Can You Excavate Frozen Ground?

Excavating Frozen Ground

Winter’s cold temperatures can significantly affect an excavation area, requiring you to shift your methods and machinery for successful outcomes and desired completion times.

The ground can develop a layer of frost when temperatures fall below 36 degrees Fahrenheit, and it can freeze below 32 degrees Fahrenheit. If temperatures dip to 28 degrees Fahrenheit or lower, you may encounter a hard freeze and face especially challenging excavating conditions.

Equipment with excellent strength, vibration and sharp cutting edges combined with the right techniques can help you excavate frozen ground quickly and safely.

What Makes Digging in Frozen Ground Difficult?

Digging through frozen ground is challenging because cold temperatures affect ground density, resulting in layers that can be as hard as or harder than concrete. Working with frozen ground can affect your equipment and workers, as the ground can become too cold to dig with standard excavation machines. Using the right equipment and techniques can ease your efforts and protect your machines and workers.

Construction Equipment for Excavating Frozen Ground During Winter

Frozen ground requires different machinery and tools than soft earth. For example, while a loader with a bucket attachment works great on soft ground, using it on frozen ground can damage the machine and strain operators. Blunt tines make a harder impact when they strike frozen ground, which can result in rough riding and operation for workers.

Attachments with a tooth or several teeth are essential for excavating frozen ground because they enable you to puncture and scrape frozen soil. You can successfully excavate small sections of frozen ground and ease the process with the following types of equipment:

Excavating Small Section of Frozen Ground
  • Frost buckets: A frost bucket contains sharp tines and a narrow tip to help it strike through solid ground. It can pierce frozen layers much more effectively than a bucket attachment.
  • Hydraulic hammers: Hydraulic hammers work well to strike holes in solid ground. However, using a hydraulic hammer’s tool bit to pry pieces of the hard soil loose can damage the machine’s chisel point.
  • Hydraulic rippers: A hydraulic ripper is one of the most effective excavation attachments when working with frozen ground because it vibrates, creating space between the frozen ground and the ripper tool. Using a hydraulic ripper causes minimal stress on machines and operators.

Digging through larger areas of frozen ground requires more heavy-duty equipment:

  • Static rippers: Static rippers are helpful excavating tools when using heavy-duty machinery on frozen ground. The right equipment size and strength are necessary when using static rippers because their heavy impact can shake the equipment.
  • Bulldozer or large excavator: You can attach a ripper attachment to a bulldozer or large excavator.

Can a Mini Excavator Dig Frozen Ground?

A mini excavator can typically dig through frozen ground if the frozen layer’s depth is less than 10 inches and you use the right attachments. If the frost runs deeper than 10 inches, you may need a larger excavator to break through the frozen layer.

How to Dig in Frozen Ground

Preparing for frozen ground, using and maintaining your equipment and implementing the proper excavation techniques are essential when completing construction jobs in winter.

Preparing the Ground With Thawing Techniques

Thawing the ground is one of the best and simplest ways to overcome excavation challenges in frozen conditions.

  • Portable heater: A warm shelter such as a large tent can raise the ground’s temperature in the area you need to dig. You can place a portable heater inside a tent to raise the ambient temperature before digging. Another benefit of shelter is that your workers can enjoy a warm, comfortable workspace.
  • Fire: A charcoal fire is an alternative heating method that can help warm the ground and soften the soil. Safety is crucial when using fire, so you must take precautions to protect your crew and equipment. Move equipment away from the area before building a small fire, and monitor the fire closely.
  • Hydrovacing: Hydrovacing is a thawing method that warms and softens the ground using warm water. You should consult with an environmental professional if you use the hydrovacing method. An environmental specialist can help you perform this technique safely to avoid contaminating water sources.

When thawing frozen ground, it’s important to thaw it slowly. Thawing frozen soil too rapidly can loosen the soil too much and affect the ground’s stability. If you thaw the ground enough to create a significant amount of loose soil, you may need to implement extra bracing to maintain safe working conditions.

Protecting Equipment

Maintaining your excavation equipment adequately ensures it’s ready to perform in the winter and withstand cold temperatures. Machines and attachments require specific types of oils and lubricants in cold weather, so you should always consult the user’s manual for each machine to ensure you use the correct products for the season.

You must inspect your machines and attachments frequently to address potential fractures. Cold weather can cause small hairline fractures, and it’s important to address them quickly to avoid your equipment’s components from shattering. You should also keep a collection of extra belts, hoses and seals if one breaks from cold exposure.

You may also find that you need to let your machines idle longer than usual before using them when you work in the winter. Giving construction vehicles extra idling time helps their engines and hydraulic attachments reach the proper operating temperature.

Implementing Worker Safety Measures 

Cold, snow and ice can present potential hazards. Maintain a safe work site with the following tips:

  • Provide warming stations if workers need to work outside of an insulated tent.
  • Clear icy surfaces.
  • Keep areas well-lit if working in the dark.
  • Store equipment in covered areas to keep it dry.
  • Provide workers with highly visible and insulated personal protective equipment.
Trust Mustang Cat® as Your Partner in Excavating Frozen Ground

Trust Mustang Cat® as Your Partner in Excavating Frozen Ground

Excavating frozen ground is possible with the right equipment. When you use strong machines and sharp tools to break through solid soil, you can complete your jobs safely and efficiently.

Mustang Cat® sells and rents high-quality equipment you can depend on, and we are here for your winter construction needs. We are Southeastern Texas’s leading supplier of construction tools and machinery, and we are dedicated to helping you find the right equipment for every job.

Contact us to learn more about our available equipment and services.