NO-DIGTEC takes pipe replacement trenchless
When leaders at the North Texas Municipal Water District (NTMWD) needed 525 feet of 24-inch pipe placed under an active golf course, they didn’t want to disrupt operations or dig up the pristine landscaped course. So, they reached out to John Newell at NO-DIGTEC and opted for trenchless pipe replacement, also known as pipe bursting.
The process was done in less than two hours while people were golfing and unaware of what was going on underground, says Newell, President of the 20-year-old NO-DIGTEC. His firm’s efforts boosted the pipe capacity from a 21-inch pipe to a 24-inch pipe. “That job has probably been featured in a dozen industry magazines, and there was even an article written about me in Australia,” he quips.
John says that NO-DIGTEC is the largest pipe-bursting contractor in North Texas and one of a handful of companies nationwide with the expertise and equipment to burst large diameter pipes.
John has always worked in infrastructure construction in some fashion. He developed housing subdivisions and completed a lot of municipal work, as well. “I’ve worked on water mains, wastewater mains and stormwater drains,” he explains. “I’ve worked in almost every city in North Texas as well as for the Trinity River Authority (TRA) of Texas and the NTMWD.”
All of that pipe work has focused on pipe bursting, which is a trenchless method of installing pipe that involves digging an access pit and inserting a bursting head into the existing pipeline. The bursting head breaks the old pipe apart and pulls the new pipe into place behind it. “The new pipe actually goes through the existing pipe that the expander has broken underground and simultaneously pulls in the same size or bigger new pipe,” he says.
“I first saw this technology in Houston in the late ’90s,” John recalls. “I saw a long piece of pipe laying on the side of the road and couldn’t imagine what it was for. I asked the contractor and he told me it was pipe for bursting and explained the process to me. I knew then that it was the future of the industry.”
At the time, John was preparing for a move to Dallas from the Houston area. When he arrived in Big D, he started NO-DIGTEC. He studied the process and technology and became proficient by working with manufacturers and contractors.
Now, he leads informational seminars and conferences and even lectures about trenchless technology to senior engineering students at the University of Texas at Arlington. “I teach a lot of engineers about it, too. Some will tell me that a specific municipality wants to do everything trenchless, but many engineers have never done a project like that,” he says.
Dig it…or Not
How is it possible to replace pipes without digging a big trench? John says he is asked that question all of the time. Trenchless pipe replacement is not completely trenchless, he says, because a few pits have to be dug on each end to connect to the pipes that aren’t being replaced. By doing this, roads and landscaping don’t have to be disturbed, he explains. Trenchless technology eliminates 85% to 90% of excavations and restoration costs.
Most of the pipes that are replaced with pipe bursting are used for water and wastewater. The kinds can vary from clay tile pipes to cast iron, concrete, PVC, cured-in-place and High-Density Polyethylene (HDPE) pipe, among others. Ductal iron and steel pipes can present a challenge and can only be increased by one size, he adds.
“We took 24-inch concrete reinforced pipe and went through it, broke it up and pushed all the pieces into the surrounding soil enough for a 34-inch pipe to go in there; we have the capacity to expand that much,” John says. “Our bread and butter job is usually going from a 6-inch to an 8-inch or an 8-inch up to a 12-inch pipe.”
Many of the projects performed by NO-DIGTEC are done for cities that are increasing the size of their pipes because of ongoing commercial development. Many of the existing pipes are old, undersized and deteriorating from being in the ground for 50 to 75 years. “Just like the roof on your house won’t last forever, it is the same for pipes,” John explains. “Think of the brake shoes or tires on your car; they all have a life expectancy. That life expectancy for a pipe may be 50 years. If it’s been in the ground for 75 years, you can figure it is not in the best shape. Plus, the materials we are putting in the ground today are far superior compared to 50 or 60 years ago. Many pipes today will last 100 years.”
John explains that NO-DIGTEC uses a lot of HDPE pipe and a fusible PVC pipe, which can be 40- to 50-foot lengths of pipes that are heated to 450 degrees and melted together.
He says, “In any piping system, when you make a mechanical connection with a fitting, you have a potential leak point in the system. However, when you fuse it all together, you now have a monolithic piece of pipe, which is maintenance free because it eliminates bolted connections. We can fuse a solid 500-foot piece of pipe so it has no place to leak. That is the advantage, and it is why I feel this is the future of pipelines. Rubber gaskets deteriorate, so why install a pipe that will only last so many years?” John asks.
While most of his work is for municipalities, John is now seeing city leaders who are partnering with developers to update undersized pipes. When a developer buys a block of small houses with the intention of building four-story condos, the city knows the existing pipes cannot meet the increased water needs, fire suppression needs and the outflow of a building that big.
Cities and developers now use a three-way contract with companies like NO-DIGTEC. “The developer hires us, and the city in turn contracts with us. We know all the things the city requires that the developers may not be familiar with,” he says.
By going trenchless with pipe bursting, John says, about 85% to 90% of excavation costs can be eliminated. That makes the builders and the residents living around the project happy. “We can do in two weeks what would take a normal contractor two to three months to do, and we aren’t tearing up the streets to do it,” he says.
NO-DIGTEC fuses a lot of HDPE and FPVC (Fusible PVC) pipes. “It’s an additional service we can offer, and we have the certified fusion techs on staff,” John adds.
Growing a Team
The NO-DIGTEC team has about 35 employees, and John likes to “grow his own team” and train his staff in how to do the job right. “You can take people from the open-cut world and bring them in and they know how to dig and make connections; you just have to teach them about the pipe bursting. But, I’ve found the most success by taking someone green and putting them in an apprenticeship program and developing their skills along the way,” John says. “I’ve gotten some good project managers, foremen and leads in the field from doing it that way. I started this business 20 years ago, and I have some people who have been with me for 15 to 17 years. They like me; I treat them fairly and they are happy to stay.”
It’s not unusual, John says, for competitors to try and lure his experienced staff away.
“We have a really simple business philosophy: be professional and do a good job. Quality work for a fair price and stand behind what you do. If you do those four things you will have repeat customers calling you every year for every project they do. That’s all anyone wants. “City leaders don’t want any complaints from their residents, and we pride ourselves in taking care of our work sites. If we have a subdivision to re-pipe the whole place, we go to every door and introduce ourselves, give them a business card and a flyer from the city explaining the project. We let them know it is sanctioned by the city and that they can call us if they have any questions or if something isn’t right. We will get it addressed immediately,” he says.
It’s that attention to details, too, that John says makes a difference between doing an acceptable job and doing a great job. His team verifies existing utilities before digging, so they don’t miss days at work because someone mismarked a utility line. “There is too much red tape and paperwork to hit something like that; whereas for a little bit of money, we can buy equipment that will give our field techs the ability to locate that stuff,” John notes.
And, his team has earned his trust. “We don’t fuss when they make a mistake. We go in and teach them how not to make that mistake again. We tell them to step back at the end of the day and look at their work. If you’re proud of what you’re looking at, it should pass an inspection. If you’re not proud of how it looks, then you need to stay and fix it,” he says.
It’s all about customer service, he emphasizes. And, the rewards are great; sometimes the residents bake cookies for the team or bring them cold drinks. “They’re happy with their water and happy that we are being neat and clean and not leaving the neighborhood a wreck. Our team is taught to work that way and they do,” John says.