Copyright © 2011-
Helical Pile Industry Update
HPW Publisher and Editor Bill Bonekemper Reflects on His Visits and Conversations with Helical Pile Manufacturers and Installation Contractors
Since the re-
The bottom line is most of the helical pile manufacturers I visited suffered significant reductions in orders in most or all of 2008 and 2009. The downturn in business spanned the spectrum from new construction helical piles to helical piles used for residential and commercial foundation underpinning. In late 2010 sales began trending upward, and the first half of 2011 has seen a continuation of the upward trend. One manufacturer told me his company actually saw helical pile sales increase during the recession, and this manufacturer is by no means one of the smaller ones in the industry. Another good size manufacturer was proud to tell me his company recently shipped 19 truckloads of product in one week – a great week by any standards. And still another manufacturer recently told me his company has never been busier than it is right now. So there are certainly some bright spots within an overall depressed market.
Of course everyone knows the bottom dropped out of the new construction market at the end of 2007 and early 2008, and most but not all helical pile manufacturers saw significant drops in helical pile shipments. Private sector construction projects became as scarce as hens’ teeth, and helical pile manufacturers and their installation contractors were confronted with many challenges including looking for new applications for helical piles. Two such applications were emerging at that time – solar panel arrays and wind turbines.
With the federal government providing stimulus funding for the development of alternative energy solutions like solar and wind, several helical pile manufacturers cranked up their engineering departments to develop specialty products geared specifically for these exploding markets. The good news about solar array projects is the enormous quantities of piles required for a single solar field – five, ten even twenty thousand or more piles for a single project. The bad news is how competitive the pricing has to be in order to be awarded one of these projects – low, low profit margins. Not only low margins for the manufacturers, but equally if not lower margins for the installation contractors. Several manufacturers decided to adopt strategies to self perform the pile installations by providing a turnkey service direct to the general contractors, solar manufacturers or the (utilities) owners. Today there are still some very large solar array projects being bid on a regular basis. But equally as important, there are many, many smaller private solar projects for businesses that are taking advantage of federal, state and local funding or tax benefits or simply executing a plan to go green. Getting opportunities to bid these smaller solar projects requires contractors and manufacturers alike to adopt sales and marketing strategies that gain the necessary exposure to the solar panel manufacturers and the general contractors that specialize in solar array installations.
As for the exploding market for windmill turbines, the feeling from the helical pile manufacturing community varies quite a bit. Manufacturers with smaller diameter products – 6” and lower – are not pursuing windmill foundations and anchors, as the uplift, wind, lateral and overturning loads are well beyond the capacities of smaller diameter helical piles. On the other hand, manufactures that offer larger diameter products – 8” and higher – are pursuing this market. While most U.S. manufacturers are not configured to produce these large diameter helical piles, several Canadian manufacturers have been producing them for 10 or more years now. HPW Technical Advisor, Dr. Mohammed Sakr, is one of the most knowledgeable engineers in North America on large diameter helical pile foundation designs. Dr. Sakr has worked on several wind turbine foundations using large diameter helical piles, and he has procured a case history on a wind turbine project located in the remote community of Kasigluk, Alaska. HPW wishes to thank the authors of this paper, Lorie Dilley, P.E./CPG and Laurie Hulse, P.E., and their paper, “Foundation Design of Wind Turbines in Southwestern Alaska, a Case History”, is available for viewing by clicking on the title.
The foundation repair market has seen no significant upward trend during this time
with helical pile shipments for this sector remaining below pre-
In conclusion, our industry continues its slow recovery from the recession with some
helical pile manufacturers experiencing faster recoveries than others. Aside from
significant opportunities arising from the growth of alternative energy projects,
it appears the recovery will continue at a slow but steady pace for the remainder
of 2011. This market condition notwithstanding, this author is convinced there is
substantial growth opportunity for U.S. helical pile manufacturers that are willing
and able to invest in larger diameter helical pile products. Our Canadian neighbors
as well as manufacturers from the UK, Australia and New Zealand have enjoyed significant
growth in the larger diameter sector for more than a decade now. These companies