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How to Install Underground HDPE Pipe

HDPE pipe is made from High Density Polyethylene, and is used as an underground conduit for cable, communications, electrical, water, gas, and others. See our article on How to Estimate HDPE Conduit Runs for information about how to estimate. There are 2 common methods for installing HDPE pipe, trench installation and horizontal directional drilling.

Trench Installation

Trench installation involves digging a trench in which the HDPE pipe is placed, then back-filled after installation. There are several steps to this process.

Trench Construction

When constructing trenches, the size of the pipe, surface conditions, burial depth, surface loads, SDR of the pipe, trench length, and groundwater elevation will all need to be factored in order to meet code requirements.

The below table gives minimum trench widths, assuming stable ground conditions:

Nominal Pipe Size (inches) Minimum Trench Width (inches)
<3 12
3-24 Pipe O.D. + 12
24-63 Pipe O.D. + 24


Safety is of utmost importance on any job site. To prevent injuries from collapsed trenches, shoring or bracing can be done.  For unsupported excavations, sloping of trench walls to a safe angle can be done. Local codes can provide information about sloping of trench walls for particular areas.  Additionally, de-watering may be needed to keep groundwater out of the trench. This can be done with wells, well points, or sump pumps.

Floor Preparation & Padding

Bedding material for trenches should be made from free-flowing material like sand or gravel that is free from rocks over ½” in size. If large rocks are found and removed during construction, the space left needs to be padded with 4-6” of tamped bedding material.
HDPE Pipe Trench Installation

Pipe Embedment 

Pipe embedment materials need to provide enough strength and stability to minimize deflection, which is a change to the diameter of the pipe due to pressure. See ASTM D-2321 embedment classifications for details. Embedment materials can be course grained soil like gravel, sand or soil containing silty or clayey sand, or crushed rock. Embedment should be compacted to 85% density or 95% density if under streets.

Embedment particle size for embedment material depends on the pipe size.

2-4” pipe:  ½” max
6-8” pipe: 3/4” max
> 8” pipe: 1” max

Pipe Laying

Pipe must be laid, and NOT dropped, rolled or pushed into the trench. If the pipe is less than 8” OD, and weighs

Backfilling & Compacting

Backfill materials should be free from any large particles, clumps or rocks. The excavated soil can be used or fill from off-site can be used. Backfill should also be compacted to 95% under roadways and 85% for all other applications.

HDD (Horizontal Directional Drilling) or Directional Boring

Horizontal directional drilling and directional boring are trenchless installation methods that allow pipe to be installed underground without having to dig up, or trench, the surface. This is especially useful when installing pipe under roadways, rivers and lakes, rail crossings, existing utility installations, or other obstacles. Other advantages to HDD/directional boring include lower installation cost, achieve deeper installation, and less needed manpower. Numerous types of pipe including HDPE, PVC, steel, and ductile iron can be installed using HDD/directional boring.

  • Directional boring normally refers to small diameter bores with a shorter distance.
  • HDD normally refers to larger diameter and greater distance bores and require larger equipment.

Process for HDD

Entrance and receiving pits are dug, which allow drilling fluid to reclaimed.
Entrance and Receiving Pits for HDD

A pilot hole is drilled from one location to the desired endpoint.

Drilling of HDD Pilot Hole

The bore (hole drilled as the pilot hole) is enlarged to fit pipeline, otherwise known as “reaming”.

HDD Boring or Reaming

The pipe is pulled into the reamed path.

Pulling Conduit for HDD Installation

Entrance and receiving pits filled.

Finished HDD

 Advantages of HDD and Directional Boring over Trenching

  • Faster install times
  • Less surface disruption
  • Lower installation costs
  • Flexibility of location – under a road, river, etc.
  • Less soil contamination
  • Less permit/licensing issues

How Deep to Bury HDPE Conduit

HDPE conduit burial depth is determined by a variety of factors, including local regulations, ground conditions, the specific application, and more.

  1. Local Regulations: Regulations can vary from one region to another, so it is important to adhere to all local regulations. Contact the local code enforcement office to ensure you have the correct information.
  2. Industry Standards: Additionally, you will need to ensure you meet all industry codes, like ASTEM, AASHTO, NEMA, and NEC codes.
  3. Type of Conduit: The specific size and thickness of conduit can influence the required burial depth. Thicker-walled HDPE conduit may provide better protection and may be suitable for shallower burial, while thinner-walled conduit might require a deeper burial. Check the manufacturer specifications for recommended burial depths.
  4. Ground Conditions: Rocky and compacted soils offer more protection than loose or sandy soils. Often, depth can be shallower in rocky and compact soil, but it will need to be buried deeper in loose and sandy soils to prevent damage.
  5. Traffic Presence: In general, when HDPE conduit is installed where there is traffic present, it will need to be buried at a greater depth than when no traffic will be present. The greater depth provides additional protection from the added weight in live load areas.
  6. Specific Application: The application for the installation also matters. For example, telecommunications conduits are typically buried at a shallower depth than power conduits.

Other Tools & Equipment

In addition to the rig and pipe, there are other tools and equipment needed for underground pipe installation. Chapman Electric carries a full line of gear to make sure your project is a success.

Carriers & Missiles

These are sometimes called birds, and are used when installing lines into duct. The line is attached to the carrier, then the carrier is inserted into the duct, where blowing is used to move the carrier and line through the duct.

Duct Plugs

Duct Plugs are used to seal the ends of conduit so water and sediment cannot enter the conduit.

Seal-Off Kits

Seal-off kits insert into duct, then twist tight to create a vapor-tight barrier. Seal-offs are installed to prevent explosions where a spark producing devices, like a breaker, could possibly ignite the gasses inside the conduit.

Tracer Wire

Tracker wire is also called locating wire. When plastic pipe is laid in the ground, tracer wire is installed along the top of the pipe. Once buried, the tracer wire allows pipe location equipment to detect the metal in the tracer wire.

Break-Away Swivels

Break-away swivels protect cable during pulling. If the pulling capacity of the cable is exceeded, the swivel “breaks away” so the line isn’t broken.

Pulling Grips

Pulling grips are used to give installers a way to hold onto cable or lines when pulling through conduit.