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Posted by Steven in Colorado Springs, CO on 7/30/2010

Well, that didn't work out so well.

A couple of days ago, I got the basic engineering drawing for the solar-PV mounts and it seemed straightforward enough--three mounts some 30' long, with ten 9" posts per mount. I wanted to avoid using a two-man auger on the somewhat-steep hillside where the PV will go (it's about a 25-degree slope), since I knew I didn't want to be wrestling with holding the auger upright while also trying to keep my footing on the hillside. I talked to the guys at Home Depot, and they suggested a tow-behind model instead... it's got a 16" auger bit and has between 10 and 15 horsepower (depending on the exact model), which is more than the two-man jobs and should (we thought) have been able to handle the soil just fine. 

We got up there without too many problems initially, but then the realities of the hillside began to sink in. After we took some measurements and marked the hold sites with construction chalk (the same kind you use on chalk lines) we detached the auger from the truck. There was no good way to actually drive the auger to the site, so we had to tie a good rope to it with me walking it down the hill while Colleen played out the rope and cinched it to the truck when I needed to pause for a moment. Along the way, we necessarily ran over a few of the smaller scrub oaks, which was more annoying than anything else--I'd been trying to avoid hitting them, since I'd already taken out so much brush earlier and they were doing a good job of screening the site itself from the road.

Once we got to the lower mount area (we figured we'd start at the bottom and work our way up), I got to work. That's when I ran into the next problem with the auger itself. Actually there were three problems, two with the bit and one with the machine itself. It turned out that the soil there is a bit rockier than I thought it would be and that caused problems with the auger bit. It would dig into the soil okay, but as soon as it hit more than a couple of rocks they would bind it up and the auger would try to die. I could prevent this somewhat by lifting the drill up periodically to clear out soil and rocks, but often I had to stop and pull them out by hand as some pieces were just too big. This slowed me down a lot, since every time I had to lift the auger up and set it to one side to get access to the hole, and of course my digging at it knocked in nearly as much rock and soil as I'd just taken out! This made things slow and very dirty.

The other problem with the bit itself was its size. Since an auger is basically a big screw drilling down into the earth, it behaves a lot like a screw you might try to drive into a piece of wood--the bigger the screw and the wider the cutting edge, the more resistance you run into and the slower you can actually go. With a 16" auger I was trying to move a lot of dirt that had various-sized rocks in it and that made for a lot more resistance than I thought I'd have to deal with. This also slowed me down quite a bit since my "drill rate" was considerably less than I'd thought it would be... annoying indeed.

The final issue was related to the machine. The tow-behind auger is a pretty-nice piece of equipment, but there's not really any good way to "push" on the auger bit while you're trying to drill... the idea is that the auger itself will "pull" itself into the ground and you've just got to lift the equipment every so often to clear the hole and let it discharge dirt and rocks to one side. Unfortunately since Tanglewood's soil in this area is a bit rockier and I couldn't apply much force to the auger, I found that I couldn't get as deep as I needed to excavate for the mounting posts. I probably could have done it with a beefier piece of equipment (a big farm tractor like I grew up with on the farm would be ideal!), but I've got a lot of concerns about being able to get a Bobcat or anything of similar size safely down the slope.

After several frustrating hours and two pauses for impromptu showers, (the Colorado monsoons arrived early in the afternoon right on schedule) Colleen and I gave up. We had only gotten about four holes dug, and even they weren't as deep as they really needed to be, and it was rapidly becoming clear that this auger just wasn't the tool for the job. We hauled it back up the hillside (this was much easier since we just hauled it up with the truck itself), cleaned up our mess, and headed back to town. That's where I got at least one good bit of news--when the Home Depot guys heard that the auger just hadn't been able to do the job for me, they voided the rental completely--no charge! Gotta say that impressed me a lot, and it's definitely something I'll remember!

A couple of pics of my attempt below, but they're not really too impressive, since I didn't get much done. I'll have to research what to try next, see if maybe I can get a Bobcat or a tractor up there to provide some good digging force.

Frustrating, very frustrating.

Steven in Colorado Springs


Here I've started digging the hole, but had to set the auger aside to clear rocks and such. Frustrating.
Closeup of the hole. Not nearly deep enough.
Wrestling the auger over to the next spot. We kept that rope and tow strap combo tied onto it so it wouldn't try to get away down the hillside. You can see the pitch of the slope pretty well here.

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