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I get the privilege of traveling all across the United States as part of my job, talking to countless folks in various industries. One great perk is being able to chat with engineers, contractors, and other industry experts about building better projects.
After you’ve had a few (hundred) of these chats, you notice a few things.
The most interesting thing I noticed was how some ideas about helical pier foundations are widespread in industrial construction. I could talk to 5 different people from 5 different places, and hear the same misconceptions about helical piers.
Some of these misconceptions are, honestly, the fault of the helical pier industry itself. There’s some fantastic experts and great companies in the market who put in tons of work to provide straight-forward information on helical pier foundations.
But there’s also plenty of people, and companies, that spread whatever information fits their own agenda. Regardless of whether that information is, you know, true or not.
In today’s blog, I’m uncorking the honesty as we take a look at 9 common myths about helical pier foundations that refuse to die.
If you’re an engineer, contractor, or anyone else who works in (or with) industrial construction…
…this is a post you can’t afford to miss.
1) A Crash-Course on Helical Pier Foundations
2) Myth #1: Helical piers are a "new" foundation
3) Myth #2: Helical piers, screw piles, and helical piles are all different things
4) Myth #3: Helical piers are only good for light loads (less than 30,000lbs)
5) Myth #4: Helical piers can’t hold high lateral loads
6) Myth #5: Helical piers can’t be used in corrosive/saturated soils
7) Myth #6: Structural engineers don’t trust helical piers
8) Myth #7: Helical piers aren’t environmentally friendly
9) Myth #8: Helical piers have a limited scope of applications
10) Myth #9: Anyone can install a helical pier
This isn’t a history class, so I won’t go into a long story about the (honestly) fascinating history of helical pier foundations. But, having context for where they came from and what they were originally intended for is helpful to understand the technology today.
Portrayed here in his later years, Alexander Mitchell was an exceptionally bright engineering mind paired with a relentless work ethic
Helical piers were invented in the early 1830’s in the United Kingdom by a fellow named Alexander Mitchell. He was a blind Irish engineer who had a remarkable understanding of soil science for the time.
Mitchell originally invented the “screw pile” (what we call a “helical pier”) to support lighthouses in the loose and sandy soil found along U.K. coastlines. But, it wasn’t long before his foundation proved useful for other challenging projects that demanded support in saturated areas like bridges and piers.
An illustration of a pier in Madras, India under construction on “screw piles” (helical piers) in 1863
After experiencing a brief dip in use through the late 19th and early 20th century, due to advances in pile-driving equipment, helical piers would enjoy a renaissance starting in the 1950’s. Today, helical piers are widely used in industrial, commercial, and residential construction.
In terms of modern industrial construction (our focus today) some of the places you can find helical pier foundations are:
● Pipelines● Battery storage systems● Compressor stations● Cryogenic plants● Solar farms● Wind farms
Okay, that’s enough of the history lesson! Let’s dig in to the reason we’re all here: to crack open some long-standing helical pier myths.
A lot of folks believe that helical piers are a newcomer to foundation technology. They believe this technology only appeared in the past few decades and so hasn’t “proved” itself yet.
As you can see from our quick look at helical pier history, that’s factually false. Helical piers were invented nearly 200 years ago and have proven themselves time-and-time again.
Take a look at the Thomas Point Shoal Lighthouse, sitting in the Chesapeake Bay for 147 years. It’s withstood ice flows, violent storms, and pounding waves, all while sitting on iron helical piers.
The Thomas Point Shoal Lighthouse, standing firm for over 140 years on helical piers
Far from being an unproven newcomer to the industry, helical piers have been supporting structures in the toughest conditions for nearly two centuries.
I admit: the naming conventions for helical piers are not easy to understand at first. If you’ve looked into helical pier foundations at all, you’ve probably seen few different names come up.
Some people call them helical piers (like we do). But, depending on where you are in the world, you might see the terms helical piles, screw piers, or screw piles. What gives?
All those names actually refer to the same thing. The exact name someone uses for a helical pier often depends on what region they’re in. Different parts of the U.S. use their own preferred term, kind of like whether you say “soda” versus “pop” if you’re talking about a fizzy drink.
This might be one of the most common myths out there regarding helical piers, but to be honest I’m surprised it still persists.
One reason I believe this myth still hangs around is because helical piers are extremely popular for residential applications. Decks, porches, gazebos, and home additions, many residential contractors are opting for helical pier foundations.
Ironically, the very qualities of a helical pier foundation that make them great for residential work are the same qualities that make them perfect for industrial foundations.
Because helical piers are compact, easy to install, and don’t require bulky equipment or extensive excavation, they’re perfect for the delicate sites and tight confines of residential work. Unsurprisingly, these benefits have caused a lot of residential contractors to prefer a helical pier foundation.
Helical piers aren’t afraid of heavy duty work, they can scale to meet your project’s demands
That’s probably why a lot of folks believe helical piers are only good for lightweight work. In reality, helical pier engineers can easily scale the design of helical piers to achieve massive capacities. One of the projects we tackled at S&B Helical had a compressive weight of over 1 million pounds. It’s currently sitting firm and stable on a helical pier foundation with zero concerns about longevity.
Some engineers and contractors would have you believe that helical piers are plenty strong for axial loads, but aren’t suited for high lateral loading.
This one, in some ways, has a grain of truth to it.
Helical piers have a relatively narrow pier shaft diameter in comparison to their helix plate. It’s that relationship between the pier shaft and helix plate that help give a helical foundation its versatility and unique benefits over other solutions.
However, that also means helical piers could have less lateral capacity in loose and weak soils like sand or extremely porous soil.
That doesn’t mean helical piers can’t have high lateral capacity in loose soils. There’s several techniques we have used to increase the lateral capacity of a helical pier, from installing a battered pier system to increasing the pier shaft diameter or adding grillage and increasing the size of the overall foundation itself.
You’ll find helical piers supporting plenty of structures with immense lateral loads, like wind turbines or power transmission lines, in loose and sloppy soil. All it takes is a little extra engineering and ingenuity.
Verdict: Busted! (But has a grain of truth)
Helical piers are made from steel, which is a huge benefit in my opinion. Steel is more environmentally friendly than concrete, it’s easier to work with, and it can be 100% recycled at the end of its service life.
Still, there’s people out there who would disagree with me. They claim that helical piers are totally unsuited for corrosive or saturated soils, because the steel will degrade too quickly. Concrete, they say, is the best option for those soil types.
To be fair there’s a tiny grain of truth to this myth, too.
Particularly corrosive or saturated soils can cause steel to degrade faster, yes. But that doesn’t mean we don’t have the techniques and tactics to overcome something as well-understood as steel corrosion.
How a helical pier will interact with the soil, such as the rate of corrosion and ultimate lifespan, will be affected by a range of factors. The short story is that a quality helical pier contractor will have solutions they can use to protect a helical pier against corrosion.
We can increase the thickness of the steel used for the pier, add a galvanized coating, or even install cathode systems that use DC current to slow corrosion. Even if you’re dealing with particularly corrosive soil, there’s likely a solution to guarantee a long helical pier life.
This myth is, I’ll be honest, a confusing one to me.
The idea is that structural engineers aren’t specing helical piers for projects because they don’t “trust” the foundation technology.
I think this one persists because knowledge of helical pier foundations isn’t widespread among structural engineers yet. Once upon a time, helical piers were so commonly used that any engineer worth their salt would have understood them.
Unfortunately, when helical piers experienced their temporary decline, many engineering textbooks began to ignore them completely.
The Deep Foundations Institute and Howard Perko, PhD, PE have released widely-accepted guides regarding the design and installation of helical piers
Now that helical piers have returned to construction in full-force, engineering textbooks and manuals are still catching-up. As a result, there still remains a lack of awareness about helical pier foundations among some structural engineers.
So, I wouldn’t say that engineers are avoiding specing helical piers because they don’t trust them. The story, more likely, is that structural engineers may not spec them because they aren’t familiar with them. That’s a totally different issue, and doesn’t have anything to do with the technology itself.
Concrete is one of the most environmentally destructive materials on planet earth. It’s responsible for 8% of global emissions due in large part to the cement required to make it. It’s an incredibly useful building material to be sure, but far from eco-friendly.
Helical piers are made from steel that, while not perfectly environmentally-friendly, can be produced in a much more sustainable way than concrete.
If this industrial site ever needs to be environmentally reclaimed in the future, these helical piers could be easily removed leaving no trace behind
Steel can be infinitely recycled and reused, meaning the helical piers under your next project could be made using steel from a demolished building or the frame of a old truck. Not only that, but the smelting and manufacturing processes for steel can be run by sustainable energy.
Additionally, you don’t need extensive heavy equipment to install a helical foundation and there’s no vibrations to disturb the surroundings. If the piers need to be removed, they can be reversed out of the ground leaving zero evidence they were ever there.
Are helical piers perfect? Of course not, there’s still carbon costs associated with producing and installing them. But they’re still miles ahead of concrete and one of the best options for projects in sensitive sites.
This myth isn’t as common as the others, but it’s still a frustrating one for folks who know the truth.
Sometimes I’ll hear a person begrudgingly admit that helical piers are fine for residential projects, but for “serious work” you need a different deep foundation.
“Helical piers are great,” they say, “but they’re limited in terms of the places and projects you can use them.“
Helical piers are particularly versatile for industrial applications, from pipeline supports to mission-critical million-pound equipment foundations
In fact, helical piers are one of the most versatile deep foundation solutions out there. There’s no waiting for concrete to cure, no awkward and heavy pier driving equipment, and no excavation to make a mess on your jobsite. We’ve installed them with as little as 6′ overhead clearance and even inside of a city hall building.
From heavy-duty equipment foundations to tall and narrow towers with high lateral loads, an engineer can configure a helical foundation to virtually any project in any location. You can even have helical piers installed horizontally to provide support to retaining walls.
A helical pier foundation won’t be the right choice for every project, but to say they’re not as versatile as other deep foundations is 100% false.
Here we are, the biggest myth of them all.
Yes, there’s more than a few out there who believe helical piers are nothing more than oversized screws. They don’t think it takes any real skill or technique to put them in the ground. All it takes is attaching them to a helical pier drive head and turning them into the ground, right?
It takes a skilled team of dedicated professionals to ensure a helical foundation installation is done the right way
There’s a huge amount of skill, knowledge, experience, and expertise that goes into designing and installing a proper helical pier foundation. It takes more than sitting in a machine and watching steel go into the dirt. At least, if you want a reliable foundation it takes more than that.
The best foundation contractors put a high value on training, certifications, and equipment for their crews. They’ll also have engineers that can design the perfect foundation for your project and make sure you’re not spending more money than you need. Most importantly, those engineers can ensure safety factors are being closely followed and all the work is 100% above-board.
You won’t have those same protections with an amateur contractor. The industry is full of yahoos who call themselves “helical pier installers”, but don’t know the first thing about foundation science. These people are dangerous and can absolutely cost your project in time and money.
This myth, like the others we’ve covered today, is completely false. Not just anyone can install a helical pier foundation. At least, not just anyone can install it the right way. It takes a keen-eyed foundation professional to design and install a high-performing helical pier foundation for industrial construction.
To see exactly what it takes to install a helical pier foundation, click here to take a look at our post that takes you behind-the-scenes.
There’s no doubt in my mind that these myths about helical piers will continue to hang around for awhile. Some of them are simple misunderstandings while others are just plain-old bad information. In either case, these myths can, and do, stop people from considering helical piers for their industrial construction project.
That’s a shame.
Helical piers come with an array of benefits for industrial projects, not the least of which are speed and ease of installation. Does that mean they’re the perfect foundation for your project? It’s impossible to say over the internet.
In order to get a clear picture of the benefits helical piers might have for your project, or even if they could benefit your project, you need to talk to a foundation expert. Having all the information you can lets you make an informed decision about your foundation. Not a decision based on myths and half-truths.
Get clarity about your foundation and find the right solution for your project by talking to one of our foundation experts at S&B Helical today. Scroll down to get in touch. No sales pitches, no hassles, no obligations. Just good old-fashioned advice, the way it should be.
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