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Everything You Need to Know About Helical Piers For Oil & Gas

Aerial view of oil refinery

John Lisle | Updated December 1, 2022 | Helical Piers for Oil & Gas

Helical pier foundations for oil and gas projects are seeing widespread adoption across the United States – from upstream to downstream operations. As demand for domestic oil production spikes, the need for oil and gas infrastructure is nearly at a fever-pitch. In an industry marked by ups and downs, it seems we’re enjoying one of the “ups” right now.
Even though politicians, pundits, and scientists, keep calling for the death of oil and gas the reality is the entire world runs on it. Not just for fuel, but for the tens of thousands of other products that use oil and its by-products.
Engineers and contractors are looking for better ways to build in the oil and gas sector. Projects need to be finished faster and stay as economical as possible. The “usual ways” of doing things are being re-examined. Everyone is looking for that edge on their competitors.
Enter, the humble helical pier foundation.
More oil and gas projects than ever are opting to go with this nearly two-hundred year old foundation solution. Despite the rise in popularity, though, there’s still plenty of folks in oil and gas who don’t fully understand the benefits of helical piers.
Time to fix that.
In this epic article, I’m going to explain how helical piers work in the oil and gas industry. Join me and find the answers to questions like:
● Where can helical pier foundations be used in the oil and gas industry?● Why are more energy companies and oilfield contractors choosing helical piers instead of cast concrete or driven piers?● How exactly does a helical pier work when it comes to oil and gas construction?● What’s the benefits to using helical piers in oil and gas?

What’s the Best Foundation for Oil and Gas Projects?

If I were to ask you if you wanted the best foundation for your project, I’m guessing your answer would be a confident yes.

In fact, it might be a little weird if you said no. After all, who would want the second, third, or fourth best of anything, much less a foundation?

When you’re choosing a foundation for your oil and gas project, you really need to know what the best is.

S&B helical employees installing large diameter helical pier by an excavator at oil refinery

I’m guessing that’s why the question, “What’s the best foundation for my oil and gas project?“, is one of the most common ones I’m asked when talking to people in the energy industry.

Unfortunately, there’s no one single answer to that question.

I’ve said it a bunch of times, and I’ll say it a bunch more: there’s no one single foundation that’s better than the others.

If there was a single foundation that was “the best“, then pretty much everyone in the industry would use it. In reality, construction can be a complex (but fascinating) puzzle that takes a unique approach to solve.

That’s why in my day-to-day work I’m not interested in trying to “sell people” on helical piers. My goal is to help folks understand the technology, how it works, and the applications. Then we can figure out whether or not they’re right for your oil and gas project.

S&B helical employee monitoring installation of large diameter helical pier by excavator at oil refinery

So, instead of arguing which foundation is best, it’s better to look at helical pier foundations and assess them on their own merits. A good place to start is by talking about what makes helical piers good for oil and gas foundations.

What Makes a Helical Pier Good for Oil and Gas?

Helical piers have an unfortunate reputation among some engineers and contractors as just “pipes in the ground”, but there’s more to the technology.

This humble foundation technology has existed for nearly 200 years. Over its long history, helical piers have been used to support everything from lighthouses to modern 32-story highrises. 

But, what are the properties of a helical pier that make it such a fast and versatile foundation?

The Design of a Helical Pier

The secret sauce of a helical pier can be found in its unique design. If you’re familiar with other foundations like cast concrete or driven piers, a helical pier might look a little strange.

Diagram of a Helical Pier showing the pier cap, helix plate, pilot point, extension shaft, extension section and coupler

You can see a helical pier has a relatively narrow shaft diameter in comparison to the wide helix plates. These helix plates (pl. helices) are stamped in a way that gives them a true helical shape. 
The shape helps them turn smoothly into the ground without disturbing the soil and is the defining feature of a helical pier.

Diagram of a helix plate showing the trailing edge, helix pitch and leading edge

Helix plates are a key component in supplying the load resistance of a helical pier. The wide helices provide a large surface area that, once installed, have force exerted on them by the surrounding soil.

End of helical pier showing two helix plates in soil

The force of the soil on the helices, along with factors like skin friction, provide the compression and tension load resistance of the pier.

How to Install a Helical Pier for Oil & Gas

To install a helical pier, there’s no need to excavate the ground or pound piers in with heavy equipment. Helical piers are “screwed” (turned) into the ground using special drive heads powered by hydraulics. 
These drives can be attached to a huge range of equipment, from excavators to custom machines designed for tricky jobs.

Collage of a variety of equipment used to install a helical pier. Skid-steer, excavator, and remote controlled excavator

There’s a wide variety of equipment we can use to install a helical pier foundation, from commonplace to highly specialized

The installation equipment also applies downward force, known as “crowd”, to the top of the pier while installing. This force ensures the pier turns smoothly into the ground and doesn’t merely spin in the soil. It’s similar to how you apply pressure in order to drill a screw into a piece of wood.

In fact, this is why helical piers were originally called “screw piles” (and still are in some parts of the world).

Helical piers are also “excavation free” foundations. You don’t need to perform extensive digging or auguring, which generates piles of spoils, like you do with other foundations. We might have to predrill the hole in very tough ground, but even this won’t generate large piles of waste for you to deal with.

One of the other benefits of the helix design is that helical piers can be easily removed from the ground. You simply “unscrew” them with the same equipment used for installation.

Old cast iron helical pier which was under the Roanoke marshes lighthouse

This helical pier is 145 years-old and was used to support the Roanoke Marshes Lighthouse. Despite being in a marsh for over a century, this wrought-iron helical pier is still in remarkably excellent shape

If an engineer gives you the green light, you could even re-use them. This makes helical piers excellent for temporary foundations as they’ll leave zero trace once removed.

Even though the humble design of a helical pier might not look like a heavy-duty foundation at first glance, a closer inspection reveals it’s as tough and capable as concrete or driven piers.

Want proof? Here’s where helical piers are being used across the oil and gas industry…

Where Are Helical Piers Used in Oil and Gas?

It takes a huge range of equipment, infrastructure, buildings, and machines to serve the oil and gas industry. To list every single place you could use helical piers is an impossible task, there’s just too many.

What I can do is show you some of the common places that helical pier foundations are being used in the oil and gas industry right now.

Upstream Oil and Gas Helical Piers

Production Facilities

Oil and gas production facilities can be a maze of pipes, compressors, pumps, well pads, generators, walkways, and more. These components work together to ensure everything runs smoothly and safely. But, when it’s time to replace or build equipment, this maze becomes a huge hassle.

Bulky equipment like concrete trucks or large pile-drivers might not fit in your facility. Or, they could be too risky to use in tight spaces. You don’t want to slow production or put your facility and personnel at risk just to have a foundation installed.

Helical pier being installed by a skid steer  in tricky spot which is behind existing equipment

Helical piers can be installed in locations other foundations simply can’t – like this helical pier being installed behind existing equipment

Helical piers don’t create vibrations when they’re installed and can be handled with common equipment like excavators and skidsteers.

Production facilities are using helical piers because they:
● Can maneuver easily in tight locations● Create zero vibrations/impact on install● Provide excellent support (even in poor soils)


They come in all types, shapes, and sizes, but share something in common: pumps need firm support. A crucial component in the production and transport of oil, there’s absolutely no messing around when it comes to the foundation.

Foundations for pumps in upstream oil and gas have, traditionally, been cast concrete or driven piers. These aren’t bad solutions, but helical piers often represent better value for oil and gas pumps.

Pump sitting on helical pier

Regardless of the exact type of pump, helical piers easily adapt to a huge variety of structures and site conditions

Helical pier foundations require less raw materials, equipment, and personnel, meaning they can be installed faster and more efficiently. They’re also an excellent choice for projects in tricky locations (like tucked behind pipes or near other equipment) or on remote job-sites where concrete is expensive to source.

Oil and gas pumps use helical piers because they:
● Can be installed in tight locations● Offer outstanding axial and lateral support● Easily integrate into existing infrastructure

Bridges and Walkways

To properly monitor and maintain an oil and gas facility employees need safe and easy access to, well, everything. Bridges and walkways are an underappreciated, but essential, part of the infrastructure.

Helical pier being installed in a tight access space

Helical piers can be installed right next to sensitive infrastructure without issues, making them ideal for giving firm support to tight structures like bridges or walkways

Like any other structure, they need rock-solid support. These bridges and walkways are often tucked in congested areas, making excavation or pier-driving undesirable. The maneuverability of helical piers means they can tuck into places other foundations can’t.

Bridges and walkways use helical piers because they:
● Are fast and economical to install for lightly-loaded structures● Install easily in congested areas without disrupting operations● Can be removed without leaving a trace

Midstream Oil and Gas Helical Piers


They come in all types of configurations and purposes and they serve as the backbone of the industry: pipelines. Carrying billions of gallons of sensitive liquids across America every single day, foundations for pipelines have to be unrivaled in their performance.

Collage of helical piers supporting pipelines and oil refinery

The speed and efficiency of helical piers makes them desirable for pipeline supports

From refineries to remote swamps, engineers use helical pier foundations for pipelines because of their versatility and adaptability. From tough desert soil to underwater installations in boggy muck, helical piers provide sure-footed support in virtually any climate conditions.

Pipelines use helical piers because they:
● Can be designed to suit any pipeline infrastructure● Resist corrosion and degradation in tough conditions● Are easier to install in remote locations than other foundations● Combat tension loads making them a great option for buoyancy mitigation

Slug Catchers

A “slug” is a dangerous surge of liquid or gas in a pipeline. The slug catcher is a crucial safety and quality control component that protects pipelines against these surges. 
Because of the nature of slugs the catchers are subject to heavy loads, strong lateral forces, and rapid loading/unloading.

Helical piers holding slug catcher foundation with two excavators working in field, with S&B work vehicles

This large helical pier foundation was installed to support a slug catcher with loads in excess of 1 million pounds

As a piece of critical safety equipment the foundation needs to be more than reliable – it needs to be bullet proof. Helical pier foundations for slug catchers can be designed to resist extreme load moments while keeping costs economical.

Slug catchers use helical piers because they:
● Excel at resisting intense and sudden loads● Can be more economical than other solutions● Are ready for loading immediately after install, speeding the project up

Compressor Stations

Pipes, filter separators, valves, compressors, and contractors, are just some of the equipment you’ll find in a compressor station. These stations deal with high pressures, dangerous gas, and lots of flow. 
Helical piers are a reliable solution for supporting this crucial infrastructure.


Flares are just one piece of equipment where helical piers can deliver great value. In this project, both the pipeline and the flare were put on helical piers

From the open plains of the Midwest to the rugged East Coast, these stations face every kind of soil condition and climate. Engineers specify helical piers when they need a foundation that will adapt to unexpected conditions and environments. It’s not just about how much weight you can hold, it’s how reliably and efficiently you can hold it.

Compressor stations use helical piers because they:
● Are ideal for installing in remote/hard to access locations● Don’t require extensive equipment like concrete/driven piers● Offer high performance in the varied soil conditions of the U.S.

Downstream Oil and Gas Helical Piers


It’s a complex process to transform crude oil into the thousands of products, from electronics to life-saving medicine, that depend on it. 
From heat exchangers and pumps to towers, vales, and pipelines, when it comes to refinery equipment, you’re facing serious loads in tough conditions.

Aerial view of oil refinery

The unique demands of installing foundations for oil refinery infrastructure means that solutions like bored, cast, or driven piers, might not be the best value. At S&B Helical, we’re seeing more engineers and contractors recommend helical pier foundations when facing the tight and delicate confines of a refinery.

Oil and gas refineries use helical piers because they:
● Provide excellent support in a compact package● Install without disturbing existing infrastructure● Can be easily transported to remote sites

Equipment Pads

While concrete might not make the most sense as a deep foundation for some projects in the oil and gas industry, it still has plenty of utility. 
Precast and poured onsite concrete slabs are commonly used in oil and gas for warehouses, garages, tank pads, and more.

Helical pier supporting concrete base for a piece of oil and gas equipment

These helical piers were installed to support a concrete base for a piece of oil and gas equipment. They can help extend the life of concrete slabs by protecting them from shifting

Helical piers provide the deep support needed to protect a concrete slab from shifting, buckling, cracking, heaving, or sinking. Even in the worst northern environments that face brutal frost-heave, helical piers give concrete slabs the support they need to last longer.
Oil and gas equipment pads use helical piers because they:
● Can protect the slab from premature failure due to environment● Are an efficient deep-foundation for large slabs● Help overcome poor soil conditions


There’s a zillion (that’s a technical term, right?) different kinds of outbuildings you need to run a downstream oil and gas operation. 
Garages, offices, warehouses, living quarters, equipment sheds, steel-frame buildings, repair bays, fueling stations, temporary structures… and that’s just a few examples.

Outbuilding being supported by helical pier

Outbuildings need to be erected fast and are often temporary in nature. Helical piers are a natural fit for these conditions

These types of structures can be subject to strong winds, deep freezes, dry soil, wet mud, and violent storms. They need a rock-solid foundation, but they also need to build quickly and be easy to move if needed. 
Helical piers are quick to install, support huge capacities, and also uninstall easily if the structure needs to move.

Oil and gas outbuildings use helical piers because they:
● Are fast and economical support for lightly-loaded structures● Perform excellent in poor soil conditions and tough climate● Can be quickly uninstalled, making them a great temporary foundation

What’s the Benefits of Helical Piers for Oil and Gas?

Faster to install than driven or cast foundations

In 99% of projects, helical piers will be faster to install than driven or cast foundations. They need less equipment, personnel, and handling. There’s no holes to dig, concrete to pour, or long piers to hammer-in.

An excavator, skidsteer, or other hydraulic equipment is all that’s needed to turn the helical pier into the soil at a constant rate. We closely monitor the install with instruments that provide real-time feedback, allowing us to resolve unexpected site or soil issues faster.

Less equipment and personnel needed to install

On a busy oil and gas site, you don’t want a foundation contractor running around with a million pieces of equipment and crew. Not only does it cost you money, it can cause safety and logistics headaches.

Helical piers only take a few crew-members to install and can be maneuvered into tight confines around sensitive infrastructure.

Easier to transport than materials like concrete

In terms of their ability to support structural loads, a single helical pier can replace tens of thousands of pounds worth of concrete foundation. That’s important, because every pound of weight that’s transported to your site means extra costs for you.

The nature of helical piers makes them practical featherweights compared to concrete, so transport costs are greatly reduced and handling is significantly easier.

Can be uninstalled and (potentially) re-used

If you ever need to remove a concrete pier, you’ll have to tear up your site to excavate it. Uninstalling a driven steel pier is slightly less destructive, but still requires specialty equipment and site remediation.

When it comes to helical piers, their unique “turn-in” design also lets them “turn-out” of the ground. To remove a pier all we need to do is use a hydraulic drive to effortlessly reverse it out of the ground. Once uninstalled, a helical pier leaves no trace behind. Plus, if your engineer approves, you can even re-use the piers.

Versatile and adaptable, can be value-engineered

Every aspect of a helical pier foundation can be precisely measured and quantified by data. Using equations, empirical relationships, scientific studies, and computer modeling, structural engineers can design a foundation perfectly suited for your specific project.

As long as you’re working with a good quality helical pier contractor, you shouldn’t be paying for more foundation than you need.

Excellent axial and lateral load capacities

Despite the few who still cling to the bogus idea that helical piers aren’t appropriate for industrial projects, the reality is helical piers have outstanding axial and lateral load capacities. They can hold millions of pounds of weight, withstand horizontal forces, and last for decades in the ground. There’s no major regulatory body that has any concerns about the efficacy or safety of helical piers.

Proof of this can be found in the fact that helical piers are included in international building codes along with other deep foundations. It’s a complete myth that helical piers don’t have the ability to hold heavy-duty loads.


We covered a lot of ground in this post, so a summary of what we’ve talked about is in order…

What’s the best foundation for oil and gas?

Trick question! There’s no one foundation that can “do it all”. If there was, everyone would use it. In the real world each project is unique, and what’s good for one may not be good for another.

That said, generally speaking, helical piers bring a bundle of benefits to oil and gas projects in terms of getting a faster and more versatile foundation.

What makes helical piers good for oil and gas?

There’s a range of reasons engineers and contractors are using helical piers for oil and gas. Each project has its own demands and helical piers have unique benefits for different situations. But, some of the common reasons helical piers are good for oil and gas construction are:
● Faster to install and ready for loading immediately● Requires no excavation or soil disturbance to install● Stable, strong, and secure support in a compact package● Versatile and adaptable to a huge variety of structures and site conditions● High performance in poorly-supportive, saturated, expansive, and other difficult soils● Often more economical to use in remote locations● Easy to install in congested areas near sensitive equipment● Creates no vibrations that could damage delicate infrastructure● Uses standard equipment like skidsteers & excavators to install

Where are helical piers being used in oil and gas?

Too many places to count, but there’s some projects that tend to enjoy big benefits from opting for a helical pier foundation. These aren’t the only places you could use helical piers in an oil and gas setting, but it gives you an idea of the versatility of the technology.

Upstream Oil and Gas

● Production Facilities  ● Pipelines  ● Well pads  ● Generators  ● Pumps● Bridges and Walkways

Midstream Oil and Gas

● Pipelines● Slug Catchers● Compressor Stations  ● Separators  ● Valves  ● Scrubbers

Downstream Oil and Gas

● Refineries  ● Heat Exchangers  ● Towers  ● Valves● Equipment Pads● Outbuildings  ● Garages & equipment sheds  ● Steel-frame buildings  ● Temporary structures


Helical piers are seeing fast adoption in the oil and gas industry because they’re an efficient, effective, and economical foundation. Companies in upstream, midstream, and downstream operations, are all using helical piers to support their critical infrastructure. No matter where you operate in the oil and gas industry, you won’t have to look far to see other projects in your market using helical pier foundations.

Aerial view of oil refinery

Your next project could end up with a faster, more effective, and more economical foundation. But, you’ll never know unless you talk to the right people and ask the right questions.

Our team of foundation experts at S&B Helical are waiting to help you ask the right questions and see if helical piers can help you build faster, stronger, and more economically. Scroll down to get in touch with us.

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