Excavating Site Prep

The work differs from project to project,
but the part that excavators play remains crucial.

Site excavation is the beginning phase in a construction project.

But excavating contractors are major players on the construction team, involved from preliminary activity to the end when a project is handed over to the client.

Keith Endy, a project consultant with Schlouch Inc., Maidencreek Township, said the first step is to look at bid specifications.

“The first thing we do are the bid reviews, and we do that by turning to a number of different sources, including online or customer referrals,” Endy said. “The project manager and estimator investigate to determine if the project fits our scope and schedule.”

Robert Bergen, project manager with Landis C. Deck & Sons Site Contractors, a division of H & K Group in Jefferson Township, said bidding on a job is very competitive.

“Being the successful bidder on one in every 10 jobs is considered a good ratio in this industry,” Bergen said. “If a contractor wants 20 jobs for the year, he might have to bid on 200 projects.”

Identifying Scope of Work

Marty “MJ” Weller, estimator/project manager with Schlouch, said identifying the scope of work is getting a clear definition of what a client wants.

“We have to go over everything that is included, and look at ways to be cost-effective,” Weller said. “We are looking out not only for ourselves but for our clients.”

Darin Henry, a lead estimator with Landis C. Deck, said much of the preliminary work depends on the engineering firm.

“When we go through the bidding process, we rely on the geo-tech reports from the engineer,” Henry said.

Those reports will help determine the length of time needed for excavation, as well as the labor and types of equipment needed.

“We have to determine if we can get the job done in a timely matter while meeting the fiduciary goals of the clients,” Henry said.

“In order to figure out what a job will cost, we have to look at what the site looks like now, and determine what it will take to get it to what the client wants it to become,” Bergen said.

“It can be difficult to understand because much of the site work is hidden from the customer,” Bergen said.

The length of the preliminary work differs from project to project and is dependent on when the excavation team is brought onboard.

After The Award

In some cases, the engineering plans are complete, as are all of the necessary municipal and agency approvals and permits. In those instances, an excavating contractor can be awarded a project and be ready to break ground within two months.

But if approvals and permits have not been obtained, the contractor may have to work with the engineers to obtain them, extending the process from six months to a year or more.

“When we don’t have all the permits in place, there is added time needed to re-price, because things will inevitably change,” Endy said.

Approvals most often will be needed from the Department of Environmental Protection, the local conservation district and the Army Corps of Engineers, which has jurisdiction over all waterways in the U.S.

Biggest Hurdles

One of the biggest hurdles an excavator has to overcome is the discovery of the unknown, such as rock.

“We have a lot of unknowns because we can’t see underground,” Bergen said.

“The costs are substantially higher to blast and rip up rock than just moving the dirt,” Henry said.

Weller said some clients are willing to invest upfront by drilling to determine the quantity of rock.

“But it’s not an exact science, because there are variables in the voids between the rock and the thickness of rock,” Weller said.
Rock isn’t always the only surprise lurking underground.

Weller recalled one site where a farmer had dumped chicken excrement.

“No one knew it was there until we stripped off the topsoil, only to discover we had all of this unusable material,” Weller said.

The discovery of underground tanks is always a possibility, Endy said.

In those cases, there is a process for removal outlined by DEP and local authority guidelines.

Environmental Impact

“Whenever we are doing site work, we are 100 percent making an environmental impact,” Bergen said. “The challenge is to do so responsibly.”

“Sometimes we run into endangered species, such as the bog turtle, which can really slow a job down,” Henry said.

A bog turtle study can often take up to a year since turtle activity is limited to certain months.

“If we are careless with a site, such as discharging silt into a stream, we can change the ecology,” Bergen said. “Part of our consideration must be that if we impact wetlands, we have to restore an equal amount of wetlands.”

Those issues are monitored by the Pennsylvania Fish and Game commissions and the county conservation district.

Weather Plays Role

Weather plays a major role in how an excavator can meet deadlines.

“Everyone in this industry is always checking the weather for five days out,” Weller said. “You can’t be moving mud around.”

Likewise, snow and ice make winter a difficult time for site work.

“But it depends on the severity of the winter and of the economic conditions of the client,” Bergen said. “It can come down to time versus money.”

Bergen said spring and fall are the ideal seasons in which to work.

“The summer heat can create conditions which are too dry, preventing soil compaction,” he said.

Thanks to The Reading Eagle for this great article.
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