Digging Safely with Vacuum Excavation

With the ability to safely expose underground utilities, vacuum excavation is quickly becoming standard practice as the safest way to dig.

This process is also referred to as “soft excavation technology,” in which vacuum excavation is defined as a means of soil extraction through a vacuum when using pressurized water or air to break up the soil. The two types of vacuum excavation are air and hydro. Air excavation is the process of using compressed air to disturb the earth’s soil, which is then vacuumed up into a debris tank. It is used to safely expose underground utilities and allows backfill with the dry material. Hydro excavation is also a non-mechanical, non-destructive process that uses pressurized water and industrial strength vacuum to simultaneously excavate and remove the soil. Having the ability to use the two types of vacuum excavation increases its range of safety as well as versatility, depending on the environmental needs of each site.

Vacuum excavation is commonly accepted as safer than hand digging within the “tolerance zone”
around underground utilities. To discover the tolerance zone, excavators must call 811 before starting any excavation project. However, One Call marks only the approximate location of utility lines. To physically locate utilities, companies and municipalities are using the non-destructive method of vacuum excavation. Only through this process will you know the exact location and depth of the marked utilities.

Since this practice relies on water or air vacuum technology, it is the safest and most effective way to dig without causing harm to underground utilities. Even smaller, more complex utilities such as fiber optic lines and cables can be located with precision, resulting in reduced risk of strikes. According to Common Ground Alliance (CGA), “every six minutes an underground utility line is damaged,” so prevention is key.

The cost of damaging utilities can range from
environmental contamination, project delays,
lost time and productivity, to injury or death.
Directional-bore projects, specifically those areas
where the bore route will cross other utilities, is
another example of when vacuum excavation is
the best option. If a gas line or electric line strike
occurs, this causes extreme danger and loss on a project. To avoid these costly losses, more
companies are utilizing the benefits of vacuum excavation. Not only is vacuum excavation a much safer alternative than traditional excavation when digging around gas and electric lines, it is also less disruptive to aboveground activity. It takes up less space, causes less surface damage,
and less traffic disruption, which results in decreased cost and time of the operation.

Vacuum excavation is also being used for trench rescues due to its speed, precision and safety of
removing the soil from around a victim. It can save critical time compared to traditional digging.
Rescuers have been using five-gallon buckets, garden and army shovels, but this process is obviously slow. Vacuum excavation provides a faster and safer option, while keeping rescue  crews out of harm’s way in case of a secondary collapse. Getting the debris removed in a safe and efficient manner can literally mean the difference between life or death.


Vac-Tron Equipment is one of the world’s largest producers of vacuum excavation equipment. The company, with more than 30 industrial vacuum products and more than 50 wet and dry uses, builds a full line of industrial vacuums, potholing, daylighting, hydroexcavation, and air excavation equipment. For more info on Vac-Tron Equipment, visit www.vactron.com.

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