Wisconsin’s River View Construction uses the power of hydroexcavation to build a big business in environmental services and utility locating.
If the diversification success of River View Construction is any indication, pumping contractors could consider adding a hydroexcavator to the equipment inventory and land more service work.
River View has seen its share of changes, starting as a milk hauling company in 1950, and providing environmental services contracting with specialties in landfill construction and utility work. Based in Wausau, Wisconsin, the company added its first hydroexcavator in 2006 and now has three in its fleet serving the entire northern part of the state. The rigs have been a transformational addition.
“If we know there are utilities on a job site, the hydroexcavator is the first piece of equipment that goes out,” says Randy Weinkauf, president and owner. “Our guys won’t work without it. You need to know where your gas lines are, where your electric is. You can locate it, but it still isn’t the same. We’ve seen locators off by a foot or two at times.”
River View has seen a 10 percent growth in sales and labor every year for the past six years and Weinkauf says it’s because the company has solid employees and takes chances on new equipment like the hydroexcavators.
“We’re not afraid to get into something if we think it’s doable,” Weinkauf says. “And I’ll put our crews against any crew in the United States.”
TRYING SOMETHING NEW
Ewald Weinkauf, Randy’s father, founded the company to haul milk in central Wisconsin. “He did that milk route for a while and then he started moving over into operating 5-yard dump trucks,” Weinkauf says. “Then he bought a backhoe and a dozer and started doing land-clearing work.”
Ewald, who died in 2000, began moving around pulp and other material at the local paper mill in the 1960s. By the early 1970s, the company picked up some business with an electric utility at its local coal-fired power plant.
“We worked with ash handling when they started using coal,” Weinkauf says. “They needed a contractor to haul ash from their storage silo to an on-site landfill and we filled that role.”
River View’s main focus now is environmental contracting. “We operate a landfill in Monroe County, Wisconsin. We also maintain methane gas piping systems at landfills and we build leachate collection systems,” says Jesse Turner, vice president of sales. The company built its first landfill in Vilas County, Wisconsin, in 1989 and has completed many other landfill projects throughout the state.
PIVOT TO HYDROEXCAVATION
Building a landfill takes a lot of equipment, from bulldozers to long-reach excavators, dump trucks and hydroexcavators. “It all starts with excavation work,” says Turner. “You strip the topsoil and you start from there.”
The company builds its cell — the base of the landfill — and then gets a sub-base compacted and approved by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR). The company then hauls in clay. “The clay goes in 4 feet thick and we place it in 6-inch lifts,” Turner says. “Every lift has to be tested with a nuclear density gauge and approved by the DNR.”
Once the clay is installed and approved, a 60-mil membrane liner is placed over the entire landfill area and a foot of drainage rock — the leachate drainage layer — is installed. “Landfills can take a while to complete with the land clearing involved,” Weinkauf says. “It can take anywhere from three to six months or longer depending on the size.”
While landfills remain the core, company officials knew they needed to diversify.
In the mid-2000s, Weinkauf’s project manager approached him with the idea of purchasing a new type of equipment — a hydroexcavator. The hydroexcavation market was in its early stages in the U.S. at that time, and very few contractors had the machines in Wisconsin.
“Gerard Skrzypchak had a talk with me back in 2006 and told me that these hydrovac trucks would be the wave of the future,” Weinkauf says. “He’s the one who talked me into getting them.”
Skrzypchak knew about hydroexcavation from his time working for a utility company where he created the excavating permitting process, in which it became mandatory for the utility to use hydroexcavators. The utility uses a hydroexcavator to first identify where utilities are and whether there is enough space between them to continue excavation with backhoes. If there isn’t enough space, the job is finished with hydroexcavators.
SUCKING SAND AND MUD
“You have a menagerie of things underground,” Skrzypchak says. “It’s like a spaghetti bowl underground of high-voltage lines, natural gas lines, chlorine lines, hydrogen lines and fiber optics. It’s all intertwined.”
River View purchased its first hydroexcavator, a Vactor HXX built on an International chassis, in 2006 and immediately picked up more utility work. The company also landed a job for American Transmission Co. (ATC) on construction of a new electric transmission line. “The pads their trucks sat on needed to be vacuumed all the time,” Weinkauf says. “If there was any sand or mud on them, we would have to keep them clean and the hydrovac trucks helped with that a lot.”
The pads had to be cleaned so the utility’s equipment could sit perfectly level while work was being done. River View found the hydroexcavators useful on that job because hose attachments could be added for longer reach.
The company bought its second hydroexcavator, a Premier CV-100 built on a CAT660 chassis, in 2012, and another Vactor HXX built on a Kenworth chassis in summer 2015. “We needed another one because we had so much work in March and April,” Weinkauf says. The company tested the newest truck through the spring months on sites where new lines were being installed at cellphone tower substations.
All three trucks have 12-cubic-yard debris tanks and vary in water pressure capability. The biggest is the Premier truck (6,200 psi), followed by the new Vactor (5,200 psi) and the original Vactor (3,500 psi).
“Each truck has advantages depending on the application,” Weinkauf says. “One might work better with slurries than the others and one might dump better than the others.” The Premier truck has a heated compartment that is popular with operators, while the new Vactor has the water hose on the back, so operators don’t have to drag the hose through mud.
EXPANDING ITS REACH
River View is one of few contractors offering hydroexcavation services in the northern region of the state. “We go all over the northern part of the state and we’ll do utility work, gas line work and water main break repairs too,” Weinkauf says.
The company takes pride in being available whenever needed, as in 2014 when Weinkauf got a call late Christmas Eve about a water main break at a paper mill in Mosinee, near River View headquarters. “They were going to have to shut down the mill if we weren’t able to get the fire protection line cleaned up,” Weinkauf says. “It had split wide open.”
Weinkauf, Dewey Lannigan (vice president of operations) and another hydroexcavator operator took on the challenge. “They originally wanted a backhoe there, but we brought the hydrovac,” Weinkauf says. “They used the backhoe for the first two scoops and then we used the hydrovac after that because there was a substation right next to us and we didn’t know how much was under us. We located the break and sucked all the sand and water out of there. The mill repaired the break and stayed in operation.”
Being in Wisconsin has also meant taking on jobs when the weather isn’t the best. Crews were called in winter 2013 when a plow truck driver ran into a gas meter at a mobile home park. The utility servicing the area needed it dug up to replace.
“Our driver was only able to go about 10 mph in certain areas because of the snow and ice on the highway, so it took him two hours,” Weinkauf says. “He made it down there and was able to open it right up and they capped the leak.”
About 70 percent of the company’s hydroexcavation work is done in the winter when it’s harder to break up the ground with traditional excavation equipment.
With 65 employees, it can be tough to keep everyone happy, but River View has a stable workforce in an industry that sometimes faces high turnover rates.
“I have an open-door policy,” Weinkauf says. “If somebody has a problem or if they know of a way of improving something, I listen to them. Most of the time I’ll take their suggestions.” Weinkauf adds that his crews give him reports on whether new employees are fitting in well.
“Every year we make our crews better,” Weinkauf says. “We have a very low turnover rate, usually losing one or two a year.” A big part of keeping employees is paying them well: Operators earn a living wage. “For good labor you have to pay well,” Weinkauf says. “We treat them like humans and not like numbers.”
Crews receive required annual training. In January the company brings in representatives from the utility and several other customers to go over their company safety programs. River View selects a training day and calls off all field operations for that day. “We shut down every job we are doing and we bring everyone in for it,” says Turner. “Everyone gets certified for hazmat and receives other refreshers.”
The company also holds job site meetings every morning for the crews. “They have the tool safety talk in the mornings to see if there are any concerns or what the truck traffic might be that day or if there will be visitors or inspectors coming. They’ll go through everything,” Turner says.
Safety is important to the company, as it can lead to or take away jobs and clients.
“With a bunch of our clients, if you have a serious accident, your name can be wiped off their vendor list,” Weinkauf says. “If you are an unsafe company, you won’t be working for them. We want to be one of the top contractors. You have to be safe, and there is no getting around it.”
CARRYING THE TORCH
While Weinkauf plans to run the business until it’s not fun anymore, he admits some days can be tough. “It gets challenging, believe me. But as long as you have good people behind you, you’ll be OK.”
Weinkauf, like his father, would like to hand off the company to the next generation eventually. His daughter, Heidi Dehnel, handles payroll. Turner, a stepson, leads the sales team, while another son, Riley Weinkauf, unloads ash at the coal-powered power plant with a front-end loader. Another son, Wesley Weinkauf, runs the company’s long-reach backhoe at landfills the company is building. Chris Spychalla, a nephew, heads operations for jobs near Green Bay.
“It’s going really well, so we’ll be passing it on to a third generation when that time comes,” Weinkauf says. “We want the kids to carry it on and teach them about maintenance and safety and new technology.”
GPS units a cost- and time-saver
It’s not the bulldozers, the backhoes or even the hydroexcavators that River View Construction couldn’t do without. It’s the Trimble GPS devices installed in the dozers.
“Our guys wouldn’t be without them,” owner Randy Weinkauf says. “It’s one of the most important tools we have. We put them in the bulldozers so they know where they are going. We don’t do staking on our job sites. It’s all GPS.”
The Trimble GPS systems can calculate exact positions on excavation projects such as boundaries, cross slopes and other land obstacles. River View started putting GPS on its bulldozers in 2002, according to Weinkauf. With each new bulldozer the company installs a new and updated GPS unit.
“At the time, everybody thought we were nuts sticking a $60,000 GPS unit into a dozer, but we saw the need for them with the stuff we do,” Weinkauf says. “It sped everything up and left very little room for human error.”