Traditional excavation approaches, or those that employ mechanical excavators, have long been relied on for digging up ground areas at various types of work sites. In many cases, the use of these machines and methods is still appropriate and practical, usually when and where ensuring precision is not a major factor. Over time, however, the construction industry has evolved to accommodate the accuracy and safety needs of crews, particularly as they relate to digging in, near or around areas that contain underground utilities.
Today, soft digging is an increasingly popular option for excavation professionals. Whether your project is located in a big city or a rural area, there’s a good chance the excavation activities will occur within striking distance of at least one underground utility line. From gas and electric to water and sewer—and even telecommunications—our country’s underground infrastructure spans a wide, interconnected area of utility zones.
As both construction and utility crews plan for critical excavation projects, it’s important to understand the distinct applications for (and benefits of) soft digging. Here, we’re exploring some of the most important reasons why soft digging excavation is the perfect solution for any projects that may involve, or be in close proximity to, underground utilities.
What Is Soft Digging Excavation?
Soft digging is the practice of removing ground materials, such as soil, sand, mud, dirt, clay, rocks or roadbed, through the use of vacuum excavation methods (as opposed to traditional tools and approaches involving harsher, mechanized equipment). A soft dig leverages air- or water-based vacuum implements to enable the exposure of surrounding utility lines without causing damage to them.
Here’s a quick, simple rundown of the two different types of vacuum excavation:
- Hydro excavation, sometimes referred to as hydrovac or hydro trenching, is a type of soft digging that utilizes highly pressurized, heated streams of water to break up ground materials. That soil is then suctioned out through heavy-duty vacuums and stored in nearby debris tanks or trucks for transport off site. Hydro excavation is typically ideal for large projects, lower temperatures and/or more compact soil conditions. It’s a fast, economical and versatile method that minimizes wear and tear on vacuum machinery.
- Air excavation, also known as airvac, pneumatic or air-knife excavation, uses compressed air to break up the ground materials before siphoning them through a vacuum hose. This process’s unique ability to backfill dry soil and debris means there’s no need to transport or dispose of wet, muddy material after digging. And because air compressors provide for an infinite supply of the pressure needed to dig, you don’t have to worry about “refilling” during the excavation process. Air is also nonconductive, which can make this method a more suitable choice when working around live electrical wires.
When & Why Is Soft Digging Excavation Applied?
Given the aforementioned characteristics of soft digging via water or air, particularly its non-mechanical nature, this option is an effective means of safe and precise excavation around utilities. Both methods are powerful, efficient and risk-preventive practices that have become increasingly leveraged for a host of excavation projects, especially those that warrant a softer approach than the brute force of traditional tactics.
Soft digging excavation is a perfect match for utility-related work and areas where utility strikes are a concern. Some suitable applications include:
- Wintertime projects for which frost and frozen ground are a challenge, particularly in northern locations. Because soft digging methods like hydro excavation are highly adept at managing cold-climate issues, excavations can be completed faster, more easily and with significantly minimized risk to underground infrastructure.
- Tight spaces where traditional excavation equipment would not readily or easily fit, or where damage to the surrounding landscape and ecology must be prevented. Soft digging methods provide an opportunity to minimize destruction and access small work spaces.
- Work near old or fragile utility lines, or locations where there’s a lack of comprehensive and detailed plans to mark the underground lines accurately. Even where mapping is available, soft digging is an excellent opportunity to daylight subsurface utilities for more exact locating capabilities and optimal visibility.
What Are the Greatest Advantages of Soft Digging Excavation?
It’s true that soft digging offers a wide array of benefits for excavation projects, and most specifically those involving utilities. Here are some of the most notable reasons why this option has become the preferred method of excavation:
- Injury Prevention: There are few things less risky in the dangerous world of excavation than the threat of striking a gas pipe or electrical line. To mitigate the risk of explosions, fires and digging-related deaths and injuries, it’s paramount to employ safe practices and thwart surprises. For this very reason, soft digging methods are strongly encouraged for projects operating around utility lines.
- Mitigation of Utility Damage & Service Interruption: In much the same way that the inherent qualities of soft digging promote worker safety, this method also counteracts the risk of causing major damage to underground infrastructure. If a backhoe or other form of heavy machinery comes in contact with a utility line, there’s the potential cost of service interruption, repair and an extended project timeline. The precision and gentle nature of soft digging addresses these challenges head on.
- Compliance & Cost Effectiveness: State and local regulations surrounding excavation practices have evolved to accommodate the safety of workers and minimize the potential for utility damage. To stay compliant, crews must opt for the safest, most precise methods, which often include soft digging as a way to fastidiously maneuver utility lines. Given compliance repercussions and the many costly risks associated with certain traditional excavation methods, soft digging gives companies the opportunity to save a great deal of money over the course of time.
Excavation is—and will continue to be—necessary for the undertaking of many types of construction and utility projects. Whereas traditional processes often pose significant risks to people and profitability, soft digging excavation has enabled these projects to be conducted in a much safer and more effective way.