Commercial VS. Residential Helical Pile Foundations - What's the Difference?

June 2, 2022

The world of helical piles can be confusing, but it really shouldn't be.

I've found this confusion comes mostly from differences in terminology. For example, you may see helical piles referred to as helical piers, screw piles, or helical anchors.

One result of this "terminology confusion" is a question I'm often asked by engineers and contractors...

"What's the difference between a commercial helical pile and a residential helical pile?"

That's a reasonable question. After all, there must be some serious differences between a helical pile for a gazebo in suburban Winnipeg and one for a 300ft communication tower in Northern Manitoba.

A split image showing a residential helical pile foundation in Winnipeg on the left side, and a commercial high capacity helical pile install on the right side

Sure enough, in Manitoba there's some key differences between a commercial helical pile foundation and a residential one.

But you might be surprised to learn the biggest differences aren't found where you'd expect.

"Commercial" Helical Piles VS "Residential" Helical Piles

Let's start at the beginning: designing and building a helical pile.

At the core, all helical piles share the same basic design. Helix plates of a fixed-pitch are welded to a long tubular or square steel shaft. The size and number of helices, diameter of the shaft, and length of the pile can all be customized by an engineer. By balancing these factors the engineer can design a helical pile that perfectly meets project requirements.

A helical pile for a residential project in Winnipeg may only be 3-1/2" in diameter, with one or two helix plates, and sunk to 25 feet.

Mini excavator lifts helical pile in foreground while large excavator in background installs helical pile into the ground in Winnipeg Manitoba

On residential projects, shaft sizes on helical piles typically stay between 2-1/2" to 4"

But, what if you needed a foundation for a 5-storey mixed use building in Winnipeg?

On a project last winter for a multi-story building in Winnipeg, our team at VersaPile installed helical piles as big as 8-5/8" in diameter with a 30" helix, sunk to 55 feet.

Construction worker measuring accuracy of commercial helical pile install for 5-storey multi use building in Winnipeg, MB

Big projects often, but don't always, call for big helical piles. In this case, the large helix plate diameter and shaft size allowed us to use fewer piles overall while providing even more support.

What you might find interesting is that the "commercial" helical pile has the same design methodology as the "residential" pile.

That's because helical piles are driven by mathematical engineering principles, so they can scale-up to meet greater capacity demands. A great helical pile contractor will have expert engineers at hand who can design a foundation that meets the load requirements.

At the core, a 20,000lb helical pile and a 200,000lb helical pile aren't entirely different. They both have the same basic components, just at different scales.

So if the big difference between commercial and residential helical piles can't be found in how the pile is designed or manufactured...

What about how the pile is installed?

How a Commercial Helical Pile is Installed

Because helical piles are turned into the ground with hydraulic power, all you need is a hydraulic-powered helical drive head attached to equipment that can provide the needed hydraulic power. No specialty equipment that's finicky to operate or difficult to repair. Helical piles can be installed almost entirely with "off the shelf" tools and equipment.

For residential helical piles, installation equipment can be anything from a simple mini excavator to a custom-built walk-behind implement.

Mini excavator and construction worker under lifted cottage installing helical piles to repair failed foundation

This mini excavator was perfectly suited for installing piles underneath an existing home that had been lifted so the failed foundation could be replaced by helical piles

When we're talking about high-capacity commercial helical pile foundations, like the kind we used for the 5-storey building, the installation equipment gets bigger but the concepts stay the same. Large excavators simply provide extra height and torque to turn in larger helical piles with wider helices.

Large excavator uses helical drive head to install helical pile foundation for commercial project

Large excavators can run bigger helical drive heads that can drive larger helical piles deeper, and to a greater torque, than smaller mini excavators can manage

Still, at the end of the day, all helical piles end up being installed the same way: Turned into the ground with a hydraulic drive.

It's what happens before, during, and after the pile is installed that really affects the performance. Expert helical pile contractors will use monitoring tools to assess performance in real-time, maintain their equipment, and hire professional employees that do top-tier work.

All that said, we still haven't answered our question.

If the biggest difference between residential and commercial helical piles isn't in the design, manufacture, or installation, where is it?

Is This the Helical Pile Foundation "X" Factor?

You might have already guessed, but the shining "X" factor that plays the biggest part in determining whether a helical pile foundation is "commercial" or not... the helical pile contractor that installs it.

The biggest differences between someone who installs small helical piles for lightly-loaded structures and the pro's that tackle epic piles for massive projects are skill and certifications.

Engineer monitors helical pile installation in Winnipeg Manitoba with VersaPile's safety and professional certification logos in an overlay on the image

Good helical pile contractors believe in the value of on-going training and certifications. Because no matter how good we are, there's always room to be even better

Any helical pile contractor who serves the commercial and industrial markets should have:

  • Experience in speccing, planning, and installing big helical piles for commercial/industrial projects
  • The right equipment for a variety of pile sizes, site requirements, and project demands
  • Expert engineers who can help design the best helical foundation possible for your project
  • Deep knowledge of local building codes regarding helical pile foundations, as in places like the City of Winnipeg they can be challenging to navigate
  • Membership in relevant groups (like local construction associations) that keep them in-touch with the industry
  • Certifications from governing bodies like construction safety associations
  • An outstanding reputation and positive reviews


It can be easy to get caught up in the specifics of a foundation technology. We get bogged down in how a helical pile is designed, what kind of steel was used, ideal soil conditions, or how they measure up to other foundation solutions.

But the human factor can't be ignored when it comes to foundations. Expertise developed over years of experience, long hours of training, dedication to outstanding work - those make the biggest difference when figuring out the difference between residential and commercial helical piles.

If you'd like to connect with a team of helical pile foundation experts and discuss your project, why not get in touch with us? We're happy to help you navigate the world of commercial helical piles in Winnipeg and Manitoba - no strings attached. Click here to get in touch with us.


View More