How to Choose the Right Horizontal Directional Drill for Utility Work

Four factors to review when shopping for your next horizontal directional drill for utility applications.

The first factor you need to consider before adding a directional drill for utility work is the size of the installed product and bore distances.
The first factor you need to consider before adding a directional drill for utility work is the size of the installed product and bore distances.

Choosing the right size horizontal directional drill (HDD) for utility work can be a real challenge. Trying to manage multiple customers in multiple locations and varying ground conditions can sometimes feel like a moving target. The model that worked yesterday may not be the right one for the next project.

If you’re looking for ways to narrow your utility directional drill search, Tod Michael, Cutting Edge Business Unit Manager at Vermeer, recommends reviewing these four factors.

Bore Specifications

“The first factor contractors need to consider before adding a directional drill for utility work is the size of the installed product and bore distances,” says Michael. “As bore diameter steps up in size or distance, so does the thrust and pullback requirements, as well as the drill’s size and tooling requirements to perform the work. Manufacturers set their utility directional drill line based on those ranges.”

Drills like the Vermeer D8x12 and D10x15 S3 HDD are designed for smaller diameter work (up to 4 and 8 in., respectively) at shorter distances ranging up to 300 and 450 ft. in most ground conditions. On the larger end of the spectrum is the midsize D60x90 S3 HDD. This drill can install products 20 in. in diameter at ranges up to 1,800 ft., depending on ground conditions. After that, you graduate into maxi rig drill sizes.

“From the smallest drill in the product line to the largest, there are ranges where each drill model will overlap in capabilities,” Michael points out. “Those overlaps are when it gets to be a little more challenging to decide what utility drill to choose. Choosing a smaller drill gives a contractor greater flexibility on a jobsite. It can fit through gates. It won’t take up as much space when working in urban environments as a larger drill. However, a larger drill has more horsepower, which translates into thrust and pullback.”

Larger drills also are equipped with drill rods that have a large inside diameter, so they can bore longer distances than a smaller drill. They can handle greater volumes of mud, which can be critical when working in certain soil types.

Smaller drills using smaller drill rods can be more flexible and allow for tighter steering corrections. In congested areas, where the bore profile calls for extensive steering, flexibility can be a significant advantage and reduce setback requirements when drilling deep.

Michael advises starting your utility directional drill search by determining which model is the smallest unit you can use without putting the success of a project at risk and the largest machine that fits your need.

Jobsite Conditions

The next factor in determining what is the right directional drill for utility installations is jobsite conditions. Michael says you need to consider above-ground and below-ground conditions.

“In urban environments, machines with a small footprint may be more productive than a drill that can drill out farther,” he explains. “Larger drills may mean having to close lanes of traffic and/or setting back farther because of space constraints. On the other hand, longer drill shots can reduce the number of bores needed, which also means less repositions on a project.”

Soil conditions can have a major impact on identifying the optimal directional drill for your needs.Soil conditions can have a major impact on identifying the optimal directional drill for your needs.VermeerIn more residential areas, you should also think about public perceptions. “Many contractors choose to use small drills here because some residents may have concerns about potential property damage larger drills could cause," says Michael. "In most instances, those concerns are unfounded, but there’s a perception that goes along with large construction equipment.” The sound level is an important attribute to pay attention to when working in residential areas.

What’s happening below ground is something you must think about, as well. Soil conditions can have a major impact on identifying the optimal directional drill for your needs. “If a crew is working on rocky grounds regularly, a dual rod machine like the Vermeer D23x30DR S3 or D40x55DR S3 HDD may be the right choice. For infrequent rock work, investing in an air hammer or the Vermeer Armor drilling system may be a better option.”

For soil conditions like sand, where higher volumes and a specific mixture of drilling fluid may be required for bore hole integrity, a larger drill with more fluid capacity may be the correct choice.


As you narrow your search for the ideal utility directional drill for your work, how you get it to and from the job must be considered. Bigger drills weigh more than smaller ones do, so you’ll need a larger truck and trailer to pull it there.

Michael says some communication companies use small drills because they can set up their trucks and trailers to come below commercial driver’s license (CDL) weight requirements. “Creative thinking like this can impact their hiring requirements, which can be a competitive advantage when quality help is hard to find,” he notes. 

Drill weight isn’t the only thing to consider when it comes to transportability. You need to look at the whole package — truck, trailer, drill, mix system and tooling. “Incremental increases in costs as the total equipment package increases in size is something contractors need to think through,” says Michael. “In some cases, the same truck, truck trailer, mixing system and tool can support a few different drill models. So, a contractor may want to add the more powerful (bigger) drill when trying to decide between a couple of models.”

When determining how transporting equipment to and from the job impacts your buying decision, you need to balance operational costs with productivity. Depending on your operation, travel distance, jobsite space, bore length and diameter, you may find that being nimble in transport may outweigh drill power and productivity. The key is determining what is most important to your business. 

Fleet Preference

The last factor to consider when shopping for a new utility drill comes down to your personal fleet preference and size. Are you looking to expand the range of work your company can do? Or do you want to standardize your crews so it’s easy to stock parts, tooling and wear parts?

There is no wrong answer here. “A lot of smaller contractors or companies that specialize in a certain area may choose to add multiple drill models to give them greater flexibility to adapt to customer needs,” Michael says. “Larger companies may tend to prefer to stick to a couple of drill models to make it easier to manage their large equipment fleet. Other contractors may choose a particular model because they can get a specific feature, like a cab with it.”

Decision Time

So, when you’re trying to decide which horizontal directional drill is right for your utility installation needs:

  • Start with narrowing your search through bore diameter and distance specifications.
  • From there, consider the jobsite conditions above and below ground.
  • Next, look at your transportation expense and how it will impact your total operational costs.
  • And then finally, compare your decision to your fleet preferences.

If you need help along the way, contact your local dealer, who can walk you through all the options.