Are Helical Piles Environmentally Friendly?

September 4, 2022

The construction industry has a large footprint and heavy footfall when it comes to environmental impact. But more than ever, reducing that impact is a necessary consideration for industrial and commercial construction for social, ecological, and economic reasons. This reckoning comes with an exploration of alternatives to traditional methods; in the foundations space, this means helical piles.

Helical piles offer some distinct environmental benefits over conventional foundations, including recyclable materials with a lower emissions profile, reduced soil displacement, and increased durability—all of which are also distinct financial benefits, and reflected in the relatively low cost of helical pile foundations. There are also some exciting applications for helical pile foundations in renewable energy infrastructure.

Helical Piles Are Made from Recyclable Materials

Helical piles are generally made of steel. The current process for manufacturing steel does emit a significant amount of carbon; however, steel is nearly infinitely recyclable—steel that is no longer in use is melted down to create new steel products. When a building or structure using a helical pile foundation is decommissioned, the helical piles can be recycled. In some instances, where the helical piles are still in serviceable condition, they can even be reused, significantly lowering the environmental impact per use as well as the cost of the project.

It is also the case that steel is an alloy of iron and carbon, two naturally-occurring substances. While untreated steel will suffer from corrosion, helical piles are treated for corrosion resistance. Variants of steel such as stainless steel are wholly corrosion resistant and are neutral and inert in the environment.

This is not the case for concrete foundations. Concrete manufacture is responsible for over 8% of annual global carbon emissions, and carbon emission is an inherent byproduct of the chemical reactions that form cement. And its environmental effect doesn’t stop with manufacturing: It is carbon-intensive to transport, and concrete leaches chemicals into surrounding soil and water when it is poured and when it comes into contact with water and acidic substances.

Helical Piles Reduce Soil Displacement

Helical pile foundations require significantly less soil displacement than conventional foundations. This is because rather than digging out a flat surface onto which to pour a concrete foundation, helical piles are screwed into the soil itself.

Heavy, resource-intensive equipment is used to excavate and level the soil for poured foundations. Then the soil that is displaced during the construction of structures is used as fill or removed from the site, increasing carbon emissions due to the transport of tons of heavy soil.

This soil displacement can have knock-on effects on the landscape, such as risking erosion. Any time soil is displaced, the potential for rain and wind erosion increases. It’s also the case, and particularly so for industrial applications, that there may be unknown contaminants in the sediments being exposed by excavation. Contaminated soil that is exposed can pose risks to human and environmental health.

Increased Durability Improves Sustainability

Deep helical pile foundations are extremely durable. In fact, helical piles can have a lifespan of over 150 years in normal soil conditions. Poured concrete foundations are generally considered to have a life expectancy topping out at about 100 years.

While durability isn’t synonymous with sustainability, the longevity of helical pile foundations does reduce consumption. A stronger, more durable foundation that lasts longer means that it uses less resources over its lifetime since it does not require repair, fortification, or replacement as soon as less durable foundation materials.

Green Tech Applications for Helical Piles

While not an argument for the environmental friendliness of helical piles themselves, it is notable that some key green technologies make use of helical pile foundations. Helical piles are used for (non-roof mounted) solar panel foundations, ensuring that wind and weather don’t affect the stability of the panels.

Helical piles are also used in some wind turbine applications. As with solar panels, wind turbines are top-heavy, requiring deep foundations to ensure their stability. Battery installations, often in conjunction with solar panels, also make use of helical pile foundations, necessary because of their weight.

For applications like solar panels, helical pile foundations have an additional environmental benefit in that they take up less surface area on the ground. This is beneficial because it means less of the surface is impermeable. This is a boon for plant life, which grows in soil, not concrete, but also protects the soil against erosion from runoff. Impermeable surfaces like concrete prevent stormwater from filtering back into the groundwater naturally, which can cause drainage and infrastructure issues and contribute to flooding.

Learn More About Your Helical Piling Options

If you’re looking to invest in a more eco-friendly foundation solution, helical piles are your go-to. With unmatched durability, minimal installation vibration, and recyclable materials, helical piles not only outperform poured foundations, but they’re also more sustainable. Contact our team of helical piles experts at Elite Helical to learn more.

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