What This Massive Helical Pile Project Means for You

November 19, 2021

I spend a lot of my time on the lookout for how helical pile foundations are changing commercial construction. A perfect example of this is a solar project underway in Vulcan County, Alberta.

The Travers Solar Project is a massive 3,330-acre solar facility. When finished, it'll generate 465MW of power. That's enough to service about 150,000 homes. It's going to be supported by a staggering 228,158 helical piles. In the world of commercial helical foundations, that's (so far) unprecedented.

Here's why it's the best foundation they could have chosen.

A Logical Foundation Choice?

(Image: A solar installation [not Travers project] can span thousands of acres and contain hundreds of thousands of panels to support.)

I wasn't involved in this project, so I will only speculate why the engineers chose helical piles. No doubt there was plenty of time and research that supported their choice. My experience tells me there were a few likely benefits that came up during the design process. The two most obvious I can see are:

Ease of install and cost savings.

Driven pile or cast piles often demand lots of equipment, people, and site disturbance. You might need cranes, cement trucks, costly mobilization, and several subcontractors.

Not so with helical piles.

For this project each crew would likely only need a small excavator or skidsteer and 3 workers. Piles can be transported by a heavy-duty pickup and trailer. Although in a large project, a semi may be used. The speed of install should be exponentially faster as well. Each crew could likely install up to 5 piles a day, depending on conditions. They also (shouldn't) tear up the jobsite or leave piles of tailings behind.

Helical piles easily adapt to variable soil conditions. That's important in a job where the geographic install area is so large. Some areas may require a pile to go significantly deeper than planned. In these cases, extensions will be added until installation torque indicates desired stratum.
Of course, installation is only one part. Long-term foundation performance is what matters.

What Should We Expect From the Foundation?

The Travers solar farm has an expected lifespan of at least 35 years. What kind of performance should we expect to see from the helical pile foundations?

Corrosion resistance gives long life

How long a helical pile lasts depends on a few factors. Generally, a pile's usable lifespan can be well over 100 years. That means the piles should have no issues supporting the panels for 35 years and beyond.

Easy repairs

Should piles require replacement, they can be turned out of the ground and a new one installed. The process would likely take a 3-person crew less than a day.

Low failure rate due to environmental forces

The Canadian Prairies enjoy everything from tornadoes to blizzards. Freestanding solar panels are subject to intense forces, so foundation strength is key.

(Image: Solar panels, along with other structures in tough climates, have to withstand enormous environmental forces)

Helical piles excel at supporting lightly-loaded structures with high lateral loads, like solar panels. In fact, a few years ago we installed a helical pile foundation for a single large solar panel at a rural farm. Not long after installation, an F1 tornado struck the property and destroyed several outbuildings. Incredibly, the solar panel was unmoved by the violent winds - it was held firm by the helical pile foundation.

What This Project Means for You

To an outsider, the Travers Solar farm looks like a bunch of solar panels. To me, the project confirms two benefits we in the industry have been talking about for years:

First, it's a testament to the maturity of helical piles and the commercial construction industries' confidence in them. Over a century of engineering and millions of installed piles later, the technology is here to stay. Clearly, the engineers behind the Travers Solar farm have faith in the ability of helical piles to meet their rigorous demands.

Second, it's proof-positive of helical piles' speed and economy. Installing 3,300 acres of solar panels is a monumental task. Helical piles can often be installed exponentially faster than other deep foundations, with less people and equipment. On a commercial project, every efficiency and economy counts.

(Image: As the solar energy market grows by leaps and bounds, helical pile foundations help build faster and meet demand sooner.)

I entered the helical pile industry years ago because I believed they can offer a better way to build. Now the "industry at large" is embracing helical foundations in a big way.

Personally, I'm looking forward to seeing what the next "biggest ever" helical pile project will be.

Whether you're building a solar farm or a multi-storey building, helical piles might just unlock huge value in your project. If you'd like to have a friendly chat, ask questions, and not listen to a sales-pitch - click here to get in touch with our helical pile experts. We'd love to help you find the right answers.


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