What Is the Traditional Method of Excavation?

Excavation involves digging and moving or removing earth. Excavation is a common task for construction workers who need to shape the ground to accommodate their building project. Excavation can also be used to remove harmful waste that has seeped into a section of soil. Whatever the reason for excavating land, the main question is what type of equipment to use to accomplish the task.

Typically, construction crews use heavy equipment for excavating, including skid steers, backhoes, loaders, and mini excavators. Though each of these vehicles offers its own unique abilities, essentially, they all share the same essential function — to scoop dirt and move it to another location. This is the traditional way to excavate the land. For minor digging jobs, you may be able to skip the heavy equipment and use a shovel, but the principle is still the same. You dig into the soil, scoop it up and then dump the soil in a new location.

excavation for construction


For some excavating jobs, this traditional method poses a risk. For instance, if you are excavating around a gas line, digging in with a backhoe could result in nicking the line. In some cases, you may not know how far down or exactly where a pipe or an object you want to avoid is located. Another issue with the traditional method of excavating is that it offers no means of containing soil that may contain hazardous waste as it’s being removed.

The traditional method of excavation works well for some applications, but thankfully, it’s not the only option for excavating land. Vacuum excavation offers a safer alternative that lends itself much better to certain excavation jobs.

What Is Vacuum Excavation?

what is vacuum excavation


Vacuum excavation is an entirely different process for digging land. This method is sometimes referred to as a “soft dig.” As the name indicates, this is a gentler way of digging into soil. So, how does vacuum excavation work? Rather than digging into the soil with metal instruments, with vacuum excavation, either pressurized water or air is used to clear an area. As the dirt is displaced, an industrial sludge vacuum sucks up the dirt or mud and stores it so it can be disposed of later.

The two types of vacuum excavation are known as air excavation and hydro excavation. Air and hydro excavation allow you to remove soil and dirt as needed while minimizing your risk of damaging utility lines or other structures under the ground, making these methods an excellent alternative to traditional hand digging or excavating with heavy equipment.

To use vacuum excavation for a project, you’ll need to find a company that has the equipment and experienced personnel to offer this service. The cost will depend on the scale of the project, particularly how long it will take to complete.

applications of vacuum excavation


Applications of Vacuum Excavation

Vacuum excavation can typically be used for any excavation project, but there are some scenarios where vacuum excavation is an especially valuable option compared to traditional digging methods. Let’s look at several types of projects that can benefit from using either hydro or air excavation techniques.

1. Utility Pipe Exposure

One application where vacuum excavation is especially helpful is exposing utility pipes. This practice is commonly referred to as potholing or daylighting. This is often a first step before a larger excavation project. Digging a test hole can reveal where underground utility lines are located so the excavation crew can carefully work around these lines for the remainder of the project.

Even if you think you know where underground utilities are located, it’s dangerous to rely on these impressions. The safer option is to pothole for utilities so you have visual confirmation of where they are located and can take all necessary measures to protect them as you work. Taking this safety measure can save you time and money in the long run since it helps you avoid costly leaks and repairs that could result from striking a gas, water, electric or any other utility line.

2. Sewer Line Repairs

sewer line repairs


When buried sewer lines are damaged, excavation is often a necessary step to getting to the lines so they can be repaired. A common cause of damaged sewer lines is tree roots that spread and cause perforations in the pipe. Even though a section of piping may be damaged, that does not mean excavation workers can dig carelessly.

Instead, a section of the sewer line should be carefully exposed to reveal where the source of the problem lies. The undamaged sections of pipe should be kept intact. With vacuum excavation, particularly in the case of air excavation, workers can safely expose the sewer line without causing any additional damage and can provide access to the pipe for repairing it.

3. Slot Trenching

Slot trenching is the practice of digging narrow trenches. This type of trench digging is often used when laying new utility lines. You shouldn’t have to dig up a wide area to lay a narrow pipe. Instead, slot trenching keeps as much of the ground undisturbed as possible, only digging up enough earth to leave space for the new pipe.

Vacuum excavation is an ideal choice for slot trenching since it is designed for precision digging. Once the utility line has been laid, you can backfill the narrow trench with the soil that was excavated if you used air excavation. If you can backfill with other soil, hydro excavation may be a better choice since it offers the highest degree of precision.

4. Confined Space Projects

used in confined spaces


Whenever you’re working in tight spaces, whether it be in a small yard or a narrow street, vacuum excavation is a valuable option to consider. There are a couple of important reasons for this. One is that you can park the truck nearby, keeping it out of the way of your small work area. This is a significant advantage over trying to fit heavy excavation equipment like backhoes in a small space.

Another reason vacuum excavation is helpful in confined spaces is because it is more precise. This means you can minimize the area you dig up rather than destroy the whole area or a large portion of the area in the excavation process.

5. Frozen Ground Excavation

when the ground is frozen


During freezing conditions, vacuum excavation — hydro excavation, in particular — is an excellent method of excavation. Digging into frozen ground with metal instruments, whether shovels or heavy equipment, can be extremely difficult. One of the first places that hydro excavation became popular was Canada, because frozen conditions are common, and hydro excavation offered an innovative solution to this problem.

With hydro excavation, you can use hot water to cut through and melt the frozen ground, making it much easier to remove. Another advantage of using vacuum excavation in cold conditions is that it is a much faster process than traditional excavation methods. This means workers are kept safer from longterm exposure to extreme temperatures.

6. Pole Setting

Pole setting involves digging a deep, narrow hole for installing a pole. This could be a utility pole, road sign or anything else mounted to a tall pole or stake. Vacuum excavation is an excellent choice for digging deep, narrow holes without making them wider than they need to be and disturbing a large patch of ground unnecessarily. Keeping the hole as narrow as possible can help you set the pole with a high degree of precision.

Additionally, using vacuum excavation for pole setting can help you avoid damaging any underground utility lines during the process of digging and setting the pole. This is extremely important when setting poles in areas where utility lines may be present.

7. Precise Landscaping



Another application for vacuum excavation that may not be quite as obvious is landscaping. Landscaping a new home construction often involves a comprehensive process of grading the ground, laying sod and planting greenery and flowers. For these larger projects that initially take place on a construction site devoid of grass, heavy equipment can roam freely without causing damage.

However, for existing homes with yards that are intact but could use some additional ornamentation, heavy equipment can tear up existing parts of the yard. You can dig more carefully and precisely with a shovel, but this is far more labor-intensive. In either case, you incur the danger of hitting a utility line underground. Vacuum excavation can allow landscapers to dig holes and trenches for planting with more precision, all the while avoiding damage to potential utility lines in their path.

8. Excavation Below a Building

Sometimes, commercial buildings or homes need the area underneath to be excavated. For example, sometimes crawl spaces are too narrow and must be deepened. Or, the building may need some foundation repairs. Whatever the case, digging under a building is a difficult and dangerous task. It typically involves jacking up the building and using shovels and a wheelbarrow or heavy equipment to excavate the area underneath. The building is then lowered back down.

Vacuum excavation simplifies the process and makes it safer. One advantage of vacuum excavation in this instance is that it keeps dirt from a crawl space, which can often contain toxic materials like animal feces, contained rather than kicking up harmful dirt and dust into the air.

9. Soil Sampling

soil sampling


Surveying land often involves taking samples soil to make determinations about whether a piece of land is suitable for a given application. Sampling soil isn’t as simple as scooping up some topsoil on the surface. To get a more comprehensive picture of the soil’s composition, you need to dig down further.

This is why vacuum excavation is a valuable option for soil sampling. Rather than clumsily digging up earth with a shovel or heavy equipment, you can precisely dig into the ground and collect your sample in an easy, safe manner. The soil sample will automatically be vacuumed into the storage tank where you can then take it to a lab for analysis or testing.

10. Waste Cleanup

waste cleanup


Finally, the application for vacuum excavation that we’re most passionate about here at ERC is waste cleanup. When harmful waste such as toxic chemicals makes its way into the ground, it’s critical that this waste is cleaned up with speed and precision so that the contaminated soil does not spread harmful waste to surrounding areas or enter water sources.

Excavation has traditionally been used as a cleanup method. Vacuum excavation offers some major benefits over standard excavation methods when it comes to waste cleanup. For one, the vacuum function keeps toxins from entering the air during excavation, which helps to protect workers. Because the contaminated soil is vacuumed up, it is well-contained and can then be treated or disposed of properly. Vacuum excavation allows for faster, more precise and safer waste cleanup.

ERC is Creating Safe Solutions for You

Find out how your next project can benefit from the use of air or hydro excavation. Contact ERC today to learn more.