Pipe Bursting vs. Open-Top Excavation for Sewer Line Repair

Mr Rooter with a shovel.
Dealing with a defective or damaged pipeline can be extremely frustrating. It is one of those problems that only ever seems to occur at the most inconvenient times. Unfortunately, it is not something you can usually avoid, either. Sewer lines inevitably wear out over time, and the only thing that can be done is to repair or replace them. So what are some of the ways to deal with this problem as quickly and efficiently as possible?

There are two common options for sewer line repair: open-top excavation and trenchless sewer line repair methods such as pipe bursting.

Both of these methods are popular. Which one is best for you to use? This will depend on your particular situation, the repairs needed, and your preferences.

What Is the Debate?

While there are many different levels to this ongoing debate on the merits of trenchless vs. open-top excavation, it can often boil down to one of the essential factors involved — the trenches. In pipe bursting, the ground does not have to be dug up. Things can stay largely in place while the process is completed underground with two holes on either end of the repairs being the only digging that needs to be done. In open-top excavation, however, large trenches are dug down to and around the pipes so that the repair or replacement work can take place.

Trenchless Sewer Line Repair and Pipe Bursting

Understanding what pipe bursting involves is important to appreciate the benefits and limitations of this repair option.

What Is Pipe Bursting?

Pipe bursting is a method of repairing or replacing our sewer lines without digging trenches in the ground and wreaking havoc on your yard. It is not the only trenchless method, but it is one of the most popular options that avoid digging up the yard. The process works to replace the existing pipe without ever even disturbing the ground above the sewer lines.

The sewer pipe bursting process involves creating two access points on either side of the existing pipe, then breaking the old pipe by pulling the new fused pipe through it. This method is quick, quiet and eliminates the need for city permits or lengthy excavation processes.

How Does Pipe Bursting Work?

If this were the first time you were hearing about a pipe bursting, you would be forgiven for being confused. How can you replace a pipe buried in the ground without first digging up the ground to access the pipe?

The first trenchless methods were first introduced about 15 years ago as an alternative to the major inconvenience of trench-digging. Pipe bursting is not to be confused with pipelining - which is another type of trenchless sewer line repair but involves a different process.

The pipe bursting process uses the infrastructure that already exists underground in the sewer lines. This equipment acts as a guide for installing the new pipes with little to no disturbance to the surrounding ground. The existing pipe is replaced with either a pneumatic hammer or a static pulling head. The old pipe is then broken up and shifts outward into the surrounding soil. The space this old pipe used to inhabit is then filled by the new pipe.

Because this is a matter of one pipe simply sliding into the newly vacated space left by the old one, it is most common to exchange one pipe for another of the same size or to upgrade the size slightly. Larger size upgrades are possible, but they will require more preparation and additional work for correct execution.

Typically, this entire process is completed in three distinct steps that are each crucial for the transition of pipes to go smoothly and successfully. To help you gain a fuller picture of how this process works, we will take a quick look at each step now.

1. Setup

During this step, the necessary machines are set up and put into place. The bursting rods — the tools that do the actual breaking of the existing pipe — are installed. Through the use of the flexible guiding rod, these bursting rods are fed down into the ground and to the existing pipe. The power source is set up.

2. Initiation

In this phase, the pipe launch pit will need to be dug. It is not a full trench like the kind you would see if you were doing traditional open-top excavation, but you will need to dig a little bit to get the new pipe into the ground. The new pipe will be put into the launch pit along with the expander that will help guide it into the old pipe’s space and fit correctly.

The cutter will also be installed and the bursting rods secured in place. By the end of this stage, everything is ready to go. The pipe bursting itself can now actually begin.

3. Completion

During this part of the process, the bursting rods and cutting rods work together to break apart the existing pipe, which is then dispersed into the surrounding soil. The new pipe, led by the expander, is immediately pulled down into the ground to fill the space left by the old pipe. After this is complete, the additional equipment can be removed, packed up, and taken offsite. The process is completed at this point, and a brand new pipe has been installed where the old and faulty one used to be.

The two small pits can then be filled in and normal activity can resume in the household or business.

Trenchless Sewer Repair Pros and Cons

Now that we know a little bit more about what this process looks like and how it works, we can look at both the good and the bad. Keep in mind that all pros and cons are weighted differently. What might be an enormous red flag for someone else might not be a huge concern for you. Likewise, what might be a huge positive for you might barely be a factor for someone else.

Pros of Pipe Bursting

Here are just a few of the benefits that pipe bursting offers home and business owners.

1. Minimal Ground Disturbance

Yes, most pipe-bursting operations will still require a small amount of digging. The pipe launch pit will need to be created, which will require a small amount of ground disturbance. However, it will be nothing compared to the enormous trenches dug for traditional open-top excavation operations. When you choose pipe bursting as your trenchless pipe replacement method of choice, you are helping ensure that your yard remains relatively undisturbed. It can also prevent the need to dig up the street and sidewalk outside your home and pay for those repairs as well once the job is over.

This lower ground disturbance also usually means a shorter working time. It means less work in re-seeding grass over the operation site. It means less time waiting for the grass to grow back in over the sewer line and less time staring out at the unsightly site where the operation took place.

2. Money Saved in Restorative Work

Once your ground has been dug up, it is not always easy to get it looking healthy and green again. This restoration does not just happen overnight, and it certainly does not happen for free. It costs money to repair your yard and any other disturbed landscaping. It is also going to cost you time and labor, as you will need to spend hours over the course of several months working to repair the damage.

For this reason, sewer pipe repair methods that do not involve digging might be preferable. Any restorative work you have to do will be minimal.

Cons of Pipe Bursting

Of course, no matter how wonderful and convenient pipe bursting is, nothing is entirely without its downsides. Here are a few of the possible objections to pipe bursting.

1. Higher Costs

Although you will certainly save both time and money in the area of restorative work when you choose pipe bursting, you are likely to pay more upfront. While every project will be different, trenchless methods of pipe repair and replacement typically cost more than open-top excavation methods. On average, they can cost anywhere from 30 to 50 percent more than the open-top options.

The reason for this higher price tag is the very in-depth procedures involved with pipe bursting. Simply opening up the ground and digging a trench is much easier and requires much less expensive and complex equipment.

On average, you can expect the cost of pipe bursting to amount to around $60-$200 per foot. This total can amount to about $20,000 on your final bill. While the pipe bursting process is easier, you should be aware of the cost and whether it's the best option for your budget.

2. Not Always Viable

There may be some circumstances in which it is simply not possible to replace the old pipe with trenchless methods. Sometimes, this issue may be because there are nearby utilities that need to be protected. Other times, it may be that the pipe in question is too damaged and corroded for this method to work correctly.

In cases like these, the only choice may be to dig the pipe up via traditional excavation methods.

Pipe Bursting Summed Up

Pipe bursting is a great way of replacing your sewer lines, especially if you are looking for ways to do so without disrupting the ground around the site in question. By choosing pipe bursting, you will not have to go through months of rehabilitation for the worksite.

Although this method does tend to cost slightly more than regular digging methods, it is important to weigh this factor against the knowledge that you will also save money by not having to restore the work site. A downside is that this method is not always possible depending on your exact circumstances.

Open-Top Excavating for Sewer Line Repair

With a solid understanding of pipe bursting and how trenchless sewer repair works, let’s now take time to consider the other possibilities. Open-top excavating is an alternative to pipe bursting and used to be the only method for repairing sewer lines.

What Is Open-Top Excavating?

Open-top excavating is another process of either repairing or replacing damaged or faulty sewer lines. As the name suggests, this process involves digging these pipes up and excavating them in order to more fully access them. The way the earth is removed from the top of these pipes leads to the phrase "open top."

This process is how sewer line servicing was traditionally completed. Although trenchless methods have since been developed, these excavating methods are still used by many professionals.

How Does Open-Top Excavating Work?

This method is fairly easy to understand and it works quite as expected. Heavy digging equipment is brought onsite, and the contractors carefully dig up the sewer line in question, being careful not to damage it any further than it already is. Because the hole is usually dug along the path of the sewer line, it typically results in a long trench through the property.

The dirt from these trenches is displaced to the side of the worksite, and the sewer lines are laid bare for the workers to easily access, service, and replace if necessary. Whether there are only repairs that need to be made or the entire pipeline needs to be replaced, this method allows the workers to see what they are working on and fix the problems while not creating more issues in the process.

Now that the pipes and sewer lines are exposed, the real work can begin. From this position, any necessary repairs are made and any defective parts of the line are replaced. If the entire pipe needs to be replaced, the work can be done from this position as well. The odds are good that if the entire length of pipe needs to be replaced, a larger trench will need to be dug so that the workers can better reach the ends of the pipe in question and connect the new one properly.

How to Dig a Sewer Line Trench

Understanding how to dig a sanitary trench for your sewer excavation procedure will ensure that the process is safe and cost-effective. The process starts long before the actual excavation. You will begin by calling your local utility location service and Digline, which is legally mandatory for any U.S. citizen who wants to undertake a project like this.

Once you have called and located all of the cables that provide your area with underground water, communications, gas, and electricity, you need to apply for a permit to dig. The permit ensures you will get the job done correctly and avoid mishaps. Next, you will locate the sewer line, ideally with a video camera inspection that gives you an accurate understanding of how far your sewer runs and where you need to dig to access it.

As you plan a route that incurs minimal damage, you should also determine how deep you want the trench to go. On average, residential sewer lines range from being as shallow as 30 inches to as deep as six feet in colder areas to avoid potential freezing.

Understanding the soil type you will be digging in lets you know if you may need extra precautions. If your sand is loose and sandy or too wet, for example, you may need to shore it to give the trench sides enough structure to avoid collapse or de-water it for less muckiness.

Once you start digging, get rid of the tree roots and other obstructions. Then, you'll need to find the sewer line problem, replace the pipe, and complete the project by covering the trench back up.

Open-Top Sewer Repair Pros and Cons

Open-top repair work is no different than any other method when it comes to positives and negatives. It is a mixed bag of both advantages and disadvantages. Understanding the pros and cons of each option will help you to determine which one is right for you and your situation.

The Pros

What advantages does open-top repair work offer that other methods simply do not?

1. Cheaper Prices

In our discussion of trenchless methods, we mentioned that they were the more expensive option in most cases. The opposite side of that fact is that traditional trench repair operations will usually be a cheaper option. If your budget is a little tight but you absolutely need this repair job done, there is good news. Open-top excavation tends to be the less expensive option.

2. Higher Reliability

This point refers to the fact that there are several different situations where trenchless operations simply are not possible — whether that is because there are other utilities too close by or the pipeline is too damaged.

Open-top excavations do not suffer from this same problem. No matter how damaged a pipeline is, it can be removed through excavation. There is also little room for worry about inadvertently striking other utility lines because the ground is open and the workers can physically see what they are doing.

3. Entirely Removed Pipe

In the process of pipe bursting, the original pipe is still left in the ground, albeit shattered and broken. While this is not necessarily a bad or harmful thing, some property owners may feel uncomfortable with the fact that the remains of the old pipe are buried alongside the new sewer line. With traditional excavation techniques, however, this is not a concern. The entirety of the old pipe is removed and replaced with a new, sturdy pipe.

The Cons

Open-top excavation is not a perfect process, and there are a few negatives to it as well.

1. Reconstruction Work Time Frame

Digging a large trench across your property is not a small action. While the workers will close the trench back up when they are done, the action is by no means erased. It can take months or even longer for the resulting damage to heal. You will need to work hard to repair landscaping and encourage grass and plants to return, and it will be weeks or even months of staring at bare patches of dirt until then.

2. High Reconstruction Costs

It takes a lot of work to bring your yard back to the way it was before it was dug up, and this work is not cheap. In many cases, you may even have to hire more workers to come in and fix the damage that was done to your property and landscaping, which results in high reconstruction costs that could be avoided by choosing less invasive repair methods.

Open-Top Excavating Summed Up

Open-top excavating is a way of repairing or replacing the pipelines running beneath your property. It involves digging long trenches in the ground and accessing the sewer lines directly. Because the process is quite straightforward when compared to trenchless options and does require sophisticated pipe-bursting technology and equipment, this process is often cheaper.

However, the downside of choosing this method is that your yard will be dug up, and will take long periods of time and a lot of money before it is back to the way it was before. If aesthetics and timeliness are important to you, it might be better to choose a trenchless option.

Choosing the Right Partner for Your Trenchless Sewer Line Repairs and Servicing

While the pipe bursting method might not be right for everyone, the convenience of experiencing minimal invasion into your yard is impossible to deny. If you have decided that this is the method you will use to service your sewer lines, the next step is simple. You will need to find a company of service professionals to work with.

If you live in the Greater Syracuse area, we here at Mr. Rooter of Greater Syracuse would be delighted to help you with your planned pipe-bursting operation. We are licensed plumbers that have over 40 years of experience helping clients just like you.

When you choose to work with Mr. Rooter, you will get to experience our exceptional customer service, upfront pricing and convenient appointment times. We may be a locally owned and operated business, but we are experts in the field, and we pride ourselves on treating our customers in a courteous and friendly manner.

If you are ready to get started working with Mr. Rooter today or have questions about our trenchless sewer line repairs, we would love to hear from you. Contact us online today, or give us a call. We look forward to working with you!