Helical Piles - An Eco-Friendly Foundation in Manitoba? Steel Vs. Concrete

March 18, 2022

You're probably familiar with the "Three R's" of recycling - reduce, reuse, and recycle. I'm not sure when or where the slogan came from, but it's been around as long as I can remember.

Usually, we apply the Three R's to common recyclables like aluminum cans, glass bottles, or paper products.

But what if we used the Three R's of recycling to compare the environmental impact of concrete foundations versus steel helical pile foundations?

There's no better time than now to consider the environmental impact of concrete foundations. With the Manitoba government's commitment to combating climate change, it's clear the world is more focused than ever on the environment.

For us in the commercial and industrial construction industry in Manitoba, this environmental focus has put a magnifying glass on everything we do. From the equipment we use to the raw materials our products require, the entire construction supply chain is looking for ways to reduce their carbon footprint.

(Image: Winnipeg is a thriving, growing city. But with growth comes increased questions about the impact we make on our environment.)

A challenge in reducing our carbon footprint is doing it in a way that still allows us to run our businesses and support our employees. "Green" technologies might be better for the environment, but they can also be prohibitively expensive. Whether you have 10 employees that depend on you or 1000, you need to keep a close eye on your project costs.

One area ripe for an eco-friendly (and economical) update is the last place you might expect - your project's foundation.

Yes, those concrete foundations you've been considering can actually come at a hefty environmental cost. Concrete is an ecologically expensive material - even if it's monetarily cheap.

Enter the helical pile foundation. Manufactured from steel and offering enough strength for nearly any commercial project, helical piles could be your foundation solution that's more environmentally and budget friendly.


The first "R" on our list, "Reducing" consumption of finite resources like raw materials or fossil fuels is one aspect of slashing carbon emissions in construction.

When we compare helical piles and concrete piles for construction in Manitoba, what we're really looking to uncover is how much less (in terms of finite resources) it takes to produce and install a helical pile compared to a concrete foundation.

Naturally I can't cover every finite resource along the supply chain that goes into a steel helical pile versus a concrete foundation. Even if I tried I'm sure I'd miss something. The complexity of modern supply chains makes it a fools errand.

(Image: Modern construction is a global enterprise, so the work we do here in Manitoba can impact the environment on a global scale.)

What I can do is cover the broad environmental impacts of the two foundation technologies to help paint an overall picture.

Let's talk about finite resources first. To produce and install a helical pile, you'll (roughly) need:

Steel to manufacture the helical pile.
This steel might be "new" steel, but it could just as likely be recycled steel which reduces the amount of finite resources the helical pile demands. (https://www.rubicon.com/blog/steel-recycling/)

A single truck and trailer to transport piles to job site (in most cases).
Depending on the size of your project, you may need additional loads. But, overall, transporting helical piles requires less equipment and time.

Basic equipment (like excavators and skidsteers) to install the piles.
Having less equipment on your job site not only reduces your project's emissions, it makes the site safer for your employees.

Few workers required to complete even large and technical installations.
Reducing our impact also means safely managing the number of people we have running around on job sites.

Ready for use (loading) immediately after install.
Remember that time is a finite resource as valuable as any other. Helical foundations are ready to use immediately, saving your project precious time.

(Image: Helical piles are made from common materials like steel pipe, which can be manufactured from completely recycled sources.)

What if we compare that to producing and installing a concrete pile - what goes into it?

Concrete to 'manufacture' the pile.
Concrete itself is made from cement, which itself is responsible for 8% of global emissions, and aggregates mined from a quarry.

Water for mixing the concrete. Even back in 2012, 9% of all the water used in construction went to support the production of concrete. Ultimately, 1.7% of all the water used by humans goes to make concrete.

Rebar for concrete supports. Rebar is made from steel and can be recycled, but the laborious process to recycle rebar from concrete (excavating foundation, transport to recycle center, crush and sort concrete) is emissions-intensive. So, the use of steel here isn't necessarily "reducing" climate impacts.

Extensive equipment such as concrete trucks, cranes, pumps, etc. The more equipment your job site houses, the more emissions you'll be pumping out. Equally as important, more equipment means more opportunities for employees or sub-contractors to get injured.

Countless workers to run pumps, weld rebar supports, operate cranes, and monitor installation. It takes a lot of people to work with concrete, which means more people to transport and have run around your jobsite.

Needs days or weeks for concrete to cure. If time is money, then concrete is expensive. The vast majority of time spent on concrete is simply waiting for it to cure - which is not the best use of such a worthwhile resource.

(Image: The truckloads of aggregate needed to make concrete have to be mined from quarries and gravel pits, which adds to its environmental impact.)

In terms of finite resources, it generally costs less overall to manufacture and install a helical pile foundation versus concrete in Winnipeg and across Manitoba. You need less raw material, less emissions-producing equipment, and less people to transport and manage.

As a happy side-effect not only is that better for the environment, but it's better for your bottom line too. How often does that happen?


Reusing the products we produce is another aspect of curbing carbon emissions.

Because of a helical pile's unique design, they can be uninstalled the same way they were installed. Simply turn the pile out of the ground using a hydraulic drive, which is a quick and painless process. Once removed, the pile can be inspected, refurbished, and re-used in another project with an engineers stamp of approval.

(Image: The unique design of a helical pile means it can be uninstalled from the ground quickly and with very little to no disturbance of the site.)

Concrete piles don't offer that same ease of removal and re-usability. To "uninstall" a concrete pile you'll have to excavate around it, break up the concrete, and remove it with heavy equipment. The resulting broken concrete can't be refurbished and re-used, it can only be broken down into other material like road aggregate.

(Image: Concrete can be excavated from a site and sent for processing into different materials, but it can be a labor and emissions intensive process.)

If you're dealing with sensitive sites, like many remote areas of Manitoba, it's even more critical to be able to easily remove all human-made materials and products with minimal disruption. Excavating large areas to remove concrete foundations is disruptive to the site and your budget.

Even in the event a removed helical pile can't be re-used, it can still be recycled, which brings us to the third "R".


Here's what Rubicon (a multi-national recycling company) has to say about steel recycling:

"Steel is an iron alloy, meaning it is made up of a combination of metals and non-metals including carbon, iron, and tin. Like most metals, including aluminum, copper, and brass, steel can be continuously recycled without any damage or degradation to its properties-no matter the product or form it takes."

The article goes on to say:

"In the end, steel recycling efforts save almost 74 percent of the overall energy used in production from raw materials. This has huge benefits in the fight to save natural resources, and prevent excess greenhouse gas emissions."

That very same helical pile we install for your commercial or industrial project could, someday, be recycled into something new and useful. Who knows, it could even end up in an entirely new helical pile foundation supporting a project in Northern Manitoba.

(Image: While it does take energy [and thus emissions] to recycle steel, the end result is just as strong and useful as virgin steel.)

Concrete, by comparison, can't be truly recycled. It can only be down-cycled, which means turning it into something with less value such as an aggregate base for a road. That doesn't mean re-purposing concrete doesn't help the environment - it absolutely does. But it does mean you can't take an old concrete pile and turn it into a new one.

It might be more accurate to think of concrete as a "re-purposable" material. Helical piles, conversely, are truly recyclable and able to be processed into a material equally as valuable as when they started.

Environmental Benefits of a Helical Pile Foundation in Manitoba

When we compare helical pile foundations to the Three R's of recycling, some distinct environmental advantages become clear. Consider some of these eco-oriented benefits of a helical pile:

  • Can be easily removed from the ground to be reused or recycled
  • Built from steel, an infinitely recyclable material that takes fewer emissions to produce
  • Needs less equipment to install than concrete piles, reducing fossil fuel emissions
  • Installs without vibration or excavation, which protects the environment from damage
  • Fewer workers are needed to install, meaning less people to mobilize
  • Makes site remediation faster, easier, and more affordable

Whether you're working on a sensitive site or simply want to reduce your project's carbon footprint, a great place to start is the foundation. Because while we spend plenty of time thinking about technology like solar panels or passive heating and cooling, it's easy to forget our structures have to stand on something.

(Image: It's up to us to make a change in the industry if we want the Manitoba of tomorrow to be a safe and healthy one for future generations.)

From communication towers to multi-story buildings, the environmental impact of your project starts at the foundation. That means your foundation can support the mission to reduce construction's environmental footprint - not make it worse.


Concrete has been a massively valuable material that's helped humans build the modern civilization we enjoy today. In some cases, concrete piles may be the right solution for a project.

And I won't say that helical piles are a 100% eco-friendly, no-emissions, best-thing-ever for the planet. Steel does output emissions and pollution while demanding finite resources to produce. The inescapable fact is that, despite our best efforts and with all our current technology, there's still a climate cost to construction.

That's unavoidable.

That said, compared to a cast-in-place or pre-cast concrete pile, helical pile technology offers outstanding performance for a generally lower environmental and financial impact. With alternative foundation choices like steel helical piles freely available in the market, it's time to ask if concrete should continue to be the default choice for commercial and industrial foundations.

Whether the industry likes it or not, the Manitoba government's policies will continue to be shaped by climate change. Technologies like helical piles can play a key role in building healthier, safer, more eco-friendly structures in Winnipeg and across Manitoba.

Even if you don't believe in climate change, I think that's something we can all support.

Planning a project on a sensitive site? Want an efficient, more environmentally-friendly foundation? Our helical pile experts have helped hundreds of contractors, companies, and businesses install better foundations. Click here to get in touch with our friendly team.


View More