Line Contractor

Navigating the River of Grass: Aldridge Electric installs transmission line foundations in the Florida Everglades

Crew members delivered materials up the canals to support their foundation installations. All photos courtesy of Aldridge Electric.
Published On
Jun 15, 2022

An electrical contractor Headquartered in Libertyville, Ill., since 1952 (and in existence since 1932), Aldridge Electric Inc. addresses complex and challenging projects in the transportation, power, utility and industrial sectors. So it was a natural progression when the family-owned, 1,500-employee company was contracted to install new foundations for a major southeastern utility’s existing transmission line in one of the country’s harshest and most demanding environments—the Florida Everglades.

Thanks to its extensive foundation experience, meticulous strategic and operational planning expertise, innovative amphibious and marine equipment and unwavering can-do attitude, the Aldridge team completed the project safely, on time and on budget, with a high level of professionalism and quality.

specialized boats
The Aldridge Electric team used specialized equipment in the harsh landscape of the Florida Everglades, including amphibious drilling equipment, barges and airboats.

As specialists in heavy infrastructure, electrical construction, foundation solutions, emerging technologies and more, Aldridge was tapped to work on Phase C of the utility’s “500-kV [kilovolt] Foundations Program,” which required the completion of drilled shafts for new transmission line structures in Florida that stretched along U.S.-27 in Palm Beach and Broward County. The structures’ difficult-to-access location along the canals in the Everglades required the Aldridge team to develop alternate ways of accessing these sites using amphibious drilling equipment, barges and boats, and to navigate a broad range of hazards during the months-long project.

“Phase C was just one of 15 phases within an overall hardening program being undertaken for the utility’s 500-kV system throughout the state of Florida,” said Brian Schlemm, division manager for Aldridge.

According to Schlemm, the utility’s objective was to strengthen its system so that the power lines and towers could better withstand the hurricanes and major storm events that are hitting the southern states with greater frequency and severity than in the past.

“The utility wants to bring the lines up to new standards because the storms and their winds have been getting stronger and the lines need to withstand tougher conditions than they were originally designed and installed to meet,” he said.

Overall, “the program included the replacement of over 4,500 structures and 9,000 foundations across the utility’s service territory,” Schlemm said. “Phase C was the smallest phase of the program, but in many ways it represented the most complex portion because of the conditions and the fact that this section of line is only accessible by water.”

aldridge
The project took seven months and 12,000 yards of concrete. The team credits part of its success to preconstruction planning.

A difficult undertaking

Kicked off in July 2021, Phase C of the line rebuild program represented the fifth major project Aldridge had done with the utility, but it was by no means the easiest.

Working within a 10-mile span, “everything was only accessible via a canal that ran perpendicular to Alligator Alley, with poles sitting on little fingers off the canal,” Schlemm said. “We brought concrete, rebar cages and other equipment out with us on boats and barges daily to pour the foundations, and our crews utilized four boat launches along the project area to offload and stage material and launch material and equipment.”

Following three to four months of intense planning, “the heavy equipment we used was on pontoon tracks, including a floating drill rig that allowed us to drill out the foundations while sitting on the swamp side of the structure,” said Zach Kane, vice president of Aldridge’s Foundation Group. “The pontoons, which measured 44 feet long by 7 feet tall by 7 feet wide, were installed on conventional machines that enabled us to navigate through the marsh and swamp, where water levels were 2–5 feet high.”

Kane noted that while the main canal had been dredged in the 1960s to allow the original structures to be installed off of barges on the water, Aldridge’s current approach was decidedly more difficult because the existing structures were now in the way, lines were energized overhead and years of sediment had since settled in the canals.

“This time, we had to work on the swamp side of the old structures, which didn’t allow the use of typical barges and conventional equipment,” he said. “In addition, low water levels also prevented the crews from being able to move larger barges down the finger canals to the structure locations.”

Other challenges also confronted Aldridge’s team of 25 to 30 crew members.

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“One of our biggest hurdles was the heat—on average days, the temperature was over 90 degrees with 100% humidity—so safety was always a top priority,” said Matt Rouillard, senior project manager for the project. “Acclimating the crews to the heat and conditions became key for us, so we rewrote our safety protocols and limited our team’s work hours per day until they got adjusted to the weather, gradually working them up to putting in full days.”

“We also required mandatory water breaks for hydration and installed pop-up tents to enable crew members to get out of the sun for periods of time, because there are no trees or shady areas on the canals, only sawgrass and the existing structures,” he said.

The local wildlife presented yet another concern.

“There are alligators, water moccasins, pygmy rattlesnakes and spiders in the Everglades that we needed to watch out for—so much so that there’s an old saying in the area warning people to ‘kick it before you pick it’ to avoid getting bitten,” Rouillard said.

“The weather was also an issue, especially pop-up thunder and lightning storm cells,” Schlemm said, adding that these circumstances could keep the crew from safely exiting the canals for cover. “So monitoring those was important,” he added.

Given the challenging nature of their environment, Rouillard confirmed that Aldridge had safety personnel and general management on-site to help their team work through these and other issues.

Lessons learned

Nearly seven months and 12,000 yards of concrete later, the project contract involved the installation of 126 structures consisting of two foundations each, for a total of 252 foundations in all, Rouillard said. The Aldridge team completed the work in February 2022.

While the project took more than half a year on the ground, the team credits part of its successful completion to the several months of preconstruction planning put in beforehand.

“Our upfront ordering of long-lead time material like steel casing, reinforcing steel and securing equipment allowed us to avoid any supply chain delays or impacts,” Kane said. “In addition, we brought in our own concrete trucks and drivers to ensure that we’d have what we needed on our schedule every day. Since we were bringing in concrete from 20 miles away and then transporting it up the canal for an hour, it was a long process and there was no time for delays.”

“This project was incredibly unique, and while there are many drilling companies out there, not all of them can go out in the water and do this type of work successfully,” Rouillard said. “We engaged in a lot of planning and trial and error to determine the best way of doing this. For example, one adaptation we made was to build and utilize a large airboat to move our rebar casing and other materials along the canal when the water levels got too low. It was all about logistics, planning and the guys being in the right place at the right time and doing all of the right things.”

Schlemm said that the passion and dedication of Aldridge’s elite workforce made the project a success.

“Thanks to our team, everything has been readied and the foundations are set for line contractors to come in and complete the structure changeouts,” he said. “We sincerely thank our hard-working crews for employing innovative thinking and preconstruction planning tools to allow for a safe, well-planned project that exceeded our customer’s expectations.”

“This was a very successful project because our team stuck together and stuck to our plan,” Kane said. “Working together safely as a unit towards a common goal was the biggest success of the project for us, and we’re thrilled with the outcome.”

According to Rouillard, “we currently have two other crews installing new foundations on typical transmission line rights-of-way in the Fort Pierce/Vero Beach area as part of Phase F of this program.”

“The utility was extremely supportive and they worked closely with us to develop environmental protocols and permitting of the project to ensure that we were protecting the wetlands,” Rouillard said. “In addition, we were a subcontractor for Irby Construction Co. in Jackson, Miss., and it was a pleasure to work with their outstanding team on a project of this magnitude.”

“This project was a culmination of Aldridge’s appetite for risk coupled with our expertise, experience and ability to take on the infrastructure industry’s most challenging work,” Kane said. “We leveraged the knowledge of our most seasoned employees to provide a plan, develop specialty equipment and execute a job safely and efficiently to support our utility clients, and we pride ourselves on our innovative spirit and ability to handle what others describe as inaccessible structures.”

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