Miller the Driller Celebrates 50 Years with His Biggest Pipe Ram Ever
- The World’s biggest Pipe Ramming Tool 24-inch diameter, 10,5800 pound, Taurus Grundoram.
- Steel pipe – 66 inch dia., 3/4 inch thick, 20 foot sections, total 160 feet.
- Ram times ranged from 30 to 75 minutes per 20 foot section.
- Average weld times ran between 6 to 7 hours.
- The project took just twelve days from start to finish.
When Gene Miller says it was a tough job, you better believe it. The man known by all as Miller the Driller is celebrating 50 years in the business this year. How does a pioneer in the trenchless industry celebrate 50 years? He tackles the biggest pipe ramming job of his career.
Gene Miller started out digging ditches and plowing snow in 1948. Two years later he married and he and his wife Martha worked side by side building Miller the Driller. Since the early days Miller’s crew has grown from one to between 35 and 40 these days. His daughter, Kris Young, President of Miller the Driller, says her dad is the ultimate entrepreneur. She says, “He has always been ahead of his time. He’s constantly trying new things.” That spirit is what drives Miller to take on jobs like the big ram in Montana.
The pipe ram took place underneath a section of I-90 about 8 miles west of Bozeman for JTL Group, Inc. JTL is a highway contractor with a gravel pit on the north side of I-90. They are opening another pit on the south side. The bore under the interstate will facilitate a conveyor system between the two pits so wash and grading facilities can be shared. A large bore was needed.
The 66 inch diameter pipe for this job makes it one of the biggest diameter pipe rams to take place in North America in some of the toughest conditions anywhere. Miller says, “The reaction of that soil to mechanical excavation really threw me for a loss. I really misjudged it.”
According to Miller, an initial attempt to bore the 160 foot run with a conventional auger jack and bore failed. He couldn’t make any headway because of the gravel, rocks and boulders present in the soil. Miller turned to pipe ramming, a method he pioneered in this country.
Miller estimates that he has done somewhere between 50 and 60 pipe rams, although it could be more. He believes pipe ramming is a corner stone of the trenchless industry. He says, “I don’t know how you would ever do a job like the one we just did without it.” With his experience, he should know.
33 years ago when he first started using trenchless equipment, many thought he would never make it. Miller recalls, “One of my best customers at that time told my wife that we would starve to death because there aren’t that many holes to drill.” Today Miller runs 5 crews. They have worked in Alaska, the Caribbean and throughout the United States. Too many jobs to begin to count.
He is proud of his 50 years, but will not take much, if any of the credit. Ask him why he’s been so successful and he will point to his staff. He says, “I really appreciate the reputation my people made for me. People say, ‘Miller the Driller does this and Miller the Driller does that’, well Miller the Driller doesn’t do much of anything anymore, but I have some great people that sure do.” What Miller the Driller did with the pipe ram in Montana several weeks ago, was nothing short of spectacular.
Miller already had a Koloss Grundoram from TT Technologies in his pipe ramming arsenal, but knew that this job needed more. He was aware of a pipe ramming monster and knew where to find it.
Miller contacted TT Technologies Product Specialist Mike Schwager and the crew was off to Aurora, Illinois to pick up the world’s biggest pipe ramming tool, a 24 inch diameter, 10,580 pound, Taurus Grundoram.
Over the years, Miller’s jobs have become bigger and bigger. His equipment needs have increased as well. Miller says, “When I got into the drilling business, the drill, the welder, the auger and all the equipment fit into my pickup and trailer.” The job in Montana required 3 semi-trucks and a pickup.
Once the Miller crew returned to the Montana site, they began preparing the pipe and Taurus Grundoram for the big job ahead. Arntzen Corporation (Rockford, IL.) supplied the 66 inch diameter steel pipe sections for the ram. They were 3/4 inch thick and 20 feet long. Miller says the pipe was of exceptional quality and made the job that much easier.
Arntzen also fabricated a rolled cone reducing adapter to go from a 66 inch diameter to a 60 inch diameter. TT’s Schwager suggested using turn buckles to hold the reducing adapter in place. This saved a tremendous amount of time because it eliminated the need to weld the adapter to each pipe section.
A 60 inch segmented ram cone brought the diameter down to 48 inches. A 48 inch ram cone was then used to reduce the diameter to 30 inches. A 30 inch soil removal adapter was the last piece. It reduced the diameter again and connected to the Grundoram. This configuration is key to a successful pipe ram. It ensures a tight fit between the tool and the pipe, allows spoil to be ejected during the ram and helps minimize pipe flaring. A cutting shoe was fabricated on site.
The ram went very well, with ram times ranging from 30 to 75 minutes per 20 foot section. Welds took 6 to 7 hours. Miller was impressed by the tool. He says, “It’s like swinging a 6,000 pound sledge hammer, 180 times per minute. I think the term that’s quite commonly used these days is ‘awesome’.”
While ground conditions did not stop the progress of the ramming tool, it did make spoil removal difficult. According to Miller, cleaning out the spoil was the most challenging portion of the job. The spoil removal adapter helped, but with rocks ranging in size from softballs to basketballs, it’s easy to see why it was so difficult. Miller says, “We tried to auger it out and that didn’t work. The auger wouldn’t lay still. It kept jumping all over the place.”
Miller’s crew enlisted the help of a piece of equipment called a Dingo. The Dingo is a one man mini skid steer manufactured in Australia. Miller says, “It’s a little tiny machine, with a little tiny bucket. You just drive it on in there and clean it out bucket by bucket.”
The last 20 foot segment was rammed in on June 6th, bringing the total to 160 feet and bringing to an end the biggest pipe ram of Miller’s career, so far. The project took, from preparation to clean up, just 12 days. Everyone could go home and see their families, which is very important to Miller. He says, “I’ve got real good people. Our whole business is built on people, very dedicated people. We try to get them home at least every two weeks.”
Gene Miller has a great appreciation and respect for the people that work for him and work in the industry. He says, “To get people interested in this business, where you go from mud hole to mud hole and leave your wife and kids, it takes a special breed of kids.”
What does the future hold for Gene Miller? He says, “For me, the future holds more fishing and more winters away. The future for Miller the Driller looks promising. My daughter is doing a beautiful job as President of the company. My grandson [Brandon] is trying to beat me out of my job and as quick as he can get that done, I’ll be gone.” Gene adds that he will remain active in the business.
After the Montana ram, Gene went home for just one night and was up early the next morning, off to Canada to spend some time fishing. And after 50 years and one of North America’s largest pipe rams, with the world’s largest pipe ramming tool, who can blame him for taking sometime off. He’s earned it.
By Jim Schill
Trenchless Technology, July 1998, Pages 24-25