How Technology is Advancing Underground Infrastructure Construction

Underground infrastructures are vital—and construction companies have new opportunities to build and maintain it with the help of technology.

Underground infrastructure can be separated into three main areas, all of which are essential to providing services to society, especially in congested urban areas:

• Buried utilities such as water, electricity, gas, telecommunications and more.

• Foundations on buildings, bridges, etc.

• Underground structures such as tunnels subways, buildings, mines and more.

Two big changes are currently happening in these areas. First, the materials used in the built environment are evolving, and second technology such as sensors, controls and robots are helping with construction, maintenance and operations.

“Technology is playing a key role, both in terms of information-based solutions, automatic controls, and robotics,” explains Dryver Huston, professor, The University of Vermont. He adds that durable polymer pipes with less steel are becoming much more common, as is the use of high-performance concretes.

UNDERGROUND UTILITIES: A CLOSER LOOK

Underground utilities consist of a network of conduits including water mains, sewer pipes, phone, cable and power electrical circuits. Putting the pipes underground has many advantages, but one large disadvantage—underground pipes are out of sight and often neglected, according to Steven Folkman, professor, Utah State University.

Today, water and sewer systems in many cities are decaying and water main breaks are becoming more common. The University’s Buried Structures Laboratory recently published its second study on break rates of water pipes. The research shows that there were 23,803 pipe failures that needed repairs and that break rates have increased 27 percent in the past six years.

Break rates for cast iron (CI) and asbestos cement (AC) pipes represent almost half of the installed water mains in North America, and have increased 46 percent and 43 percent, respectively, since 2012. Further, the study shows how water main failure rates for CI and AC pipes could increase exponentially.

Folkman explains that older CI and AC pipes are near or past their expected life and need to be replaced soon. Another observation he makes is that the rate that existing pipes are being replaced is on a 125-year replacement cycle. The challenge is the typical age of a failing water main is 50 years.

“One of the causes of failure of existing pipe is corrosion,” says Folkman. “PVC pipe and other plastic pipe are not subject to corrosion and have an expected life in excess of 100 years. The biggest problem today is funding to replace the existing infrastructure.”

The good news is there are new pipe materials and installation methods being developed that can help in the underground construction of utilities.

The traditional approach to new pipe installation—open cut—is where equipment digs a trench and new pipe is installed. Directional drilling has gained more popularity in the last five to 10 years.

“With directional drilling we’re able to bore a horizontal hole 5’ to 15’ underneath the surface and then pull a pipe (or conduit) through the opening,” explains Trent Bangert of Americom Technology. “We’re able to avoid traffic disruptions and safety issues because we eliminate an open trench on our sites. We can also use our state-of-the-art directional drills to install pipe and conduits under rivers, highways and other structures. Directional drilling is at times more expensive than open cut pipe installations but it is very environmentally friendly.”

As new communities continue to develop and existing communities age, the demand for advanced technology in underground utility construction is imperative. Finding the right partner to trust is key to a projects success.

“We chose Americom because of their reputation. They do what they say they’re going to do, when they say they’ll do it, and that’s vital to staying on schedule and on budget. I was very pleased with the quality of their work on our project – They do it right the first time” says Lance Goulding, Construction & Engineering Manager of South Central Communications.

Americom is one of the unique partners in the underground utility arena that has state-of-the-art equipment and trained operators that understand the challenges of today’s market. For 37-years Americom has consistently been known for their quality, integrity, and reliability.

Call Americom today and find out why they’re the “right choice” for your underground utility construction needs.

Portions of this article are credited to: Conexpo-con