Texas-based Hydro Spy LLC uses the digging effectiveness of water combined with the convenience of vacuum power to forge success in the oil and gas industries.

Richard Young and partner Jose Santos developed Hydro Spy LLC with a business plan that saw the emergence of hydroexcavation as a major force.

Opening in January 2009 with $50,000, a business plan and a rented vacuum truck, the two put their combined 10 years of experience with the process and their managerial skills on the line as they promoted their company. They targeted a client base of utilities, pipeline contractors, electrical contractors and refinery service contractors; however, it was with the oil and gas industries they pinned their hopes for the future.

"We always knew this would be our bread-and-butter for hydroexcavation," says Young, president of Hydro Spy. "And that is where the vast majority of our work is at this time. We're involved where there are pipeline tie-ins, maintenance, repairs and new installations. We do a ton of work in these plants and refineries and with the oil rigs. A lot is going on in southwest Texas. You can hardly drive five miles and not see pipeline lying across a field. We knew that this technology would be in great demand when it comes to pipeline."

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Initially the company was promoted through its website, set up in June 2009, where 85 percent of their initial business was generated. Over the past three years, the website continues to draw in 55 to 60 percent of Hydro Spy projects, but the balance comes from referrals through a burgeoning customer base.

Touting the technology

"Many times, we will have a client call with no idea what hydroexcavation is," says Young. "But they have been told by their client that they have to use us for this service."

While Hydro Spy continues to work for municipalities and contractors exposing water lines, sanitary lines, storm drains and other projects, the oil and gas industries present unique conditions and issues to be addressed. Clients see the value in hydroexcavation over traditional digging.

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"Safety and access are primary considerations, as well as the unknown in the ground," he says. "Safety is the biggest factor. No one wants to risk digging with a backhoe or track hoe without first exploring to find what is there. Utility owners come in and mark the utilities, but the problem is there are so many utilities underground and the lines are not constantly updated. At one point you have done all you can to explore, and it's time to open the ground using hydroexcavation."

Working in the gas industry requires much the same as far as equipment and technician skills, but the risk factors and hazards are a lot different than with municipalities or construction companies. "We want the mindset for our workers to be even more cautious. So many more things can go wrong when excavating gas pipelines," Young says.

Ensuring safety is a never-ending process, and there is always something new to share with the crews, Young says. He scours the Internet for information on safety and potential accidents and shares it at weekly meetings. When he read about a fatal accident involving the use of high-pressure water, he immediately ordered a stand-down of all equipment in the field until he could address safety issues that would have prevented such a tragedy.

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Proper access to an excavation site is crucial and that's where hydroexcavation is often the best answer, according to Young. As an example, they might need to install a pier shaft for an existing pipeline that is starting to sag in an area where there would not be access with a backhoe or track hoe.

Men and machines

Hydro Spy has grown to 11 employees, with four operators, four technicians, an accountant, co-owner and vice president Jose Santos, and Young, majority owner and president. Santos is in the field concentrating on quality control, which has become an emphasis for effective management.

Hydro Spy also emphasizes equipment upgrades to keep crews responding to calls. They have made significant additions since their first rig: a 2002 GapVax HV-46 vacuum loader with a 1,600-gallon aluminum water tank, a water pump by Giant delivering 2,900 psi/19 gpm, a 14.5-cubic-yard debris body, and a blower developing 3,800 cfm/28 inches Hg.

Now they also have a 2010 GapVax HV-56 industrial vacuum loader with a 1,000-gallon stainless steel water tank, a water pump by Giant delivering 2,900 psi/19 gpm, a 15-cubic-yard debris body, and a blower developing 5,300 cfm/28 inches Hg. Other additions include 2011 and 2012 GapVax HV-56 industrial vacuum loaders with 1,000-gallon steel water tanks, water pumps by Giant delivering 2,900 psi/19 gpm, 15-cubic-yard debris bodies, and blowers developing 5,300 cfm/27 inches Hg.

The company operates from a 2-acre site, with a recently renovated 61,000-square-foot facility, and they expect to open a satellite office in Corpus Christi, Texas, about 200 miles from Houston, to better accommodate the oil and gas industries.

Timing is critical

Getting clients up and running in a timely manner is a key to ensuring repeat business. Downtime is often unacceptable, which explains Hydro Spy's interest in equipment upgrades, safety training and locating equipment as closely as possible to energy industry customers.

"Clients in the oil and gas industry pay a lot of money to have that truck on the job site, and when there is a breakdown, they have quadrupled the losses of other entities,'' Young says. "On a recent project involving a natural gas line, while they disabled the line for three days, the cost to the owner was $1.5 million. You can imagine the concerns of engineers planning the projects for the big pipeline companies.

"Any delay results in loss for the end client. The loss can be astronomical," he continues. "You have to be ready to jump in to do your part of the process."

Hydroexcavation remains Hydro Spy's main emphasis, but the company is adding additional procedures to do backfilling, pipeline repair, tie-ins and install up to 100 feet of pipe.

"This industry has grown so much, we're seeing some companies we have worked for beginning to buy their own equipment," says Young. "This affects the market so we need to provide these related services."

Tough jobs

In one situation, Young says they almost lost a big pipeline contractor client. They were on a gas pipeline project with one of the trucks and when the client said they could not do any hydroexcavation at that time, Young pulled the truck out and put it on another job.

"A day later they were calling me, trying to get the truck back, and they were panicked, and kept calling. They thought someone had persuaded us to pull the truck," says Young. "Eventually they called in another company, but that didn't work out and they were back in touch. Fortunately we had a truck we could send. The result was that they had us sign a Master Service Agreement with them so that we would always be available. They commit to us, and we commit to them. That was a beautiful thing for us."

A recent project for Enterprise Products in Deer Park, Texas involved new directional bore installation of more than 2,700 linear feet of large-diameter pipeline with tie-ins to existing pipelines, and installation of a substation. With two of their trucks on the job, Hydro Spy excavated three exploratory trenches that were approximately 300 feet long, 1 foot wide and 14 feet deep.

Once the data was processed and the directional boring company was ready to install the new pipe, Hydro Spy hydroexcavated a "window trench" in strategic areas to facilitate the safe bore and installation of the new utility. The window trench allowed pipeline inspectors to verify the depth of the new installation, as well as the clearance of the installation relative to existing underground utilities.

Once completed, Hydro Spy hydroexcavated several bell holes big enough for welders to get in and perform tie-in welds. Finally, they hydroexcavated several pier shafts 30 inches in diameter and 15 feet deep for construction of concrete supports for the new pipeline's substation.

Coordination is key

This project involved more than 15 utility owners, all of whom were present during hydroexcavation activities to ensure their lines were safely exposed and identified with minimal ground disturbance.

More than 100 industrial mats by Ritter Forest Products were brought in to provide the GapVax units non-destructive access to the excavation sites. Several test-hole excavations were made to gather samples of material for testing to determine if soil was contaminated. Excavated material was vacuumed into roll-off vacuum boxes until the results were in. Negative test results allowed Hydro Spy to vacuum the material directly into their trucks for transport to a disposal pit at the plant facility.

Once the surveyors were done collecting data, Hydro Spy backfilled and compacted each of the trenches.

Offering backfilling helps secure jobs. Hydro Spy will be hydroexcavating huge trenches, thousands of feet in length. Clients want a turnkey contractor. They want the data on uncovered utilities, the depth of the utility, size of lines, whether it is PVC or steel pipe, and the coloring on the pipe. All this information may be important for client decision-makers.

When working for the oil companies, Hydro Spy will go to the oil rigs to vacuum the sludge from the hoppers. A wash crew goes into the hopper to wash the tanks. On a job, as many as 10 to 15 semi tanker trucks are used to suck the sludge out of the Hydro Spy trucks and haul it to a disposal site.

Customer education

Young says calls from potential clients often lead to an education process. The company gets a clear picture of a project before committing to the work.

"We ask questions. We have a protocol form. If they can answer all questions and we have clarity as to what the project is and what they expect of us, that is helpful,'' he says. "We can't always get someone out there. We like to walk it with the client — to understand all hazards. We are often working with volatile utilities we need to work around. That is our job."

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