By Ken Wysocky | Money Machines | Gas Oil Mining Contractor Magazine | July 2012
Using hydroexcavating equipment to help maintenance companies service oil and natural gas pipelines in the swamps and marshes of Louisiana used to be impossible, for one simple reason: Hydroexcavating trucks don’t float.
But that all changed in December 2011 when Pro Serve Inc., a full-service industrial vacuuming, hydroexcavating and hydroblasting company in Prairieville, took delivery of a new machine employees call “The Swamper.” The result of a joint venture between GapVax and Pro Serve, the custom-made unit essentially is a “lite” version of a normal-size GapVax hydroexcavating truck, mounted on a pontoon barge.
So far, The Swamper has been a game-changer for Pro Serve, which is usually hired as a subcontractor to expose underground pipelines so a general contractor’s employees can perform pipeline maintenance work, says general manager Ronnie Baron.
“We saw a need for this kind of machine because so many pipelines run through wet areas that our hydroexcavating trucks, which weigh 45,000 pounds empty, can’t access,” Baron says. “And for safety reasons, you can’t use a metal bucket in Louisiana to dig within two feet of either side of a pipeline, which pretty much restricts you to using shovels or hydroexcavators.”
The creation of the machine posed a challenge for GapVax. “We basically started out with a skid unit and cut it in half,” Baron explains. “It was a struggle because it had to weigh less than 30,000 pounds.”
The final result is a scaled-down hydroexcavator. The blower can pull 3,500 cfm at 18 inches Hg; a hydroblasting pump that generates 1,500 psi at 15 gpm; a boom that extends up to 25 feet and swing 180 degrees right or left; two 350-gallon plastic water tanks; and two six-chamber pontoons outfitted with metal crawler tracks. It also offers a filtration pump to pull water from a canal or river if the water tanks run dry.
“It’s different,” Baron says of The Swamper. “It’s the first one of its kind. When it goes down the road on a lowboy trailer, it gets a lot of looks.
“It took a lot of engineering to make it float,” he continues. “The tracks act as paddles in the water, and when they hit dry land, they pick up traction. It can only move about 2 1/2 to 3 mph, but it eventually gets to where we need it to go.”
The Swamper usually requires a crew of three: an operator/supervisor and two technicians. Remote-control steering and ignition is a big plus, because the operator can stand in the back of the unit, where there are better sight lines, and drive in reverse.
The view forward from the cab is obstructed, Baron explains. “So it’s a lot easier to ‘track’ (drive) it in reverse while standing in the rear, where the driver can safely see where he’s going.”
Baron lauds other safety aspects of The Swamper, which he says minimizes the hours general contractors must put men “in the hole” to excavate by hand in a dangerous environment.
Despite its scaled-down size, Baron says The Swamper supplies more-than-adequate power. For instance, the blower that vacuums mud away as it’s excavated is much smaller than the typical blower on Pro Serve’s GapVax trucks. But Baron notes it can still suck up the region’s “gumbo mud – that thick, blackjack-looking, quicksand-kind of mud,” with a 300-foot-long hose, if need be.
It’s too early to tell just how much The Swamper will impact Pro Serve’s bottom line. But it definitely opens up a lucrative new market for the company by providing a way to safely hydroexcavate in previously inaccessible marshes and swamps, Baron says.
And making even more impossible marsh work possible.