Insights from an Expert: Pile Load Testing
We interviewed project manager Matt Wessale to learn more about his passion in solar services and how he found his niche in pile load testing. Matt has seven years of geotechnical engineering and construction management experience within the renewable energy industry, where he has made significant contributions to pile load testing processes. His recent article, "As Solar Racking Evolves, So Do Pile Load Tests," provides additional information on the value of pile load testing for solar energy.
What did you do prior to joining Westwood?
I was the owner of a small consulting and testing firm called Solar Foundation Services (SFS). The name says it all; we provided engineering and testing services for solar foundations. Our primary service was pile load testing for large utility scale solar projects. SFS was established April 2015 and within one month we received contracts to conduct pile load testing on two Hawaii solar projects totaling 70 MW. In Minnesota, SFS focused on providing services to Westwood’s new geotechnical team led by my longtime colleague and friend Sam Jorgensen. A short time later, the SFS team joined Westwood permanently.
Why start a company that focuses on pile load testing?
I had the itch to become my own boss and pile load testing was what I knew! Over my five-year career before SFS, the majority of my work experience revolved around the design and testing of solar foundations.
Prior to establishing SFS, I spent two years in Ontario, Canada supporting the design, testing, and construction of solar foundations for 25 solar projects totaling 340 MW. In this role I essentially created a “prototype load testing company,” consisting of a five-person team capable of testing 250 solar piles a week to support the design and construction of over 170,000 piles across Ontario! Our Canadian team was innovative and we developed many new methods and equipment for improving testing efficiency, most of which carried over to SFS.
To put things in perspective, I started performing solar load tests in New Jersey in 2011 when an average test took three people over three hours to complete. By the time our team left Canada in 2015, the average test required two people and took 30 minutes – an 89% reduction in man-hours!
Why is pile load testing important, and at what stage of project development/design should it be performed?
There are many technical reasons why load tests should be performed, however the big benefit is cost savings! Pile load tests improve the design team’s understanding of the subsurface, resulting in leaner foundation designs and reduced material and install costs, for solar projects large and small. To ensure a maximum benefit, pile load tests should be performed early in the design phase, typically after, or in conjunction with, the geotechnical investigation.
What are typical pile load testing challenges and how does Westwood stand out?
As a company serving the entire U.S. solar market, our primary challenge is providing high quality field services wherever our clients are. To overcome this, we rely on an extensive network of regional contractors to provide local pile install and testing support. By doing so, we keep our mobilization costs low. Additionally, our calibrated and specialized load testing equipment fits into two checked airline bags, thus allowing our engineers to quickly mobilize across the U.S. and support our clients from Vermont to Hawaii.
How does your experience with pile load testing fit into Westwood’s overall solar capabilities?
Westwood is an industry leader in all aspects of solar design, and certainly a leader in the design of solar foundations and geotechnical engineering. Our ability to offer pile load testing in conjunction with geotechnical engineering and foundation design, in addition to the rest of our services, allows us to streamline the design process. This streamlined approach results in shorter schedules and more optimized designs, both of which contribute to our client’s bottom line!
What is Westwood’s differentiator in this space?
Experience and ingenuity! As mentioned above, Westwood’s geotechnical and structural engineers are involved with the entire design process of solar foundations. This comprehensive approach allows our team to innovate and develop new methods for optimization. A great example is our development of compression pile load tests. As we outlined in a recent article, compression tests help optimize the design of single-axis tracker piles. Because of this benefit, these tests have now become a standard load test performed by Westwood. As the solar industry evolves, so does Westwood!