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Fibre-to-the-Home Brings Compact HDD to the Neighborhood: Next Level Directional Drilling Boring Ontario

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Next Level Directional Drilling is utilizing compact directional drills to install conduit for fibre optic able build outs in Ontario.

Fibre optic cable installation work continues to be a hot topic throughout North America. In Canada, and specifically Ontario, several telcom providers are working diligently to bring fibre to the home and that means compact directional drills are becoming more frequently seen in neighborhoods across the province. The work has created demand for skilled directional drilling contractors like Next Level Directional Drilling, Belleville, ON.

Jacob Cooney, owner of Next Level Directional Drilling can attest to the rise in the use of HDD for fibre installs. Cooney has grown into the role of business owner and independent contractor over the last several years. Based in Belleville, Ontario, the directional drilling contractor has a keen awareness of the increase in fibre work in his service area.

He said, “Well, there’s certainly a lot more drills around here now. In Alberta, you see them on almost every other corner. We’re starting to see a major increase in Ontario now. We have several projects going for a number of companies. One is doing a lot of main line installation, the other has a contract to perform house drops. So, we’re doing both types of installs, the mains and to the house.” 

Cooney has seen both side of the fibre optic cable build-out market. He spent time working at a major telcom company, but now works for them as directional drilling contractor, installing the conduit for that fibre.

Cooney said, “I was working for one of the larger telcom providers, for several years. One day my boss said if I ever got a directional drill, he’d use my service. So, I went to my business partner, Dylan [Jeffs] and said, ‘We need to get money and that’s your job.’  And he did. I used the Grundodrill when I was working for one of those providers and I really liked it.  So, when I went out on my own, I approached Jeff Lyons at Trenchless Utility Equipment (TUE) in Burlington about getting a drill. That was almost two years ago now.”

The first directional drill Cooney purchased from TUE to get his company started was a Grundrodrill 4X compact HDD unit from trenchless equipment manufacturer TT Technologies, Aurora, IL, USA.

According to TT Technologies Directional Drilling Specialist Bill Jeffery, for fibre-to-the-home, as well as mainline, the compact drills are very popular. He said, “There’s a level of technology and power that is built into these drills that’s attracting a lot of contractors, especially for last mile type work. I think part of the equation is the fact that they can be easily maneuvered and transported from jobsite to jobsite. A pick-up truck and a trailer will do. They can offer as much as 43.6 kN (9,800 lbs.) of thrust and pullback. And you don’t need a huge crew compliment to run them.”

Making the Industry Better- Trenchless Utility Equipment

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The Grundodrill 4X that Cooney is using is compact and powerful, offering 43.6 kN (9,800 lbs.) of thrust and pullback. Portability of the small drill helps with efficiency, as it can be transported with a basic pick-up truck and trailer.

Trenchless Utility Equipment Inc (TUE), Burlington, ON has been serving the trenchless equipment needs of the Canadian Utility Industry for over 25 years. TUE was formed in 1992 to specialize in, what was relatively new at that time, horizontal directional drilling equipment. Through its involvement and association with Radiodetection, the company became committed to protecting underground utility infrastructure and became a leader in damage prevention.

Jeffery said, “They’re a great partner for sales. But more importantly support and service afterwards.  I’ve known Jeff for almost 30 years. They started handling our boring tools years ago. Quality organization, that I can’t say enough about.”

Owner Jeff Lyons is dedicated to promoting in the utility construction industry.  He said, “Really I equate best practices with table stakes for anyone providing products and service in this industry. You shouldn’t even sit at the table if you aren’t willing to ante up. The potential losses and risks are too high for a half in involvement. Our promise as an equipment provider is to continue to partner with the industry for safe and profitable application of all of our products.”

Cooney worked with Lyons and TUE to purchase his first two directional drills, that are now working on fibre conduit installations throughout the Belleville area.

A Typical Day in the Neighborhood

Typical fibre-to-the-home installation distances can vary dramatically for the fibre duct installation work that Next Level Directional Drilling is doing throughout Ontario. According to Cooney, the crews are installing 19mm (¾-in.) conduit for the house drops. Length of installation varies as some are long, up to 200m (650 ft.), while others might be 10m (32 ft), just off the roadway. For mainline installations, crews install 75mm (3-in.) conduit at average distances of 80m (240 ft.).

According to Cooney his crews are using the compact drill in neighborhoods, tight spots, cul-de-sacs and around corners because the drill rods are flexible. 

Cooney said, “Usually we do all the drilling in a specific area first and once that’s complete, then the fibre installers come in and place the fibre and do all the tie-ins.  First, we do need to expose any adjacent utilities, daylights. The locates need to be completed and you need to get your own walk through done so you know what’s in the ground.  We try to do that the day before; paint everything out. That way when the drill gets there, they don’t have to wait for any holes to be dug.  They can start right in.”

Soil conditions are often the biggest challenge that Next Level Directional Drilling faces.

Cooney said, “In Belleville, it’s pretty rocky. We’re in Ontario on the Canadian shield.  Other areas have better ground, sometimes you get into sandy soil. We are pumping a bentonite slurry in most cases. If you have a lot of sandy soil you have to pump more mud. In areas where we’re not pumping benontite, we use water to keep the head cool. 

“But mostly we’re just drilling out and pulling back, which is nice. You don’t need to pump a lot of mud and make reaming passes. They’re just quick shots.  And when you’re getting paid by the meter that makes a difference. Plus, the drill is so simple and easy to run. It’s easy to work on and a very reliable machine.”

Jeffery said, “With the drill’s vice cycling operations computerized in the Smart Vice system, the whole process is simplified, making this drill very user-friendly. It’s more or less a single push button control for the operator. And when you’re getting paid by the meter, anything that can help improve efficiency and speeds up drill times is welcome. The self-centering vice also reduces wear and tear. With a single switch, the operator can return the drill to manual.”

Next Level Directional Drilling can get several house drops completed in a day, along with its mainline work totaling 300-400m (990-1400 ft.) per day. According to Cooney, average drill times for house drops can vary. Some take only a few minutes, “as fast the drill rods can go on in the ground,” if the soil conditions are right. With several area fibre build-out projects calling for installations of up to 24,000 kilometers of fibre, he figures there is at least 3-4 more years of work on these particular projects.

Taking It to the Next Level

During peak construction season, in the summer months, Next Level Directional Drilling employs eight crewmembers. According to Cooney, the company does some additional construction work beside horizontal directional drilling that keeps crews busy and plans to expand in the future.  

He said, “Currently we have six drill operators out of our group. We’ll be hiring a few more when we add more drills. We’re expanding into other areas of Ontario as well. Next year we’re planning to purchase a backhoe, dump truck and another drill. I anticipate doubling in size.  We could have as many as 20 people working here next year.”