Vacuum Excavation — A History Lesson

Technology has advanced from the gold rush to underground utility work.
Vacuum Excavation — A History Lesson
Hydroexcavation is a fail-safe method for pinpointing buried utilities without the risk of damage.

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Vacuum excavation has long been an essential practice on job sites across the globe. Every underground construction operator, large or small, seeks to keep crews safe and projects profitable. In a modern, competitive industry, finding the right machine to balance these needs can be difficult.

From damage prevention to fluid cleanup on horizontal directional drilling projects, vacuum excavation saves operators time and helps improve safety. Understanding the transformative history of these machines will arm today’s contractors with an appreciation for the technology and provide insight into how they’re transforming today’s underground construction industry.

Underground origins

The history of vacuum excavation stems from the use of hydroexcavation as far back as the late 1800s, when pressurized water was used for mining purposes in the U.S. Breaking up soil using pressurized water created a cleaner and safer way to dig. From there, hydroexcavation expanded as a method used on underground construction sites throughout most of Canada and the U.S.

Beyond hydroexcavation, the modern “vac” machine can be traced back to cleanup duties and sewer applications beginning in the 1950s. As technology progressed and new innovations took hold, vacuum trucks became a fixture on HDD sites, where they proved effective in cleaning up drilling slurry and fluids exposed at the entry and exit pits on these HDD projects. This method aided operators by improving their visibility of buried utilities and providing an efficient method of fluid disposal.

After their introduction, vacuum excavators found continued heavy usage in Canada through the 1990s and into the present. The industry began to grow significantly in the late 1990s as several equipment manufacturers began entering the market with both truck- and trailer-mounted models to fit a growing demand for hydroexcavation in a variety of locations across North America.

Innovative applications

At the turn of the 21st century, the demand for vacuum excavation led to new designs focused on improving performance on a variety of job sites. Reduced noise, for example, supported the excavators’ growing use in residential neighborhood projects. Innovations within nozzle technology focus on increasing digging capability while reducing damage to underground utilities. Larger tank capacities kept machines on job sites longer and provided greater hauling capacity, improving contractor profitability. For example, some municipal operators improved time savings by nearly 50 percent with larger tank sizes.

Additionally, the machines evolved to fit smaller job site needs as well. Compact units featuring smaller tanks improved ease of use and maneuverability in tight work areas while other, larger models kept operators productive on bigger, more time-intensive projects.

Beyond mechanical updates, today air excavation has found a new prominence. For years, many contractors dismissed the effectiveness of air excavation. Due to the increased time and cost savings from not having to dispose of spoils, the productivity and efficiency of air excavation has proved significant for many operators. Unlike hydroexcavation, which requires access to water, air excavation keeps machines running and operators profitable without costly trips to acquire water or dispose of spoils.

And, just as the applications for vacuum excavation have evolved, so have the safety regulations. While there is not a consistent set of regulations for all states or countries today, several regulations are focused on responsible digging practices. In the U.S., mechanical excavation is prohibited within a “safe zone” on an underground construction job site, creating an opportunity for the use of vacuum excavation for damage prevention.

Vacuum excavators have been used for damage prevention since the 1980s, however, this role for today’s vacuum excavator took off around 2010 as efforts were being made to avoid damaging existing underground utilities. This concentrated effort is spearheaded by the Common Ground Alliance, which reported 363,176 underground events in the U.S. and Canada in 2015. New innovations and machine designs continue to aid vacuum excavation contractors in revealing hidden utilities and preventing damage to utilities on the job.

Trends and predictions

The market for vacuum excavation is expanding in all directions. Every customer has a unique need thanks to the versatility of these machines and advancements in newer technology. As more vacuum excavators are used for damage prevention and utility location around the U.S., market demand is accelerating the need for these machines. The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration found that since 2005, excavation damage is the leading cause of pipeline accidents. This has created additional incentives to use vacuum excavators for utility locating of all sizes.

Today, manufacturers are focused on enhancing operator safety in their machine designs. Operating a vacuum excavator has long required physical demands, including a need to connect and hold various hoses throughout a job. Recent developments are focused on improved ergonomic designs to help keep operators safe and comfortable on the job site.

In addition to operator safety improvements, damage prevention is increasingly critical in areas around the country. Underground construction operators will continue to rely on vacuum excavators to pothole and safely locate hidden utilities, and to help minimize cross bores. And as fiber build-out and utility expansion continues, vacuum excavators will play an integral role in uncovering, digging and cleaning up these jobs.


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