Small Window for Success

A growing hydroexcavation company gets the most out of Alaska’s short construction season
Small  Window for Success
Nick Snow, of Alaska Stormwater Maintenance, monitors progress while the Vactor pump truck cleans out a sewer. (Photography by Frank Flavin)

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The owners of Alaska Stormwater Maintenance have three priorities: Satisfy their customers, find the right equipment, and work like crazy six months of the year.

On a given day, the company may be vacuuming sediment from a 55-foot well for a residential customer or dredging a sewage lagoon for a city. Recent jobs included hydroexcavation for a sewer line being replaced at a fast-food restaurant in a popular mall, and using high-pressure water to prepare a bridge for resurfacing. It’s a mixed bag: If there is a challenge, Alaska Stormwater Maintenance is there.

David Scheele and partner Richard Bollard opened the company in 2003, starting with a 1985 Vactor combination truck Scheele bought from the City of Anchorage at an auction. Both men were working for the city at the time, Bollard as a foreman and Scheele as a heavy-duty diesel mechanic.

Scheele wasn’t sure what he would do with the truck until offers came in to put it to work. For the first two years, the partners kept their day jobs, but by the third year they were earning a suitable income, and the city saw a conflict of interest. Scheele departed and Bollard retired shortly after with 25 years of service. Their business has grown significantly since then.

Scheele was captivated with hydroexcavation, and Bollard was experienced with it as well.

“What we did with our company was make the technology available to those who didn’t have the equipment but needed the capability,” Scheele says. “In the past, some of these contractors had to dig and take their chances. Now, we often partner with them on projects. We are available for companies and municipalities, big and small, and also for residential projects.”

 

The path to success

The owners have profited from the network they built while with the city, and they have continued to expand it. Those contacts help them locate the equipment they need.

“We have people we work with on projects looking for equipment from as far as Alabama, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Washington,” Scheele notes.

Scheele has picked up an array of equipment at auctions throughout the U.S. He shops a wide area for used equipment because the local market isn’t big enough to justify buying brand new. His experience and training have helped him grow adept at repair and rebuilding.

“We are extremely cautious about spending money, because six months out of the year, there is no income,” Scheele says. “Nearly all of our equipment was purchased at auction. We buy a lot of equipment, often for a specific job. At one time recently, we had 22 pieces of equipment.”

The fleet includes:

Two 1985 Vactor 1200s on GMC Brigadier chassis with 2,000 psi/80 gpm water systems and 16-cubic-yard debris tanks

A 1983 Vactor 1200 hydroexcavator on a Volvo chassis, with 1,500 psi/20 gpm water system and a 16-cubic-yard debris tank

1996 Vactor 2100 on a Ford L-8000 chassis with a 12-cubic-yard debris tank, 2,500 psi/110 gpm water system, and a positive displacement blower

RS Technical Services camera truck with Omni EYE III zoom camera and NovaSTAR camera, both on steerable tractors

The yard is on two and a half acres, and the building is made up of eight Conex containers situated to create an enclosure on the concrete floor and then roofed over. The heated space houses the four Vactor trucks during winter.

 

Partners in grime

A recent remodeling project at the University of Alaska in Anchorage called for Alaska Stormwater Maintenance, as prime contractor, to uncover several lines buried two feet deep. The job meant hydroexcavating down seven feet to preserve electrical, communications, natural gas, steam and other lines. The excavation was 10 feet wide and extended for 100 feet. The crew worked in tight quarters and a large volume of material had to be removed without closing walkways in the area.

On another project at Anchorage International Airport, a crew ran a hose 168 feet from the Vactor 2100 inside a building to excavate a 6-foot-square, 7-foot-deep hole for a surge protector tank.

The Vactor 2100 came into play again for hydroexcavating a 9-foot by 7-foot area 5-feet deep inside a major department store in Anchorage to house the foundation for two elevators.

 

Turning the screw

Scheele makes sure his equipment is well maintained so he can continue to handle these difficult jobs.

“For six months I abuse the heck out of it, and then spend the winter doing repairs,” he says. “Summer is so busy I don’t have time. If we lose a motor or transmission, we patch it up and do whatever we have to do. That’s one reason we have four trucks. If one breaks down, I can get another and not lose time.”

Scheele and Bollard have grown accustomed to difficult work, and the company is geared to go wherever there is a job.

“We will send our equipment by ferry, railroad, or any road that leads in the right direction, if the job is worth our time,” Scheele says.

There are five climate zones in Alaska, from rainforest to desert. The southeast panhandle can get up to 200 inches of rain a year, versus four inches around Prudhoe Bay on Alaska’s North Slope.

“Soil conditions include everything from gravel and sand to shale and glaciated clay,” Scheele says. “The clay is dense, and a little water turns it into soup. It is tough to pick up and tough to move.”

A crew can be working in good, clean gravel and sand for a few feet and then encounter messy clay, slowing down work considerably.

“Even though Richard and I have a lot of experience with these soils, we’ll think we know what we’re doing, and the next thing we know we are fighting clay we did not anticipate. Trust me, we sometimes are greatly surprised by what we find.”

For jobs in abrasive rock, Scheele prefers an older Vactor 1200, just to protect the newer machine from the wear and tear.

“But it all depends on the projects,” he says. “The idea is to match the equipment to the soils, keep maintenance down, and keep performance efficient.”

 

Mysterious underground

Contractors frequently deal with high water tables in the Anchorage Bowl, and Alaska Stormwater Maintenance is often called in for water mitigation.

“We have plumbing contractors who call us if the drains are too big or deep for their trucks,” Scheele says. “We bid side by side with our customers. If a sewer line is plugged up, we can hydroexcavate six to seven feet to get to the sewer line and allow the contractor to proceed with the repair.”

Water and sewer lines can be 10 feet or deeper under ground, depending on the terrain. Some lines installed 25 years ago lie 25 to 27 feet deep. Every job is different, and crews have to be prepared.

“I never know what I will find when I dig, or what the contractor customer will ask me to do,” Scheele says. “He has to change what he does, and then we have to change when conditions on the job change. We work closely together. When I see something I’m worried about, I say so. In the interim, the contractor tells me how to proceed, or to stop until he can get more equipment.”

 

Team and truck

The laborers on the truck with Scheele are well paid for their six months of work, and they are much more than truck drivers.

“They have to know how to set up the truck and not damage it,” Scheele says. “But more important is the issue of safety. The truck can come back in pieces, and I’ll put it back together. They had better know the job, or be willing to listen to instructions to learn what we do and how we do it. We want employees to be safe, we want the customer to be safe, and we want to perform to the customer’s satisfaction. And I don’t want any underground utilities damaged. That would cost us a lot of money.”

With such extreme conditions, Scheele never quite knows what to expect when the phone rings, but he’s ready for the challenge.

“We can’t do everything people ask of us, but we try.”



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