Pioneers in Bringing Trenchless Technologies to America

Murphy Pipeline Contractors
Written by Claire Suttles

America’s crumbling infrastructure is in need of a major overhaul. But the cost and disruption of laying new pipe has caused more than a few municipalities to put off the inevitable…
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When the UK faced the same issue a few decades ago, industry insiders put their heads together to develop an alternative to digging endless trenches through densely populated areas. “The UK has always been known as the home of trenchless technology,” says Todd Grafenauer, VP/Educational Director for Murphy Pipeline.

Static pipe bursting and Swagelining are two of the game-changing trenchless technologies to come out of the UK’s R&D efforts. “British Gas really perfected those technologies in the gas industry to replace and to renew their own infrastructure,” Mr. Grafenauer explains. “Then they very quickly transitioned into the potable water industry, and today the technologies are used on the world stage to replace and renew any pressure pipeline.”

UK native Andy Mayer was involved in the development of the technology, working for British Gas before going to Jacksonville, Florida for a temporary assignment in 2000. “They called me over because there was a big pipe burst in the sewer lines,” he recalls. “In the three to four months that I was here, looking at the marketplace, I realized that there was a need for the technologies that we specialize in – pipe bursting and swagelining.”

Mr. Mayer remembers seeing “a 30 ton excavator in a subdivision with a six-foot bucket putting in 8-inch pipe. It was just a waste, what they were doing. But that was the way they had always done it.” He knew that the destruction, inconvenience, and environmental disruption were unnecessary and that he had the answer to the problem. But providing the solution would require a major leap of faith. “The plan just evolved in front of me. ‘Do I go back to England and be one of many, or do I stay in America and be very individualistic?’ It was a no-brainer. Life is about opportunities and about timing. The timing was great to make the change.” Mr. Mayer stayed in Jacksonville, launching Murphy Pipeline Contractors and introducing a bold, new technology to the American utilities market.

“The marketplace was so vast because of the fact that America neglected its infrastructure for so many years. [I realized that] the need for our technologies was only going to get greater and greater over the course of time.” Fifteen years later, Mr. Mayer’s prediction has been proven correct. “It took some time, but the ball slowly started rolling and now it is gathering a lot of speed. Murphy has gone from strength to strength and we continue steady, organized growth as the technologies are becoming more and more prevalent in the industry. Swagelining and pipe bursting is now being recognized right across America.”

The success comes as no surprise; trenchless technologies boast a number of advantages. “With pipe bursting we actually break apart the old main and replace the new main right in the exact same spot,” Mr. Grafenauer explains. “With swagelining we actually install an HDPE pipe inside the existing pipe; that results in a tight compressive fit.” With both technologies, there is no need to dig a new trench. Compare this to traditional methods, which require contractors to rip up the earth to create a trench measuring three feet wide and a few thousand feet long. “We are not going to tear up somebody’s driveway, we are not going to tear up the sidewalk or the road. There is tremendous savings alone for the lack of repaving concrete and asphalt, of [replanting] grass.”

Reduced digging is also better for the environment. “By reducing excavation you are reducing carbon output by up to 90 percent,” Mr. Grafenauer reports. “We use less equipment, so less diesel is used.” And because the ground is left undisturbed, the surrounding flora and fauna is unaffected. “We have worked with communities that are very environmentally friendly such as the City of Austin, Texas,” Mr. Grafenauer shares. “They didn’t want to affect any of the trees on a job site and they actually sent out an arborist to make sure we didn’t affect any of those trees.” Murphy’s trenchless technologies saved the trees – and won over the client.

Another advantage of the company’s trenchless, “surgical” excavations is that roads and businesses can stay open during much of the construction process. “We are reducing the amount of time that intersections have to be closed,” Mr. Grafenauer points out. “Businesses are less impacted because of those surgical excavations.” Trenchless technologies slash the construction time as well, which also reduces impact to the broader community.

Trenchless technologies utilize the existing utility path, which prevents major headaches. “If you were to open cut, you would have to find a new path to install that main,” Mr. Grafenauer explains. But, when using trenchless technologies, “a community doesn’t have to find a four foot easement for a couple of miles if they want to install a new water or force main. So not only will they reduce the easement issues, they won’t further complicate their infrastructure.”

Following the existing utility path also means that “design hours are significantly reduced. Utility relocations become irrelevant, geotechnical reports, subsurface utility engineering are all greatly minimized or eliminated.” Trenchless technologies also prevent accidental damage. “The risk of hitting an adjacent utility is obviously very high [when digging a new trench]. But, because we are only digging a couple pits here and there, the risk is greatly reduced.”

While the advantages are obvious, convincing customers has not been easy. “The biggest challenge is that America really doesn’t like change,” Mr. Mayer says, “even though it is a wonderful technology that America needs. America is very much set in its ways.” The team has spent a great deal of effort educating potential customers in order to bring them on board. “We had to explain [all of the] benefits and get them away from what they were used to installing.”

Over the past 15 years, Murphy Pipeline has been remarkably successful in not only bringing trenchless technology to America, but also in completing world-class projects using that technology. For instance, the company won the 2014 Trenchless Project of the Year for renewing a 39-inch water transmission main in Texas last year. Believed to be the largest diameter high pressure, fully structural pipeline rehabilitation project in North America, the swagelining job pushed the industry another step forward. “I think that the 2014 Trenchless Project of the Year is really the culmination of the last 15 years,” Mr. Mayer remarks. “As a company, that is probably the highest award that we could achieve.” Murphy Pipeline also won the WEFTEC Top Project Award in 2014. For this project, the team replaced nearly all the water main in Arlington National Cemetery using pre-chlorinated pipe bursting technology.

These two prestigious awards demonstrate that the company leads the pack in both swagelining and pipe bursting and Mr. Mayer believes that the recognition is “a testament to the value of the technologies, the team atmosphere of working with clients to provide solutions and the experience that Murphy Pipeline’s personnel possess.”

More and more municipalities are warming up to trenchless technologies, particularly when they realize the consequences of neglecting underground pipes. Mr. Mayer points to an infamous incident at UCLA last year in which a water line burst and caused drastic water damage. “They had just spent $150 million on a rehabilitation of their sports complex, but they forgot to renew the water line. The water system, gas system, sewer system is underground, so it is out of sight out of mind.” Unfortunately, UCLA learned to pay attention to their underground utilities the hard way. “That one line break, they estimate it cost half a billion dollars [in damages],” Mr. Mayer reports. “That instance has brought more attention to the failing infrastructure.”

And, as attention turns toward our infrastructure, he expects to see an increase in government funding for repairs as well as increased rates for consumers. Increased rates are not unreasonable, Mr. Mayer insists, and are well worth the convenience of running water. “Everyone’s got cable or satellite and they are quite happy paying 200 or 300 dollars a month for that. And then they moan about paying 40 bucks a month for water, which actually keeps you alive.”

Mr. Mayer predicts that the number of municipalities willing to address infrastructure problems will continue to increase in the coming months and years, which will positively impact America and his business. “I do see a lot more awareness of the situation with the infrastructure. And, as people start reacting to awareness, more money will be put into the industry. The industry as a whole has a tremendous growth pattern over the next 10 to 20 years. With Murphy on the forefront of that, we can only grow with it. The future looks very bright for the infrastructure industry as a whole and definitely for Murphy Pipeline.”

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