You’re a Manitoban with a building project who has heard about these slick screw pile, ground anchor, helical pile, screw anchor, what-cha-ma-call-its that are cheaper and much more slick to install when compared to concrete piles. But are they actually cheaper? What is the real cost of screw piles?
There is no short answer to this but if you’re here for a super quick answer, here it goes. If you get all-in-pricing for a screw pile then you aren’t getting guaranteed performance. Like every other purchase in your life, cheap is cheap and in most situations, costs you more in the long run. When you buy a cheap coffee table and it breaks it’s not a big deal because there isn’t really collateral damage. On the other hand, when you buy cheap piles and they fail, the entire structural integrity of building is compromised – there can be a decent amount of collateral damage and its exponentially more expensive to fix when compared to buying proper piles in the first place.
Before we dive right in, it’s important to understand a few key points so you can eliminate the contractors or piles that are likely to cost you more in the long-run.
There Are Various Types of Screw Piles and It’s Important to Know the Difference
Screw Piles is a fairly general term for steel piles that turn in the ground and Manitobans should only invest in Helical Piles.
- In the world of screw piles, the helical pile is king because it’s the only one that can leverage universally accepted empirical engineering principles for consistent and reliable performance. A helical pile is the only screw pile that can leverage the Deep Foundation Institute’s Helical Pile Foundation Design Guide or the engineering text book, Helical Piles – A Practical Guide to Design and Installation by Howard A. Peko, PhD, PE. Both of these documents are accepted by the industry and by the engineering community.
- Augured piles are a close cousin to the helical pile but the helix is not formed with a true consistent pitch and this really throws consistency out the window and you must rely on manufacturer specific engineering which is very limited and, almost always, very aggressive – aggressive is not the friend of reliability or peace of mind. These are sometimes called duckbill piles for the shape of them resembles a duck with an opened mouth. As the name suggests these pile don’t thread nicely into the soil like a helical pile, they auger it which disturbs the soil, creates voids, and artificially increases or decreases torque. In a dry year, these also are very difficult to get into the hard and dry clay – we know this since we used to install augered piles and found them to be inconsistent in performance and problematic to install.
- Ground anchors are what we’ve seen in and around Winnipeg since the 90’s and are popular as off the shelf “pile” options at the lumber yard or where a few guys in a beat up pick up truck of van show up to turn them in by handheld device or using a torsion bar. Ground anchors were invented for the utility sector, helical piles were preferred for guy-wires but they were tough to put in the ground, they found that if you made the pitch really aggressive they became easier to put in the ground and that they were reasonably effective for guy-wire use – they were never intended hold things up and with the invention of hydraulics, the utility sector has put these out to pastor for their inconsistent performance. In Manitoba ground anchors like Wilson Anchors, Groundhogs, Earthworms, etc. all rely on engineering that makes soil assumptions – in the event of a failure the engineer will point to the requirement to verify soil capacities, which the installers do not do even if they follow the installation guidelines, and therefore, the weasel clause releases the engineer from standing behind the rated capacity.
- A ground screw is the one true steel turn-in-the-ground pile that actually looks like a big screw. Ground screws are the new kid on the block in the world of screw piles and they are actually quite slick as a floating pile since they can get a decent amount of friction due to the continuous auger flighting which makes up 40-50% of the shaft length. They are also great for maintaining the full lateral resistance of the shaft since the flighting does not extend past the shaft. They are however, more difficult to fabricate so they aren’t a big cost savings. More importantly, although we are fans of this technology for some applications, they are not practical in Manitoba’s climate as they would be very prone to frost heave and building out a pile long enough and big enough to support significant loads in our neck of the woods would be cost prohibitive when compared to a helical pile.
Now that you know the difference between the various types of screw piles that exist, you might appreciate that VersaPile, Inc. which installs various brands of helical piles, only installs helical piles. If we offered anything but a helical pile, we don’t believe we would be offering the overall value and trusted performance that Manitobans expect.
Not All Helical Piles Are Worthy of Your Hard Earned Money
VersaPile, Inc. – Helical Pile Contractors offers a few brands of CCMC approved helical piles but we don’t offer every brand. Here are the things that we look for when determining if a helical pile brand is worthy of making our line up:
- Is the helical pile “made for Manitoba”? Manitoba has a very extreme climate – we are Manitobans so we don’t really even appreciate it, we are survivors! We can see plus 35 in the summer and -45 in the winter – that’s a huge swing. We deal with floods and droughts. We call our expansive clay soils “Manitoba Gumbo”. Our soil within the active layer is far from predictable. Most of the variability within the soil is due to moisture changes and freeze and thaw cycles that happen in the first 8 feet. So number one, if the pile is not long enough so that the ENTIRE helical blade is BELOW 8 feet or 2.5 meters, it’s not made for Manitoba. If it’s a rather substantial project, you’ll want to be below the 13 foot or 4 meter mark when you no longer see rare changes in soil volume due to moisture variance.
- Are the helical pile made of new structural quality steel? You might be thinking, well “duh” isn’t that a given? Unfortunately it is not, there are manufacturers (one that is CCMC approved but hopefully not for long) that will purchase decommissioned used oilfield casings and repurpose them as helical piles. This is very problematic because the steel was never worthy of structural use and especially after it’s lived a life in the oilfield – they are inconsistently corroded and riddled with weak spots, brittle, as well as contaminated. These used pipes are sold for less money than scrap because they are an environmental nightmare and can’t be recycled. You would never ever allow a carpenter to frame your house with moldy non-structural grade wood and you should never let a piling contractor convince you that the helical pile equivalent is fine. Engineers and building officials will not pass your piles if they find out they don’t conform to CSA’s general requirements for rolled or welded structural quality steel.
- We will look for clean installation holes at the top versus holes that are simply torched out. Torched holes will create inconsistent torque distribution and the torching process hardens the steel, therefore the piles become more brittle and prone to shear.
- We will also look to the welds which secure the helical to the pile shaft or external couplings to an extension shaft. We want to see that the weld bead is thick enough for the pile size and intended loads. We want to see that the weakest point on the pile is the pile shaft, not the welds. This is difficult to determine if you aren’t an engineer, welder or helical pile nerd so you might need to ask an engineer their opinion. One thing you could notice however is a common short cut some cheapo manufacturers take and that is spot welding the helical to the shaft – ideally you will see a consistent weld on the top and bottom of the helical blade.
- The number one thing we are looking for when selecting which brands we are willing to carry is the reputation of the manufacturer. Are they known for quality and service? Do they stand behind their products? Do they have systems in place to ensure consistent and quality products such as ISO certification or equivalent programs? Do they have a proven track record building the pile
Not all Helical Pile Contractors Deserve to Be On Your Job Site
As you might appreciate, wood is a very consistent product and we know a lot about it, but give one carpenter a pile of wood and some plans and give another carpenter the same pile of wood and plans, and you can still get two very different results. The same applies to helical pile contractors. Here are a few points you should know about helical pile contractors:
- Unfortunately the training and certification of helical pile contractors is, quite frankly, laughable and nearly useless. Some manufacturers require a few days of training, others only a couple of hours. Mostly, newbie helical pile contractors leave in one of two states: 1) confused with a feeling of being “thrown to the wolves”; or 2) an overinflated sense of confidence. We all had to start here and we aren’t advocating that no newbie deserves to win a project and an opportunity to “cut their teeth” but you have to ask yourself the possible impacts of hiring a green contractor.
- The helical pile contractor you choose should be equipped with the tools of trade. Ideally they will use an excavator to complete the installation – excavators in Manitoba are best because they are able to get more downforce / “crowd” onto the piles which helps ensure it cuts into the soil vs. augers the soil and that you can penetrate soft till which is prevalent in and around Winnipeg. Robots and skidsteers or undersized equipment often fall short of achieving the required crowd and it can result in torque misreading or worse, a false impression that the pile has “spun-out” on a very dense soils layer – in either situation the prediction of performance is skewed.
- Everything hinges on the integrity of the helical pile contractor. The engineering department of a helical pile manufacturer will often be willing to stamp / certify close out letters when a certified helical pile contractor uses their product on a job site. However, they are relying on that contractor providing them with accurate and honest installation logs. An unscrupulous helical pile contractor can quite easily “fudge” the numbers to make it look like they achieved minimum embedment or torque.
- A professional and reputable helical pile contractor can always provide you with engineer stamped shop drawings and close out letters. A generic chart is not ideal because they almost always include weasel clauses (without them it’s just too much liability to give carte blanche) but it is better than nothing. Another thing to consider is whether or not the engineering is coming from the manufacturer’s engineering department or third party engineers. A manufacturer’s engineering department is motivated to sell piles – you hope they put their profession ahead of this motivation but their boss wants to sell piles. A third party engineer is not motivated this same way. A third party local engineer with local expertise is always best.
- If it’s a big project like a custom home or commercial structure, we also recommend including a geotechnical engineer. A helical pile contractor not worth their salt will claim that torque monitoring is the be all end all and that geotechnical investigations are unnecessary – this is a very dangerous opinion. A professional helical pile contractor greatly appreciates the data it can pull from a geotechnical investigation for designing an efficient and effective helical pile foundation and for putting the installation torque into perspective.
- Shopping online is done more and more today because the consumer confidence that is achieved with review systems. This concept, thanks to Yelp, Google, Houzz, Facebook, BBB, Yellow Pages, etc. applies to almost any business including helical pile contractors. Certainly check the popular sites for your area to see what others are saying about the contractors you’re considering. In Manitoba the most popular review sites are Google, Facebook and BBB. If you’re a Manitoban you also appreciate that we are almost all ultimately connected and that word of mouth from trusted sources like engineers, building officials, reputable builders, etc. does carry weight.
- Cowboy contractors are easily identified when you ask for proof of insurance. You can go online quickly and check if they are in good standing with Mantioba’s Workers Compensation Board (WCB). A professional contractor should also have a strong relationship with their insurance broker and can provide you with a certificate of insurance proving that they carry general liability insurance. $2M of liability insurance is the minimum you should see on residential project sites and $5M is more typical for commercial project sites.
- The first impression of a helical pile contractor who gives you all-in-pricing is that they are professional and confident. However, a true professional can’t offer all-in-pricing because they understand that the pile capacity is only as good as the soil and they monitor the torque to ensure the design criteria is satisfied. If the torque is low and the pile has not achieved the required capacity, a professional contractor will flag this and suggest an engineer approved remedy like the use of extensions, addition of more piles to the layout, or swapping out the piles for larger piles.
What is the True Cost of a Helical Pile in Manitoba?
Are you still with us at this point? By now you understand that vetting the product you are being quoted and the contractor who is quoting it is the most important thing you can do to ensure a solid value for your investment in piles.
Here is the disappointing but honest news about the cost of helical piles; the price of a helical pile varies and depends on a number of factors. VersaPile, Inc. – Helical Pile Contractors has installed helical piles for $250 a piece and for $12,500 a piece. To help simplify this we will cover a few popular examples of projects and how the pricing of a helical pile might vary.
IMPORTANT NOTE: All of the helical pile pricing examples below hinge on the assumption that you are only considering quotes from reputable contractors with quality piles which are long enough to withstand our extreme soils and climate and where it’s
The Cost of a Helical Pile for a Deck in Manitoba.
Great news! The cost of a helical pile for a deck in Manitoba is really attractive and makes the use of helical piles for most deck applications and no-brainer.
Not all decks are created equally and it’s important to note that we have supported decks on a single pile with a couple hundred pounds of required capacity and we’ve supported decks worth more than a quarter of a million dollars on massive piles supporting large spans, hot tubs, fireplaces, outdoor kitchens, louvered pergolas, etc.
The City of Winnipeg is where most Manitobans live and most decks are built so it’s worth talking about the law of the land in Winnipeg as it pertains to helical piles. Winnipeg allows the use of helical piles within their guidelines which they’ve outlined in a bulletin. The bulletin is not easy to find online so we have provided the link for you: https://winnipeg.ca/ppd/Documents/InfoCentre/InformationBulletins/2017/2017-001-S.pdf As you can see from the bulletin you need to have loads limited to 22 kN or 5,000 lbs, the deck must be a single story (no overlapping stories), and it must be below 27.9 m2 or 300 ft2 to be considered straight forward.
If you’re in Winnipeg and your deck is straight forward, you can take a couple of approaches. The first is that you simply use helical piles rated for 22 kN or 5,000 lbs and avoid the time delay of having to go through a plan examiner’s review. Or, you can value engineer the piles and complete some tributary area load calculations and use lower capacity piles in some or all of the pile locations. The truth is that the going rate for a 5,000 lbs capacity pile is $250 to $350 installed by a reputable contractor and you’ll only save $25-$40 per pile if you opt for a lower capacity pile which will generally reduce the lateral resistance / stiffness of the pile. 95% of the time we are selling customers with deck projects our 5,000 lbs piles.
Also, in the City you will likely need to budget another $1,000 to cover off a geotechnical investigation and engineer stamped letter if you are building a deck bigger than 300 ft2, a two story deck, a deck really near a river, an enclosed deck or a deck where the pile loads are higher than 5,000 lbs.
In rural Manitoba the price of helical piles for decks has less to do with the rules of the building authority as they will be pretty relaxed when compared to the City of Winnipeg which is one of the most cumbersome building authorities to deal with in North America. This might make it tempting to choose lower capacity piles but, from our experience, the 5,000 lbs piles are generally more robust to handle the denser soils, cobble, etc. that you encounter as you get further from the Red River. Also, when a helical pile contractor is traveling a reasonable distance to get to you, you want to ensure they will have the piles built to deal with whatever unforeseen issues might arise.
Long story short – the best value is in the 5,000 lbs helical piles. Typically a 5,000 lbs pile in Winnipeg has a 2-3/8″ to 2-7/8″ shaft diameter and will be 10 feet in length. Expect to pay $250 to $350 for a professionally installed helical pile for a deck.
The Cost of a Helical Pile for a Home Addition in Manitoba
Home additions vary greatly. A mudroom might be added to the side of a home and the loads are similar to a deck – see the example above. A typical four-season home addition is a single story and built, these days, on an insulated concrete form (ICF) pony wall / crawlspace. The loads we see are generally between 7,500 lbs and 15,000 lbs for this sort of structure.
In the City of Winnipeg you will need to budget for a geotechnical investigation and engineer stamped report which should run you $1,000 to $3,000 and cost you about 1-2 weeks of timeline to turn around. VersaPile, Inc. has a unique method of conducting geotechnical investigations that allows us to complete them for approximately $1,000 using a process and equipment that won’t ruin your yard.
Outside the City of Winnipeg you can likely forgo a geotechnical investigation and report but then you will need to rely on the helical pile contractor to accurately guess your soil conditions. Helical pile contractors should be completing and archiving installation logs for their projects and will likely have some data that can be relied upon to predict the soils in your general area. You might also be able to get some data from searching online for local public structures which might have geotechnical reports published, you could ask a local excavation contractor or maybe you know what to expect because you’ve dug up your yard in the past. If you are quite unsure and there is a decent number of piles to support your addition, a test pile might be the answer.
Back to building a home addition that is more significant than a mudroom in Winnipeg or other areas where the clay soil is similar to that in Winnipeg. You will want to ensure you are being quoted a reasonably sized helical pile – for home additions our starting point is almost always a 3.5″ or 89 mm shaft diameter. We have found that generally in Winnipeg clay we will see 7,500 lbs of capacity from a 3.5″ pile with 16″ helical blade diameter – a 10 foot pile this size for a home addition is between $425 and $600 per pile installed depending on pile caps and whether they are hot-dip galvanized or black steel. When the loads creep up around 15,000 lbs you’re typically going to see your best value using a minimum of a 3.5″ shaft with two 16″ helicals which will require a longer pile that is at least 13 feet long but most often 15 feet long. A double helical pile for a home addition in and around Winnipeg is generally $500 to $850 depending on pile caps, length and whether it’s hot-dip galvanized or black steel.
Should you be in the country look to the example of pricing in Winnipeg if you have clay soils. If your soils are more granular and dense then you might be able to pull off your 15,000 lbs loads with a single helix helical pile. If you know your soil is quite dense or that you have till or bedrock within the first 10 feet, you’re in a great situation where you can certainly pull off your entire addition with single helical on the piles. Being rural, you might have a local helical pile contractor but often you will need to plan for some mobilization costs as well.
The Cost of a Helical Pile for a New Home in Manitoba
A new home can certainly be built on helical piles and VersaPile, Inc. has worked with many of the local custom home builders to support homes worth hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars. However, typical house loads of 25,000 lbs to 35,000 lbs are difficult to achieve economically with a helical pile when the soil is typical and concrete cast-in-place (CIP) friction piles are a reasonable option. A 25,000 lbs load might call for a 16″ diameter CIP pile drilled to 25 feet with one stick of rebar and filled with concrete – because a house has a decent number of piles to absorb the mobilization, these piles will be $500 to $700 a piece. A helical pile in the same soil might require two to three helices and a 4.5″ steel shaft to 20 feet – materials costs for these piles will be $800 to $1,100 a piece. The other option would be to take the helical piles down to till which can vary between 10 and 80 feet dep in Winnipeg, this is where the price can vary greatly between $400 and $1,500 per pile.
There is a vane of shallow till that runs through Winnipeg and often an engineer will require much larger diameter CIP piles to compensate for the lack of depth. This situation is a helical pile dream. Not only can we compete nicely on price against the larger diameter CIP piles but we can use a very efficient pile – this example should result in an attractive budget of $400 to $600 per pile.
Another situation which occurs, usually in swampy areas or properties near rivers or retention ponds, is highly saturated and sloughing soils. Highly saturated soils are very problematic to concrete friction piles because you need to be able to core out a rather large hole in the ground. When water runs into the hole you either have to pump the water out while pouring concrete or, in some cases, you have to sleeve the piles – the additional labour takes away the economy of concrete friction piles. If an engineer gets wind of the soft saturate soil on site, their faith in a traditional concrete friction pile will often go out the window and they will no longer want a floating friction pile. When soils are suspect often engineers will specify the use of end bearing driven piles such as helical pile, timber piles or precast concrete piles.
More and more Manitobans in and around Winnipeg are utilizing helical piles as a budget friendly alternative to precast concrete piles and timber piles. Generally speaking helical piles, for residential purposes, will be $400 to $1,200 in and around Winnipeg with variability based on size required to satisfy loads and the depth of a refusal strata like arctic till. The budget for helical piles vs precast or timber driven piles is most often in favour of helical piles but the potential savings don’t stop there. A precast concrete pile or timber pile comes to order in one single length and it’s expected that the pile will reach the refusal strata. However, refusal peaks and valleys a lot like the bedrock you might see in Kenora and this problematic for precast and timber piles which are not lengthened easily or cheaply. In fact, it’s cheaper to just abandon a driven pile which was too short to reach capacity and replace it with another one or two longer piles in their place. This means that if refusal can’t be reached with the estimated length of pile, the additional costs are exponentially higher and there is a significant impact to the project timeline. Helical piles in contrast are modular and easily lengthened – if a helical pile is estimated at 40 feet but arctic till is 50 feet, it’s a matter of adding an extension to the pile which, VersaPile, Inc. generally stocks or can have available in a day or two. The result of choosing helical piles vs precast or timber piles in this event is proportionally higher costs and minimal if any delays vs exponentially higher costs and timeline delays.
The cost of helical piles for other projects in Manitoba?
As you might appreciate at this point, options for deep foundations are varied and each has its unique applications and circumstances where it might shine bright or not. With much unknown below the surface it’s tough to always provide very accurate pricing but there are a few great strategies that help improve the accuracy of estimates:
- Seek competitive pricing. This will help ensure you have a sampling from which to base your decision. It will also help you see how one contractor might compare to another. If a really reputable contractor quotes a large pile to a certain depth and less reputable contractor quotes a much cheaper smaller pile to a more shallow depth, you can raise a red flag and question the viability of the low bid. Choosing cheapest can often be the most expensive once the price change notifications are all added up.
- Obtain a geotechnical report. The best way to estimate piles for a project is to have a site specific geotechnical report from which the piles can be pre-engineered. The rate of pile failures are drastically reduced with the valuable information obtained about the soils when performing a geotechnical investigation.
- Review geotechnical reports or piling installation logs from nearby sites. In the absence of a site specific geotechnical report, you might be able to find geotechnical reports for public projects that have been completed nearby or, if a piling contractor like VersaPile has a detailed database of piling reports, they can reference projects nearby to anticipate the general soil conditions for the area. VersaPile’s piling report app will even allow estimators to search the piling report database using map view.
Ultimately the cheapest pile is a pile that performs long-term. Stabilization efforts are never cheap and almost always result in exponentially higher costs when compared to paying a reputable piling contractor to install proper piles to satisfy the capacities required.
If you have a project which requires piles and you’d like to consider helical piles as an option, please contact our friendly team of experts at 204.793.0653 extension 1. We are always pleased to review your project and provide the most realistic estimate possible or, when in your best interest, confirm if helical piles are not a great option.
Written by Stan Higgins, President of VersaPile, Inc. – Helical Piles Contractors serving thousands of Manitobans since 2011.