Horizontal Directional Drilling Operator Training Pays Dividends


HDD operator training

For over a decade, the team at Rays Electrical Services in Elgin, Illinois, has worked diligently to earn the reputation of being a quality residential and commercial electrician for the greater Chicago area. Since Ray Sakolari opened the company in 2008, he’s made a commitment to employees, customers and family that training would always be an essential part of the company’s business model.

It’s that commitment that has help Rays Electrical continue to grow and expand into new areas of services including underground utility work. Investing in training and making sure everyone on his team is cross-trained and always learning keeps everyone at Rays Electrical in high demand by a growing client base all year long.

One of the major milestones for Rays Electrical happened in 2013, when the team was contracted to install propane stations for large number Menards stores around the area. “We used to contract out a lot of our underground utility work, so to be able to perform all the work ourselves, we purchased a Vermeer D16x20 Series II Navigator horizontal directional drill (HDD) from the team at Vermeer Midwest,” explained Ray. “We also brought on experienced directional drilling operators so we could get started quickly. The drill continues to work great. But, bringing on reliable drill operators was a challenge. Some didn’t know as much as we needed them to know, and others weren’t dependable.”

Ray, a trained electrician himself, understands how important a quality education is to the mastery of a craft. So, after cycling through a few drill operators, he decided to seek out a reputable source for directional drill operator training. “We had too much current and future work depending on our HDD crew to not have stability in that area of our business.”

Operating training experience

Consulting with Matt Lind at Vermeer Midwest, Ray learned that Vermeer offers an intensive horizontal directional drilling operator training course at its Pella, Iowa, headquarters. Ray immediately signed himself up for the Vermeer HDD Circuit training program in 2017. During the two-week drill operator training course, Ray split his time between hands-on drilling, locating and mud mixing course work, and the classroom.

“Beside hands-on time, I also learned about tooling, mixing additives, drilling calculations and establishing standard operating procedures to help ensure everyone is working efficiently and safely,” Ray explained. “The four-person HDD Circuit program team also walked through best practices for daily machine maintenance and explained the importance of checking utility locates with potholing. There was an incredible amount of information packed in those two weeks.”

Sharing the experience

Upon returning from the HDD Circuit program, Ray sat down with his wife and business partner, Lisa, and their son, Andreios, to discuss how they could share his drilling operator training experience with the team.

“We immediately developed and implemented our own standard operating procedures to help everyone work better together,” said Ray. “Those changes alone have helped propel the growth of the company.”

Rays Electrical customers noticed his team’s professionalism and reliability, which led to more referrals.

“It wasn’t long after going through the HDD Circuit program that we started talking about adding another drill,” said Ray. “Ultimately, we decided to invest in a bigger horizontal directional drill and purchased a Vermeer D23x30 S3 Navigator HDD. We also added a Vac-Tron LP Mini 303DT trailer vacuum excavator for potholing utilities and HDD mud management.”

Training the team

With more work to do, employees to manage and machinery to operate, Ray wanted others on the team to get formal operating training, too. Lisa and Andreios attended the HDD Circuit in 2018. Since then, several other members of the team have participated in various drill operator training courses.

“We’ve grown our knowledge and confidence, and it shows in our daily performance on the job,” said Lisa.

Andreios added that operator training also aids with cross training crew members. “Having multiple people with formal directional drilling training means employees will get the same information and direction,” he said.

HDD training sometimes pays off in unexpected ways. Rays Electrical team recently wrapped up installing a 200-ft, double 2-in. electrical conduit project at the Amazon Distribution Center in Romeoville, Illinois. “It seemed like the job should be straight forward,” said Ray. “But, as we went through our operating procedures ahead of drilling, we realized the ground conditions were going to be next to impossible for a regular horizontal directional drill. Under the parking lot sat a Grade 9 glacial sherd with an 8,000 psi dolomite mix.”

After using GPR and a McLaughlin CS418B core saw to locate and pothole utilities under the concrete, the crew found the harsh ground conditions. They turned to Alex DeGaetano and Matt Lind from Vermeer Midwest to determine their best course of action.

The group decided to convert the bore to an open cut install using a Vermeer RTX1250i2 ride-on tractor equipped with a rockwheel.

“A lot of contractors may have attempted just to push through, causing unnecessary wear on machinery and tooling,” said Lind. “The Rays Electrical team knows better. They seek out the right solution in everything they do, which saves time and helps make equipment last longer.”

The rented RTX1250i2 with a rockwheel from Vermeer Midwest allowed the team to open the trench up in just five hours. They then placed the electrical line and backfilled. In total, they were only on site for a couple of days — something Lind said would have taken more than a week with drilling.

Christine Smith is a product marketing specialist with Vermeer Corp., a NUCA Sustaining National Partner.

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