A whole other world exists underground, and Barry Wood, CEO of Ontario Excavac Inc. (www.ontarioexcavac.ca), specialists in hydro-excavation, knows this better than anyone. “There’s all kinds of infrastructure underground. If you could see all of it, you’d be shaking your head.” That’s where Mississauga-based Ontario Excavac Inc. comes in. Established in 1996 and serving several regions within South-Central Ontario, it is not your typical excavation company. Wood explains that while traditional excavation services use backhoes and other types of mechanical digging, hydro-excavation uses high-pressure water and vacuum suction to dig, which is much safer when underground infrastructure is encountered. Hydro-excavation is also more precise, which is beneficial in urban settings because less ground is disturbed.
Hydro-excavation allows for what is called ‘keyhole repairs’ to be made. Explains Wood, “the hydro-excavation industry provides a really vital service, mainly focusing on safety, but also precision; we can dig very precise holes, called keyholes, as small as one foot wide. Where a backhoe might make a fairly large opening, we can very precisely and safely dig to locate underground infrastructure.”
As underground mapping proved to be dated and inaccurate, there became an increased need for digging that focused on safety and hydro-excavation is responding to that need. Wood says the benefits of hydro-excavation go beyond precision: “By digging a keyhole, we can do repairs on that buried utility infrastructure without destroying the surrounding landscape. There are no unsightly piles of debris, so it is very easy to repair and then restore that site to its original state.”
Ontario Excavac Inc. started with work on water and utility services, fixing water curb stop shut-offs, which are used to turn water on and off for residential homes. When they malfunction, it is necessary to dig down to reach the home service line or into the water main to perform the repair. Using the hydro-excavation keyhole approach to fixing the shut-off made the process more precise, fast and safe. Cost savings also flowed as a benefit of using hydro-excavation. From this, they moved on to providing services for city service departments and then ten years ago, a major gas distribution company. This gas distributor was one of the first to use hydro-excavation for its utilities. “They liked the work that we provided. What set us apart was our responsiveness, our professionalism, our concern for safety and the quality of the people we hire. It wasn’t very long before this gas distributor decided to use us exclusively.” Wood says.
Although Ontario Excavac Inc. works primarily with businesses and government, they will respond to any call when needed. Despite the efforts of Ontario One Call, the ‘call before you dig’ service that receives excavation locate requests and identifies underground infrastructure, mistakes still happen that can result in a natural gas line being hit. “People might dig up their driveways to re-asphalt them for example, only to find out the gas line is closer to the surface than they thought,” Wood explains.
The cold weather also causes problems, as seen last winter when Ontario Excavac Inc. responded to a number of incidents with hydro pole fires due to salt build-up causing shorting.
As pioneers in the field, it seems only right that Ontario Excavac Inc. is one of the founding members of the HydroVac Alliance of Ontario, known as HVAO. Wood also served as the first Chairperson of the HVAO. Wood explains how it came to be: “a group of us were talking about a year and a half ago at the Ontario Regional Common Ground Alliance. ORCGA is a consortium of utility owners, engineering firms, excavators and other interested stakeholders. The organization was formed in the summer of 2014 initially to respond to the 2014 provincial budget announcements that could seriously negatively impact the sector. The HVAO is also looking at being a best-practices advocate for this young industry with a view to foster a strong industry safety record of working on buried underground infrastructure.”
WHAT IS NEXT?
Woods says expanding the business beyond its current geographical reach is a consideration, but the primary focus is regional. They are considering growth through acquisitions or joint ventures with ancillary business services. The immediate focus is on dealing with the soil they remove when called to a job. “We have our fleet of vehicles out there every day and as we’re doing our hydro-excavations, we end up collecting soil mixed with some water in the debris tanks. 99% of the time the soil is benign because it’s soil from somebody’s front yard, but we have to dispose of it every day. We’re looking at what we can do about that part of our business. Whether we do it through acquisition or through a joint venture with another party, it’s an active area that I’m looking at right now with what we’re going to do. We see it as being another important piece in our business.”
Ontario Excavac Inc. operates around the clock, every day of the year. With a staff of 80 people and growing, Wood sees good things in the future. “We’re not the cheapest hydro-excavator in town; we don’t pretend to be. We like to think we’re among the best, if not the best, so as a result of that we don’t have the lowest price.” Wood is proud of Ontario Excavac Inc.’s responsiveness, safety record, and of the committed and competent people they have. As underground infrastructure grows older, he sees an increasing need for hydro-excavation, lending growth to a dynamic industry.