When H.C. Leonard and Henry Green started the Portland Light Company in the Oregon Territory in 1859, the company served just 49 customers. Today, the natural gas provider, now called NW Natural, serves more than 458,000 customers. How does a company that began before Oregon became a state become the largest natural gas provider in the Pacific Northwest? Says NW Natural’s President and CEO Richard Reiten, “Our company’s bread and butter has always been providing great customer service.”
That service begins in the field where NW Natural technicians are out everyday servicing their customers. They know the value of using the right tool for the job. They also know the value of trenchless technology in the field. That’s why pneumatic piercing tools attend every service call. While the company does a considerable amount of directional boring, most of their trenchless work uses pneumatic piercing tools because they save time and money. They are also reliable and durable.
John Schneider, NW Natural’s Field Supervisor of Construction Applications said, “We use piercing tools everyday. It’s something we have to have.”
Jeff Keller from Road Machinery of Portland sells piercing tools to NW Natural, specifically the Grundomat from TT Technologies. He is impressed by the company’s dedication to piercing tools and said, “NW Natural has been a great customer over the years. They’ve really gotten a lot out of their piercing tools.”
NW Natural’s service area covers 15,000 square miles. Soil types range from sandy loam to rocky. With such a mixed bag of soil types, accuracy is a necessity to ensure efficiency. That’s why NW Natural crews use a piercing tool with a reciprocating head.
Schneider said each crew truck is equipped with at least one of these piercing tools. With more than 80 service trucks in their fleet, he estimates that they have more than 100 piercing tools ranging in diameter from two inches all the way to 5.75 inches. For NW Natural, the piercing tool is used almost as often as a hammer or wrench.
NW Natural is expanding. Almost 24,900 new customers were added in 1997 alone, almost 68 every day. While a large part of that new growth was from construction, more than 8,700 homeowners converted from other fuels to natural gas. To maintain that kind of growth and ensure customer satisfaction, service installations must be done effectively and efficiently. For example, 90 percent of the installations in the Portland tri-county area in 1997 used piercing tools.
“Other methods require a crew of three or four and most of the day,” Schneider said. “Piercing tools can be easily handled by two people. They’re perfect for 50- to 75-foot lateral service line bores.”
A small crew can complete a service installation, make the connection and clean up launch and exit pits within a few hours. “With the piercing tools, we dig launch and exit pits, sight it and shoot it,” Schneider said. “Crews can be busy doing other things while the tool is at work”
As far as customer satisfaction is concerned, not many potential customers want their landscaping torn up in order to make the switch to natural gas. “Many just assume that their yards will be torn up,” Schneider said. “In fact, a few customers have actually called to complain that their service was not installed after arriving home from work and not seeing a torn-up lawn. When people realize that we don’t need to trench up their landscape to complete an installation, they’re overjoyed.”
On The Job
A typical conversion installation consists of two or three bores much like a recent job in Vancouver, WA. Schneider said the two-man crew arrived at the site at 7:55 a.m. The installation ran approximately 115 feet with the gas main located across the street from the house and a water main on the same side.
Any contractor or business is required by law to expose a “window” to any underground utility in the area when doing underground work. Utility depth requirements also change from private property to public property. On private land, installations must be at least 18 inches deep. On public property, they must be at least 30 inches deep. To conform to local law and perform the bores, the crew dug four launch/exit pits, one over the gas main, one over the water utility main, one next to the house and one between the house and the water main.
“A majority of the utilities on this job were overhead,” Schneider said. “We only needed to expose the water main. The water main ‘window’ also served as a perfect launch pit to adjust our depth before the road bore.”
The pits next to the house and between the house and the water main were dug by hand to minimize landscape disruption. The others were dug with a mini-backhoe. Spoil was placed on canvas for quick and easy clean up.
The 35-foot bore from the house to the first pit took about 25 minutes. The second bore from the first pit to the water main measured 40 feet and took about 30 minutes. The third and final bore went under the road, 40 plus feet, from the water main pit to the gas main pit in just 40 minutes. After each bore, the crew removed the 3-inch diameter tool and attached the new 2-inch HDPE pipe to the air hose which was left in the bore hole. The pipe was then pulled in as the hose was removed. While the bores were in progress, the crew was able to set the meter, prep the poly main for service tees and begin clean up. The entire installation took 3.5 hours.
Maintenance & Training
Piercing tools receive maintenance and care on a regular basis. Other than basic care, Schneider said the tools don’t see the shop very often. “Some piercing tools come into the shop more often than others. Much depends on the ground conditions of the service district they’re in. Soil conditions vary greatly from district to district. Ultimately, they’re very durable tools,” he said. If tools encounter wet conditions in the field, he said they are blown dry, lubricated, blown dry again, then run briefly to make sure all of the moisture is out of the tool. Tools are lubricated with a biodegradable, non-petroleum-based lubricant.
New crew members receive safety, basic handling and maintenance training with piercing tools. Says Schneider, “A little preventative medicine goes a long way. The rest of the training is on-the-job, with experienced crew members teaching new workers.”