Vacuum Excavation VS. Traditional Excavation Techniques

util locate van

If you are planning a home improvement project that involves digging into the ground, you’ll need to start by having all underground utility lines found. Even small projects like adding landscaping oder installing a new mailbox require the use of a potholing company. These companies use a variety of techniques to locate and protect utilities. From backhoes to hand tools, and vacuum excavation, here is what you need to know about the type of methods.


Backhoes are most often used when precision isn’t as important. For example, when a new development is digging up the foundation for new homes. It involves much less intensive work than other methods and can be completed rather quickly. When used for potholing, backhoe operators rely on a spotter who helps keep an eye on the ground. 

The downside to using a backhoe is that there is an additional risk when utilities are present. Even a skilled operator runs the risk of hitting and damaging the very line they were trying to locate. Due to their size, backhoes might not fit into many spaces, especially once houses are in place.

Hand Tools

Using a shovel or other hand tool to pothole is the most labor-intensive for the individual. Because the equipment needs are small, operators can get into almost any space. Outside of the necessary working hours required to dig, hand tools are also the lowest priced option. 

The major downside to using a shovel is the labor involved. Digging, especially on rough terrain, can be tough work and take a long time. While hand tools are relatively safe for locating utilities, caution is still required. A shovel probably won’t do any damage to an underground pipe, but it can sever fiber optics or other wires.

utility potholing

Vacuum Excavation

Utility locating is the first part of the investigation process. You need to know where utilities are before continuing. Then, using vacuum excavation, you can verify the utilities by potholing, or exposing them for visual identification. 

Vacuum excavation is a process where water or air is used to break up soil before sucking it up into a storage tank. This process eliminates nearly all risk of damaging underground utilities. It offers a lower cost, outside of the initial equipment investment, and a higher level of precision.

  1. Air Excavation: By using compressed air, this method loosens the soil to be stored in the tank. Since it’s only using air, the ground can easily be reused to fill in the holes later on.
  2. Hydro Excavation: Instead of air, this method uses pressurized water to loosen dirt. This technique is extremely precise and much faster than air-based methods. It does not, however, allow the same soil to be reused.

Read more about vacuum excavation services.

Which Method is Right for You?

Ultimately, the method used is going to be determined by the nature of the job. It may not be easy to decide on your own; using a reputable utility locating company is vital. You might be tempted to try a digital meter or to call your utility company. 

Unfortunately, utility companies often won’t come on to private property. When they do mark underground obstructions, it’s typically with spray paint. A digital meter is also useful to simply mark the surface. Many jobs require seeing the actual obstacle and not just relying on a rough estimate of where it is. Using a private utility locating service will ensure your job is done safely and without the delay and cost associated with damaging utilities. 

Utility Potholing & Vacuum Excavation for Your Underground Work

utility potholing services

The value of precision in any construction project is hard to overstate. If the technology age has taught us anything, it is the value of miniaturization, precise tolerances, and optimizing the process of building a solid foundation for future improvement.

The high-tech environment comes with its share of challenges, however. Beneath our feet is a maze of electrical connections, gas lines, sewer, and water lines and data cables. It seems every building has its own collection of interfaces to city and county facilities. Things are only going to get more complex as time goes on. Construction crews, contractors, and even utility workers can’t afford to make mistakes when it comes to surveying a site for repairs, new construction, or simple maintenance checks.

The solution is to find a company with the experience and the tools to make vacuum excavation and utility potholing simple, quick and effective.

utility potholing

Keeping It Simple

Vacuum excavation services relies on what would seem to be the simplest of principles. Dirt and debris are mixed with water, liquified, and extracted with a high-powered vacuum. It is what regulators call a “non-destructive” process. This new and effective means of removing dirt and rocks from around sensitive underground facilities is now required by some states when crews are digging near safe zones.

Once the underground work is complete, the dirt is replaced by merely reversing the pressure. In the interim, the liquified material is stored in a tank on site. As an added bonus, since the material is already liquified, when it is replaced it “sets” very much like cement. There is often little evidence any digging ever took place. See more about vacuum digging.

Safety First

Imagine you are building on a site with pre-installed utilities. You have a backhoe in operation. This means digging at the site without sufficient information or worse, outdated information about what kinds of utility lines are present and where they are located. The backhoe blade strikes a gas line. There is a spark.

This is the kind of situation vacuum excavation, and potholing is meant to prevent. It is necessary to know the precise whereabouts of utility lines. It is also vital to understand the nature of those lines and what they might present in terms of hazards. Safety is always of utmost concern at a job site. The crews are at risk, and so is utility service to the surrounding neighborhoods and region.

Digging precisely and with the right tools and process allows you to know with specificity before you engage in large-scale digging or construction. Making the wrong decision or being in too big a hurry carries with it risks no construction crew should have to face.

The Right Team

It is in every stakeholder’s best interest to have experts in their field doing the work they were trained to do. This is why you need an experienced and knowledgeable team at your construction site to find the utility lines before your crew accidentally damages them. It is better and safer for everyone involved, and in the long run, it will save you time and money.

Vacuum Excavation: Achieve Less Surface Damage

Surveying a construction site is not only a necessity; it is an accepted and recommended practice for several reasons. Among the most urgent is the safety of the construction workers, along with the integrity of the structure and works built at the location. Also high on the priority list is keeping the grounds intact and free from unnecessary damage or navigational hazards.

Excavation is one of the most expensive things a construction company can do. Moving tons of earth from one place to the next is a non-trivial undertaking. What’s more, leaving deep holes, trenches, and other impassable obstacles behind can be a major safety hazard to say nothing of their effect on future building. The good news is there has been a better way to do things available to contractors for some time. It’s called vacuum excavation. If you haven’t taken advantage of it yet, you will be quite surprised at what it can help you accomplish.

What is Potholing?

Suppose you need to dig at a construction site to determine if there are any hidden underground hazards, pipes, electrical lines or other obstacles. What is the better option?

  1. Breaking out the shovels and pickaxes and hoping you don’t break something as you descend into the darkness


  1. Using a high-tech method that allows you to simply remove dirt and rocks and then replace them later

Potholing for Utilities is the second and best method.  It is being used more and more by construction companies and contractors to help locate facilities that might otherwise be damaged if not located beforehand.

utility potholing

Time Savings

Key to any construction project is the ability to save time and expense, both for the contractor and the client. When it comes to safety and the regulatory requirements of checking before digging, anything that increases the efficiency of the process is going to be an obvious priority. This is one of the reasons vacuum excavation services has become so popular so quickly.

The equipment itself is self-contained and operates on the simple principle it is possible to remove mud with a sufficiently strong vacuum and then replace it by reversing the pressure. Since no blades or bits are hitting the ground or anything underneath it, the potential for damage is practically non-existent. Further, once the earth is replaced, the process of drying causes it to set very much like cement, leaving almost no evidence any digging.

Practical Efficiency

Since in some states digging near a marked safe zone is prohibited by regulation, air and hydro excavators have become the go-to tools. These processes are considered “non-destructive” and are therefore recommended to avoid expensive accidents, not to mention the possibility of interrupting local utilities like electricity or water service.

When the possibility of hitting a gas line is taken into consideration, what might once have been a good recommendation becomes a necessity. Vacuum excavation is the correct choice in most construction contracting, and it is a safe choice when it comes to preserving utilities and underground lines.