There is a large and growing demand for vacuum excavators throughout North America. While performing soft excavation of existing utilities and suctioning up used drill slurry are still among the most popular applications, contractors outside the utility industry are using these versatile machines for everything from digging holes for posts to cleaning out the drains at car washes. Columbus, Indiana’s Gehring Underground Inc. is finding a new way to help contractors by establishing MidWest Trenchless Rental and investing in a dedicated fleet of various sized vacuum excavators.
Vacuum excavator experts
According to Matt Chamberlain, safety manager at MidWest Trenchless Rental, Gehring Underground is in its 25th year of operation and 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,” he 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, either asking if they could send out a potholing crew to assist on a job or if they had any vacuum excavators that could be rented out. 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. So in 2016, with the creation of MidWest Trenchless Rental and dedicated rental machines, a new niche rental concept was 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 machine best fits each customer’s needs and where all the area approved slurry dump sites are located, and 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 Vac-Tron vacuum excavators from Vermeer MV Solutions,” said Chamberlain. “Our underground business runs Vac-Tron 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.”
Carrying the right brand of vacuum excavators at MidWest Trenchless Rental is essential, because not every customer knows how to operate these machines. “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 Vac-Tron models are pretty darn intuitive, which means customers will have a better rental experience. We also know that with Vac-Tron 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 Vac-Tron vacuum trailers in its fleet. For its customer base, they choose diesel trailer-mounted systems with 500 to 800 gallon (1,892.7 to 3,028.3 L) debris tanks. “The Vac-Tron 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 gallon (757.1 L) freshwater tanks, 3 in. (7.6 cm) diameter suction hose and 1,000 cubic feet per minute (28,316.8 L/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 who have been contracted to do 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 using them to dig in shallow electrical lines, sign installers, and utility companies digging holes for posts and poles. Chamberlain said they have even rented vacuum excavators out to car washes, fencing contractors and farmers. “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, dictating that all nearby lines be exposed and often specifying the digging methods used in the process. “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.”
Cori Walsh is a marketing specialist for Vermeer MV Solutions.