reveal Hidden Hazards

By Susan Harmon, Charles Machine Works Product Safety & Compliance Manager

The perils of a utility strike can’t be ignored by contractors and utility operators navigating jobsites with underground construction equipment. The unseen but ever-present dangers are avoidable if proper steps are taken. Fortunately, the HDD industry—and its impressive armory of tools—has risen to meet the challenge.

One of the most exciting tools coming to the rescue on HDD jobsites more than ever are vacuum excavators. These versatile machines are not only speeding cleanup after drilling operations, but they are proving to be invaluable when used on jobs to expose underground utilities.

Within the tolerance zone, vacuum excavators are rapidly becoming the preferred method of soft excavation. In fact, there’s a good reason that more contractors are requiring this practice—the only sure way to know the exact depth and location of a utility is to expose it.

Tried-and-true: Vacuum excavator safety tips

  1. Identify the intended excavation area by marking it with white paint or flags. This helps communicate to the locator and is required by many states.
  2. Before you dig, call 811 to have underground utilities located. But remember, some utility companies only locate to the utility meter, leaving some privately owned lines unmarked.
  3. Safeguard your life with the right protective gear for the jobsite, from eye protection and face shields to high-visibility vests, hardhats, hearing protection, and electrically insulated boots and gloves.
  4. Put a trained utility locator on the job to verify. In 2015, 18 percent of damage events were linked to poor locating practices, as reported by the CGA. Crews should use site information and locators to verify that all utilities are marked accurately.
  5. Document the exact location and depth of utilities. Some utility providers require photos of sites and visual locates before excavation begins.
  6. Expose parallel utilities more often to avoid encroaching on the tolerance zone. When drilling parallel to an existing utility, follow local guidelines for exposing the utilities and to determine frequency of tracking the drill head.  
  7. Pothole to the intended depth of the bore or at least three feet below the utility. Don’t stop at the utility.
  8. Choose your lance nozzle carefully to prevent utility damage. A spinning, conical spray nozzle is the only type recommended for exposing utilities.
  9. Always keep the lance moving—with the tip above the soil surface—to prevent utility damage and damage to the nozzle.
  10. Use recommended pressure settings for hydroexcavation: 3,000 psi or less. Reduce the pressure if using heated water.

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