Hydroexcavation Specialization Spells Success for Minnesota Contractor

Mike and Heather Morehouse may have taken a narrow view of the market when they founded Davids Hydro Vac in 2009 in White Bear Lake, Minn., but their disciplined focus on providing hydroexcavation and vacuuming services has resulted in a broad range of customers and a successful, fast-growing business.

Hydroexcavation“Our total focus is on hydroexcavation — from small water and sewer projects to major gas pipelines,” said Mike Morehouse, who gained experience and learned lessons about the market while working for another hydroexcavation contractor. “We don’t backfill or do any site prep or restoration. Hydroexcavation is the way of the future, and we are passionate about being the best at what we do.”

The Morehouses’ passion and focus has resulted in a long list of satisfied customers, including energy and pipeline companies, utilities, local governments and construction contractors. Located just 12 miles north of downtown St. Paul, Davids Hydro Vac provides hydroexcavation services in the Twin Cities area, throughout Minnesota and in Wisconsin, Iowa and the Dakotas.

For Davids Hydro Vac, the versatility of hydroexcavation has proven valuable in a number of unusual projects. Morehouse described a recent project in western Minnesota for a pipeline company that was directionally drilling to install a 24-in. gas mainline under the Minnesota River. An engineering miscalculation resulted in a breach of the drilling area and a substantial spill of drilling mud into the river. Though technically not a hazardous material, the drilling mud needed to be cleaned up to prevent any potential harm to local wildlife.

“We had to get the vacuum hose out into the river, and it took a couple of weeks to clean up the spill, but we got it done,” Morehouse said. “We used one of our Vactor HXX HydroExcavators, and even with the hose stretched out several hundred feet into the river, we got plenty of vacuuming power.” Morehouse explained that the pipeline company contained the spill and provided Davids Hydro Vac access to the contaminated area through equipment already staged onsite for the drilling project.

HydroexcavationIn another remediation project, Davids Hydro Vac recently used its hydroexcavators to clean up a mudslide at a suburban Minneapolis high school football stadium.

“The spectator stands are built into a hillside that partially washed out after some heavy rains. We were called in to clean up about 40 cu yds of material that had washed down the hill and accumulated under the front of the stands,” Morehouse recalled. “Any other method of cleanup would have required dismantling part of the stands and damaging the field. Our Vactor HXX let us reach and remove the material without destroying or disrupting anything.”

On the Job All Day, All Year

Davids Hydro Vac works year-round, even on holidays when necessary. “We’ve worked on Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s Day and Easter — usually to handle emergency power outages involving underground power lines,” Morehouse said.

To keep its hydroexcavators on the job throughout the cold, upper-Midwest winters, Davids has equipped the Vactor HXX trucks with optional cold-weather packages that include auxiliary heating of the water tank to prevent freeze-ups. “We’ve never had one of our Vactor HXX trucks freeze up on us,” Morehouse attested, adding that the trucks are kept in the company’s 5,000-sq-ft, heated shop building every night.

“Regardless of the season, hydroexcavation is a great technology,” Morehouse said. “It offers laser-like accuracy to create an excavation of nearly any size, shape or depth. It lets us dig the perfect trench. There’s absolutely no comparison between the accuracy of hydroexcavation and traditional hydraulic excavators.”

In addition to accuracy, Morehouse said safety is another important benefit of hydroexcavation. “Some of the older gas and oil substations don’t have good schematic drawings available — they were either lost or drawn incorrectly — so hydroexcavation is the only safe way to discover some of the underground infrastructure at these locations,” he noted.

Davids Hydro Vac takes safety and training very seriously. “We have monthly safety meetings, and we practice fire-fighting every year,” Morehouse said. “We hope to never have to put out a fire, but it’s important to know what to do in any safety-related circumstance.”

Specialists in Hydroexcavation

“Hydroexcavation is all we do,” Morehouse said. “A power company might decide to buy a hydroexcavation truck, but they find they don’t have enough work to keep it busy all the time, and the operator winds up running a skid steer or a backhoe and just never gets very good at operating the truck.”

According to Morehouse, Davids Hydro Vac keeps the same operators with the same Vactor HXX trucks all the time. “A full-time operator will hear little differences in the truck and know something is wrong,” he said. “A part-time operator may not be that aware, and a little problem can quickly become a big problem.”

Standardizing on equipment has helped efficiency and productivity. “We have four Vactor HXX positive displacement units,” Morehouse said. “They are top of the line digging machines, ideal for a variety of excavations and capable of excavating more than 250 ft out, making them perfect for those hard-to-reach areas.”

Each Vactor HXX truck is fitted out on a Kenworth T800 chassis and equipped with dual cutting wands to increase productivity, 12-cu-yd debris bodies to handle large loads and minimize trips off site for dumping and 1,200-gal water tanks to keep working longer between refills. “The Vactor HXX trucks allow us to offer air excavation, which is ideal when dealing with contaminated soil,” Morehouse pointed out.

Bring On the Competition

Morehouse admitted that the hydroexcavation market is becoming crowded with competitors, but he welcomes the opportunity to outshine other contractors. “We have been working hard to earn a name for ourselves as a company that will go above and beyond to meet the needs of our customers,” he said. “We aim to provide superior work and great service, with an ultimate goal to be the best the industry has to offer. We understand how to make every minute count on the jobsite and are committed to offering our customers cutting-edge technology and expertise to get every job done as safely and efficiently as possible.”

In addition to its equipment fleet, Davids Hydro Vac also serves its customers by maintaining access to a network of more than a dozen dumpsites and water fill stations throughout the Twin Cities area, enabling the company to pass along time- and cost-savings to its customers.

The company also has nurtured a skilled, loyal workforce. “In our five years of operation, we’ve only added employees — we’ve never had to fire or lay off anyone,” Morehouse said. “We now have nine employees, and they’re all trained and certified.”

Many customers have their own job-specific training requirements, so Davids Hydro Vac works closely with them to make sure its crews are ready for whatever projects come up. “We require a laborer to work on jobs for a year before becoming an HXX operator,” Morehouse said. “It takes a while to understand the physics of the equipment, what it can do and how to approach every job, because every job is a little bit different than the one before.”

Morehouse looks forward to adding permanent Davids Hydro Vac locations in other states. “We’ve had inquiries from all over the United States,” he said. “But we need to study the markets to determine an expansion timeline.”

Ben Schmitt is a Product Manager for Vactor Mfg.

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