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Horizontal Directional Drilling Operator Training Pays Dividends

by: Christine Smith, Vermeer Corporation
For over a decade, the team at Rays Electrical Services in Elgin, Illinois has worked diligently to earn the reputation of being a quality residential and commercial electrician for the greater Chicago area. Since Ray Sakolari opened the company in 2008, he’s made a commitment to employees, customers, and family that training would always be an essential part of the company’s business model. It’s that commitment that has help Rays Electrical continue to grow and expand into new areas of services including underground utility work. Investing in training and making sure everyone on his team is cross-trained and always learning keeps everyone at Rays Electrical all year long and in high demand by a growing client base.

One of the major milestones for Rays Electrical happened in 2013, when the team was contracted to install propane stations for large number Menards stores around the area.

“We used to contract out a lot of our underground utility work, so to be able to perform all the work ourselves, we purchased a Vermeer D16x20 Series II Navigator horizontal directional drill (HDD) from the team at Vermeer Midwest”, explained Sakolari. “We also brought on experienced directional drilling operators so we could get started quickly. The drill continues to work great. But, bringing on reliable drill operators was a challenge. Some didn’t know as much as we needed them to know, and others weren’t dependable.”

Sakolari, a trained electrician himself, understands how important a quality education is to the mastery of a craft. So, after cycling through a few drill operators, he decided to seek out a reputable source for directional drill operator training. “We had too much current and future work depending on our HDD crew to not have stability in that area of our business.”

Operating Training Experience
Consulting with Matt Lind at Vermeer Midwest, Sakolari learned that Vermeer offers an intensive horizontal directional drilling operator training course a few hours away at its Pella headquarters. Sakolari immediately signed himself up for the Vermeer HDD Circuit training program in 2017.

During the two-week drill operator training course, Sakolari split his time between hands-on drilling, locating and mud mixing course work, and the classroom.

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“Beside hands-on time, I also learned about tooling, mixing additives, drilling calculations and establishing standard operating procedures to help ensure everyone is working efficiently and safely,” Sakolari explained. “The four-person HDD Circuit program team also walked through best practices for daily machine maintenance and explained the importance of checking utility locates with potholing. There was an incredible amount of information packed in those two weeks.”

Sharing the Training Experience
Upon returning from the HDD Circuit program, Sakolari sat down with his wife and business partner, Lisa, and their son, Andreios, to discuss how they could share his drilling operator training experience with the team.

“We immediately developed and implemented our own standard operating procedures to help everyone work better together,” said Sakolari. “Those changes alone have helped propel the growth of the company. We also incorporated many of the ‘best-practices’ information into the apprentice program we deployed in the company’s early years.

“It’s critical that we train every new employee the right way before they have the chance to develop bad habits. There is absolutely no room for incompetence in the trades. Training and cross training helps keep everyone safe and productive. It also provides individuals with the skills they need to be successful in all areas of their lives. That’s something important to everyone at Rays Electrical,” said Sakolari.

Leveraging Skilled Labor Training
Sakolari used his formal drilling operator training to propel the continued growth of the company. Rays Electrical customers noticed his team’s professionalism and reliability, which led to more work and referrals.

“It wasn’t long after going through the HDD Circuit program that we started talking about adding another drill,” said Sakolari. “Ultimately, we decided to invest in a bigger horizontal directional drill and purchased a Vermeer D23x30 S3 Navigator HDD. We also added a Vac-Tron LP Mini 303DT trailer vacuum excavator for potholing utilities and HDD mud management.

“My experience going through the directional drilling operator training course gave us the confidence to pull the trigger on expanding and has also led to more work,” said Sakolari.

Training the Team
With more work to do, employees to manage and machinery to operate, Sakolari wanted others on the team to get formal operating training, too. Lisa and Andreios attended the HDD Circuit program in 2018. Since then, several other members of the team have participated in various drill operator training courses.
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“We’ve grown our knowledge and confidence, and it shows in our daily performance on the job,” said Lisa. “We’re more systematic, and that’s made us more efficient. We are also better equipped to handle more challenging projects, including larger or longer conduit installs or just working in more difficult ground conditions.”

Andreios added that going through operator training also aids with cross training crew members. “Having multiple people with formal directional drilling training means employees will get the same information and direction. No matter which crew they are working on that day, or if someone is doing a job they don’t do daily, they know what’s expected from them, and they can handle it,” he said.

Training Even When The Crew’s Not Drilling
Horizontal directional drilling operator training sometimes pays off in unexpected ways. Rays Electrical team recently wrapped up installing a 200-foot, double 2-inch electrical conduit project at the Amazon Distribution Center in Romeoville, Illinois. “It seemed like the job should be straight forward,” said Sakolari. “But, as we went through our operating procedures ahead of drilling, we realized the ground conditions were going to be next to impossible for a regular horizontal directional drill. Under the Amazon Distribution Center’s parking lot sat a Grade 9 glacial sherd with an 8,000 psi dolomite mix.”

After using a ground penetrating radar (GPR) and a McLaughlin CS418B core saw to locate and pothole private and public utilities under the concrete slab, the crew discovered the harsh ground conditions. They immediately enlisted Alex DeGaetano and Matt Lind from Vermeer Midwest to determine their best course of action.

The group decided to convert the bore to an open cut install using a Vermeer RTX1250i2 ride-on tractor equipped with a rockwheel.

“A lot of contractors may have attempted just to push through, causing unnecessary wear on machinery and tooling,” said Lind. “The Rays Electrical team knows better. They seek out the right solution in everything they do, which saves time and helps make equipment last longer.”

The rented RTX1250i2 with a rockwheel from Vermeer Midwest allowed the team to open the trench up in just five hours. They then placed the electrical line and backfilled the trench. In total, they were only on site for a couple of days – something Lind said would have taken more than a week with drilling.

“I credit my team for knowing when to pause a project to determine the best course of action,” said Sakolari. “It’s something we didn’t always do before attending directional drilling training courses. Also, having Alex and Matt out there with us most of the time helped it all go fast and smooth.”

Going Beyond Horizontal Directional Drilling
Rays Electrical’s growth extends beyond just HDD. The family also added a digger derrick and boom trucks to aid with overhead electrical work. Rays Electrical regularly works for commercial retail companies like Aldi Foods, O’Reilly Auto, and Jewel-Osco, as well as utility companies like AT&T and power companies. Rays Electrical is also expanding to commercial and residential generator installation work.

In addition to enrolling in horizontal directional drilling training courses, several members of Rays Electrical team took part in classroom courses offered by the Association of Equipment Manufacturers (AEM) at the International Construction and Utility Equipment Expo (ICUEE, now rebranded The Utility Expo) in 2019, where a major emphasis was placed on working better, faster and safer. Upon return from that trip the company adopted that motto with a bit of their own twist. “Investing in the education of our people is the heart of our success, so we added the term ‘smarter’ to that list. Now, each and everyday everyone on the Rays Electrical team shows up ready to work Smarter, Better, Faster and Safer for each other and for our customers,” concluded Sakolari.

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