Drainage Contractor

Where do we go from here?

Predicting the future of the drainage industry.

November 1, 2013  By Lowell Kraft

Lowell Kraft Where do we go from here in regard to drainage machinery?

Editor’s note: This article was originally published in the 1977 edition of Drainage Contractor magazine.

Forecasting is a risky business and more than a few reputations have been tarnished while looking into the future. Nevertheless, I’ve been asked to give my views in answer to the question, “Where do we go from here in regard to drainage machinery?” I feel that the question should be answered in two steps. The first addressing the near future, and the second step covering some time down the road.

In the near future, all drainage machines will be equipped with roll-over protection devices for operator safety. Very few are today. In addition, the roll-over protection devices will incorporate enclosed air-conditioned cabs and other operator conveniences, such as a public address system to enable the operator to give directions to the ground support personnel.

Hydrostatics are going to play an important part in the future design of drainage machines. Already incorporated on many machines, their use is going to be expanded even more. Today, few manufacturers attempt to use them for the power train to the digging mechanism, partly because they are unable to cope with shock loads.


I believe engineers will soon overcome this problem, and when they do, there will be a marriage between the digging and traction hydrostatics.

Traction governors will be installed that will automatically advance or retard the tractive speed to match the best digging speed, the best grade control ability and move the most dirt in the shortest period of time. Other improvements, such as the cleaning of the digging equipment, will also be developed to work more efficiently.

With the advent of hydrostatics in the power train for wheel and chain machines, it seems to me it would be a natural development to incorporate automatic sensing devices to change the wheel or chain travel speed to match the variables of hard or soft ground, clay or sand, and dry or wet conditions.

To date, most contractors have experience based around a constant speed wheel or chain variable only by a full gear either faster or slower.

Safety will be a major area for change. With the construction industry’s heavy emphasis on safety, legislation will call for all danger points, such as open chains and/or belt drives to be shielded. On wheel machines that are currently driven by partially guarded or exposed chains, there will be new designs to incorporate hydrostatics or designs will include power shafts that can be guarded adequately.

Taking a longer-range view of the safety efforts, I predict that the cutting equipment also will be shielded. This is not going to be an easy problem to solve. The safety ideas must also remain practical for the user. Think about the variable depths to which either a wheel or a chain machine digs, then picture some shielding that would protect the operator from the cutting equipment at all times. The shielding will have to be flexible and quickly removable. It will also have to be made so that it cannot be removed or retracted unless the cutting equipment is shut down. In other words, it has to be foolproof.

I don’t relish the thought of the consequences. Just imagine a machine hitting a rock and bringing it up to the surface and the operator not being able to see it. Or how about a root that gets trapped and continues to rotate with the wheel?

Safety committees have already discussed safety measures at length and pressures have been applies to include these items in drainage machine safety standards.

Conveyors and augers are two items used on the wheel and chain machines to discharge spoils. Neither are very efficient, and their many moving parts make them costly to maintain.

I feel there will be a tendency to see more machines with discharge chutes like that on the small Radahl wheel machine from Norway. I think it will become common practice on many larger-capacity trenchers.

With engines, speed is proportional to horsepower. Today’s contractors want and demand a lot of speed from their equipment. Therefore, horsepowers are going to increase as they have done with farm tractors. Once again, safety and environmental standards are going to come into play and demand that these engines be quiet enough to meet certain standards. That’s why cabs are going to be necessary.

Cabs will lower noise levels at the operator’s station. Also, noise needs to be reduced for those in the immediate vicinity such as the ground support personnel. Engine manufacturers will have to make efforts to quiet their engines.

As far as long-range predictions are concerned, farmers are becoming more and more aware of the importance of uniform drainage. They want to see the land dry evenly, and not simply over the tile. They are going to demand more tile per acre to establish uniform water tables. But they are going to want to do it at a reasonable cost.

One possibility is the use of smaller-diameter tubing: the costs associated with increased tile densities would be prohibitive. Smaller diameters also will allow for much faster installations, thus reducing installation costs.

Therefore, I predict that there will be continued future design on machines for the trenchless method of installing tubing, especially using the rubber-tired tractor as a prime mover.

We’re likely to see two types of contractors with specialists in both. On one hand, we’re going to see contractors that will install large main drain diameters only, and their equipment will be geared for it. The demand for the very best and most modern equipment for that purpose will, therefore, continue. On the other hand, there will be the contractor that specializes in lateral work only. He’ll probably concentrate on the trenchless method. Of course, there will be some contractors that can finance and manage equipment to specialize in both.

Some people have said that the processes of manufacturing and installing a drainage material and will someday be combined into one operation. If this happens, it is likely to be a new process in conception. This could involve variation of the trenchless method coupled with the simultaneous application of synthetic materials; these might be injected into the soil to form a honeycomb inside drain tube wall, not dissimilar to porous cheese.  

In the area of grade control equipment, there will likely be even greater sophistication than is already available. The contractor will probably be able to take their pickup and drive down a particular lateral and record elevations and distance. They will be able to take the resulting punch card and feed it into a hand-held pre-programmed drainage computer, which will produce a punch card of the drain design. This will then be fed into the machine’s control equipment, and the drain will be installed to a perfect grade.

Development of any type is an ongoing procedure: the drainage contractor who thinks they are going to wait for the newest, most reliable and perfect machine, will wait forever.

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