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How Do You Install a High-Capacity Helical Pier Foundation?

Picture of collage of 4 images. A skid steer installing a helical pier. Two images of CAT excavators installing a helical pier. Image of remote-operated excavator installing helical pier.

John Lisle | Updated November 3, 2022 | Common Helical Pier Foundation Questions

Helical pier foundations are taking the industrial construction world by storm because of their versatility, speed, and economy. From million-pound slug catchers to massive energy storage systems, helical piers are finding their way into virtually every market.
What’s surprising, to me at least, is that even with this rapid growth the humble helical pier foundation still has a reputation as a bit of an “unknown” technology. For something that was invented almost 200 years ago, it's wild to me that more folks don’t know about it.
Since I haven’t had a chance yet to talk about how a helical is installed, join me as we take an in-depth look behind-the-scenes at exactly what goes into installing a helical pier. Plus discover why they might just be the faster, safer, better foundation for your next project.

Start Strong, Start With a Plan

During my time in the U.S. Army serving in Iraq, I came to appreciate how important a clear plan is. When you’re surrounded by constant danger having a plan isn’t just a ‘good idea’, it’s crucial to your survival. 
Because we followed a plan we were professional, safe, and effective, both on base and out on patrol.

Helical pier installation for slug catcher foundation

Before we ever start putting your foundation in the ground, we carefully assess your needs and build a clear plan for success

Building a great foundation starts with a clear plan.
At S&B Helical, for example, we don’t just toss helical piers on a truck and show up at your site. It takes assessment, planning, and design by expert engineers before we put boots on the ground.
By the way, that’s why I constantly remind folks about the importance of talking to foundation experts. Having a conversation with an expert helps you discover if helical piers are valid for your project and what kinds of benefits you could expect.
Your foundation contractor needs to understand the unique demands of your project. Here’s some of the things our engineers consider when designing your foundation:
● What are the soil conditions at your jobsite? Some factors we assess are composition, drainage, density, corrosivity and climate.● What are the physical features of your jobsite? We study environmental restrictions, physical barriers, terrain challenges, standing water, and more.● What are the unique demands or requirements of your project? Each project is unique, so it’s important that our team sits down with you to understand your specific needs.
By answering those questions (and a lot more), our engineers can design a precise foundation for your project. You won’t pay for more foundation than you need, but you won’t get less than you need either.

Picture of a CAT skid steer installing square shaft helical piers on a jobsite at night

The versatility and ease of customization are just two reasons helical piers have become very popular in the industrial market

Think of helical piers like a ‘Goldilocks foundation‘ – they can be engineered precisely to your project. No less, no more.

From Hand-Installation to Modern Hydraulic Equipment

Back in 1833, when helical piers were first invented, teams of laborers installed them with pure elbow grease. Most often the pier was attached to a capstan and turned-in by hand.

Not a bad solution for the time, but relying on people-power wasn’t going to cut it as technology evolved.

Historical drawing of a helical pier being installed in the late eighteen hundreds. Group of 25 men stand on raft on surface of water, turning a capstan, below the raft in the water is a helical pier being screwed into the sandy bottom

An engraving from the 1830’s that shows an early helical pier install. Here the crew stands on a wooden raft to help install the pier.

Fast forward to the 1960s and construction was increasingly adopting hydraulic power. Affordable machines emerged with hydraulic powerplants that could operate a variety of attachments.
By the time the 1980's rolled around, hydraulic torque motors could exert more force on helical piers and install them deeper into challenging soil. This made helical pier installation faster, safer, more efficient, and led to a huge increase in load capacity and versatility.

Modern Helical Pier Foundation Installation Equipment

Before we see how to put helical piers in the ground, let’s talk about some of the equipment we use to get the job done.
Thankfully, we don’t rely on people-power to install helical piers anymore. We have a range of drive heads and installation equipment that allows us to tackle foundations in any location.
Helical piers can be installed using equipment like:
● Excavator● Mini-excavators● Skidsteers● Remote-control machine● Custom-built equipment● And more
No matter where or what you’re building, you can bet there’s a way to support it with helical piers.

Two pictures. Left picture is a remote operated mini excavator installing a helical pier through a hole in a concrete pad. Right photo is a CAT excavator installing a large diameter helical pier next to pipe rack in oil & gas facility

From remote-operated robots to heavy-duty excavators, helical piers can be installed by a wide and versatile range of equipment

Best part is, on your installation day, you won’t have a zillion people running around and vehicles tearing up your site just to install your foundation. 
Depending on your project you might need as little as an excavator, skidsteer, and a few workers to quietly and quickly install your foundation.

Installing a High-Capacity Helical Pier Foundation

Before we do anything else at your site, we mark out the precise locations for each helical pier according to the foundation design. 
I don’t mean to brag (okay maybe a tiny bit), but I’m proud that our installers at S&B Helical are always within 1/4″ (or better!) accuracy.

Picture of a CAT skid steer installing a helical pier using a hydraulic drive attached to an extension arm to reach over existing oil & gas pipelines. Two S&B Helical employees monitor the installation

Helical piers are great for tight, technical spaces (provided you have a skillful installer)

Once the locations for your helical piers are clearly marked, our crew can build your foundation.

On a “standard job”, here’s how putting a helical pier into the ground works:
● We use a skid steer to attach the helical pier to the hydraulic drive head that will provide the rotational force● Using the previously-marked pier locations, we carefully move the helical pier into place and double-check placement● The excavator turns the pier into the ground. During this process, we perform quality-checks and monitor the installation to ensure the pier is installed perfectly● Once the piers are in the ground we finish them by attaching a pier cap, grillage, or other structure that transitions the piers to your project● The only evidence you’ll find that we were there will be your ready-to-use helical pier foundation

Trust But Verify: Load-Testing the Helical Piers

One benefit of helical piers is they can be closely tested and monitored, delivering heaps of valuable performance data to our engineers.

For some projects, you may need or want load testing of your helical pier foundation.

Load testing a helical pier foundation is a big topic that’s too big to cover here. I intend to do it justice with a full blog post of its own, but for today you’ll get the “short and sweet” of load testing helical pier foundations.

A load test is exactly what it sounds like – applying load to your helical piers to confirm their performance.

Not every helical pier foundation needs a load test. When, where, and how we do load testing depends on your specific project and needs. Again, that’s why we recommend you reach out to a helical pier foundation expert. They’ll help you figure out what you need from your foundation.

Generally speaking, having a load test done on your helical pier foundation involves the following steps:
● Choose an established test methodology from trusted authorities● Assemble the components and personnel needed for the test● Arrive to site, assemble test equipment, and perform test● Have expert engineers assess the test results, compile into a report, and deliver to you

Performing a load test might sound complex and time-consuming, but working with an experienced helical contractor will make the process smooth and easy.

Important Final Step: On-Going Support

Here’s something you’ll hear few helical pier contractors talk about, but in my opinion is equally important.

There’s too many helical contractors that vanish into thin air once the piers are in the ground. If you need support after they leave, it’s like pulling teeth to get them on the phone.

That’s why it’s vital to make sure the helical pile contractor you’re working with prioritizes on-going support. They should be happy to jump on the phone and answer your questions, comments, or concerns.

Picture of helical piers installed into ground, 4 feet of pier visible, steel I-beams are welded to the top of the helical piers for a pipe rack support

When we’re done at your site, the only evidence will be your ready-to-use foundation. But, if you have questions, we’ll be here

So, while it might seem small, make sure the helical pier contractor you’re considering is committed to taking care of you in the long-run. 
There’s nothing worse than needing a quick answer to a question and only getting crickets from your contractor.


Surprised how much work goes on “behind the scenes” to install a helical pier foundation? It takes engineering, design, plenty of math, and experts in the field to make it happen.

Collage picture of S&B Helical employees working on jobsites, installing helical piers, monitoring quality

It takes a skilled team of dedicated professionals to get the job done right

Thankfully, from your perspective, the helical pier installation process is easy! For instance, here’s how the process (roughly) looks when someone works with us at S&B Helical:
● Send us copies of your project plans/blueprints, geotechnical reports (if you have), and site drawings● Have some friendly chats with our design team to plan the foundation● Approve the helical pier foundation our engineers design for you● Sit back and let our crews install the foundation in record-breaking time● Bask in the time savings, increased efficiency, and better economy of your helical pier foundation

I won’t claim that helical piers are a ‘perfect foundation’, because nothing perfect exists in this world.

(Well, except maybe cold beer and Texas barbecue.)

What I’m confident to say about helical piers is this:

They’re a highly versatile, tightly engineered, wildly efficient foundation for nearly any project.


Precise design, reliable engineering, quick and easy installation, increased economy… it’s easy to see why more companies are using helical pier foundations.

But great helical pier foundations don’t happen by accident.

Most people will never appreciate the effort that goes into installing a helical foundation. I’m okay with that. Because you shouldn’t have to think about pile shaft sizes, helical plate diameters, or soil conditions.

That’s our job.

Want to chat with a foundation expert about your project to make sure you’re getting the best foundation possible? We have a team of foundation experts who would love to help you find that out. Scroll down to get in touch with our team.

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