There is a large and growing demand for vacuum excavators throughout North America. Performing soft excavation of existing utilities and suctioning up used drill slurry are still among the most popular applications. However, contractors outside the utility industry are using these versatile machines for everything from digging holes for posts to industrial cleaning. Columbus, Indiana’s Gehring Underground Inc. found a new way to help contractors by establishing MidWest Trenchless Rental and investing in a dedicated fleet of vacuum excavators.
Vacuum excavator experts
According to Matt Chamberlain, safety manager at MidWest Trenchless Rental, Gehring Underground is in its 27th year of operation. The company invested in its first vac system nearly two decades ago.
“Gehring Underground has grown significantly since we first opened our doors, and we’ve run a lot of different vacuum excavators during that time,” Chamberlain explained. “We’ve had the luxury of owning and demoing machines from many different manufacturers, so we know what works and what lasts. It’s that knowledge that has helped us earn a solid reputation in the vacuum excavation and horizontal directional drilling market around Indianapolis and throughout the state.”
As Gehring Underground’s reputation grew, so did the number of calls the team received. They received frequent calls about sending out a potholing crew to assist on a job and inquiries about renting vacuum excavators. Before long, these types of requests and their own work began outpacing what Gehring Underground’s 16 trailer and four truck vac crews could respond to in a timely matter. The company created MidWest Trenchless Rental in 2016 to help. With dedicated rental machines, a new niche rental market had been created.
What makes it work
“There are a lot of rental stores around the area that stock excavation equipment; but niche trenchless machines, including vacuum excavators, are pretty hard to find. And unlike the typical rental store, every one of our folks has a ton of field experience running what we rent. That makes a huge difference,” said Chamberlain.
Along with their collective experience, the MidWest Trenchless Rental team also understands which type and size of machine best fits each customer’s needs and where all the area-approved slurry dump sites are located. They are willing to send out an operator or crew when needed — similar to a crane hire rental operation.
The other key to MidWest Trenchless Rental’s business model is having a good selection of quality vacuum excavators.
“Having worked through the process of determining which systems are the easiest to operate, have the best performance-enhancing features, and have a long service life, we landed on Vermeer vacuum excavators,” said Chamberlain. “Our underground business runs Vermeer units almost exclusively, and those crews certainly put the equipment through its paces, so it made sense that we would stock the same machines in the rental fleet.”
“We make sure to train anyone not familiar with vacuum excavators before any unit leaves the store — we’ll even dig a few holes at our rental yard,” Chamberlain explained. “However, we’ve always felt like Vermeer models are pretty darn intuitive, which means customers will have a better rental experience. We also know that with Vermeer vacuum excavators we can provide fast service support — because if something goes wrong with a rental unit and we can’t fix it, our Vermeer dealer is just a phone call away. Those guys have helped us through the years no matter what time of day it is.”
Growing customer base
MidWest Trenchless Rental currently stocks six Vermeer vacuum trailers in its fleet. For its customer base, they choose diesel trailer-mounted systems with 500- to 800-gal (1,892.7- to 3,028.3-L) debris tanks.
“The Vermeer LP 573 SDT and LP 873 SDT models are universal machines for utility crews and other contractors who rent from us,” said Chamberlain. “They are sized so that even with a full debris tank, customers don’t have to worry about DOT weight limits. The units’ 200-gal (757.1-L) freshwater tanks, 3-in (7.6-cm) diameter suction hose and 1,000-cfm (28-m3/min) vacuum pump are more than capable of potholing in our soil conditions.”
The bulk of the company’s rentals come from out-of-state utility contractors working on a project in or around Indianapolis. To keep travel costs down, they prefer to rent potholing equipment locally.
“Crews will bring their own drills but don’t want to have to bring more trucks than they absolutely have to,” said Chamberlain. “In many parts of the country, renting vacuum excavators isn’t easily done, so they rent a normal excavator — which can put them at greater risk of striking the utilities they are trying to daylight. Our underground crews know this dilemma all too well, so we’re happy we can be here for other contractors.”
Most utility contractor rentals range from a couple of days to a month, depending on how much work customers have in the area and how many utilities need to be located. When MidWest Trenchless Rental’s vacs aren’t being used by utility contractors, they are frequently out on rent with municipalities, electrical contractors, sign installers and utility companies. Chamberlain said they have even rented vacuum excavators out for industrial cleaning work and to help install fencing.
“Vacuum excavators aren’t just a safer soft excavation method — they are also a less labor-intensive way of digging compared to traditional methods,” he said.
MidWest Trenchless Rental also carries several accessories, including jetters and valve box clean-out tools.
Predicting the future
Contractors are under great scrutiny for the work they do every day because of the significant risks associated with utility strikes. Utility companies are adopting more strict standards for the contractors they hire to perform trenchless construction work. These standards dictate all nearby lines must be exposed, as well as the digging methods used to expose them.
“We believe that soon most underground contractors will be required to use soft excavation methods to expose all buried utilities they encounter on a job,” added Chamberlain. “And, given a choice between a vacuum excavator or a shovel, there is no question about which is the better way of exposing a utility — this is why we think vacuum excavator rentals will grow and expand rather quickly. So, while we may be one of the first rental companies catering to the trenchless equipment market, we do think many others will soon join us in this niche segment of the construction industry.
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