Steel Helical Piles vs. Lumber Piles
Which is the better option for securing a foundation?

When it comes to the construction of new homes, lumber piles have always been the popular pick of contractors and builders nationwide. Did you know there is a more reliable and cost effective alternative that will allow homeowners to feel safer than ever before? That alternative is steel helical piles.

The price of lumber has shot up from last year, a market trend seen as somewhat expected after tariffs were placed on Canadian lumber earlier this year. As a result, steel maintains as a better option for pre-construction materials. As you’ll see below, while this may seem as kind of a shock at first, you’ll learn that steel is not only a better material, but it proves to be the most long lasting, leaving you with a peace of mind that the home you are building will be secured. 

In a recently released article from the NAHB, the National Association of Home Builders, due to lagging domestic supply and rising tariffs on Canadian lumber, contractors experienced price increases this past spring as high as 30%.

The Commerce Department determined that Canada had been improperly subsidizing the sale of softwood lumber products to the United States, and after failed negotiations, Washington decided to retaliate with tariffs of 3 percent to 24 percent. The penalties will be collected retroactively on imports dating back 90 days.

Granger MacDonald, chairman of the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) and CEO of MacDonald Companies, has issued multiple statements about the issue.

"More than one-third of the lumber used in the U.S. last year came from exports because the U.S. does not produce enough lumber to meet the nation’s needs. Home builders need a consistent, reasonably priced supply of lumber to keep housing affordable for hard-working American families." 

This leaves home builders – and their customers – caught in the middle and probably looking at price hikes: The Random Lengths Framing Lumber Composite price jumped from $366 on Feb. 3 to $391 on Feb. 10, the greatest weekly gain since August 2003. By Feb. 24, it was up to $405.

What does this mean to the cost of housing?

This price spike has added nearly $3,600 to the cost of a new single-family home. When you consider that each $1,000 increase in the median price of a new home makes homeownership unaffordable to 150,000 households, you can quickly see how this tariff can have a ripple affect across the nation.

It’s not just homebuyers and consumers who are hurt by tariffs. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2016, housing and related industries that used softwood lumber employed nearly 4.5 million American workers and outnumbered U.S. lumber-producing workers 31 to 1. The U.S. does not produce enough lumber to meet the nation’s needs. Last year, 33 percent of the lumber used in the U.S. was imported, and more than 95 percent of those imports came from Canada.

So what are your options if lumber prices continue to climb impacting the cost of those timber piles needed to support your foundation?

With steel at all time low prices, steel helical piles are the better option. According to General Steel Buildings, here is the charted regression of steel prices in the United States. Not only does the forecast show the dramatic decrease in the price of steel, it shows that the price will stay somewhat steady for the years to come. As you can see by comparing the chart above with the one to the right, steel prices are less than the average timber price currently and look to stay that way for years to come. 

So what are the advantages of using steel helical piles on a foundation vs. the limitations of timber piles? Find out below.

Advantages of Using Steel Helical Piles

  • Can be installed year-round
  • Round shaft has a high resistance to bending
  • Galvanized steel resists corrosion for long life
  • Cannot be seen after installation
  • Can be installed in tight spaces
  • Minimizes the seismic activity and ultimate noise of pounding into the rock layer
  • Load is transferred through problematic soils to bedrock
  • Calculation of the load is simple. No need to use a complicated load-bearing calculation that may or may not be accurate. 100% of the load is seated in bedrock
  • The piles are easy to handle and are available in multiple lengths
  • Can be drilled through dense layers. The lateral displacement of the soil during driving is low
  • The drilling process ensures the pier is seated in the rock
  • Can be driven in hard soil conditions and to greater depth
  • Higher load capacity  
  • Faster and easier installation, and lower overall cost
  • Can be encased in concrete, if required
  • Greater design flexibility for the engineer. Many design options available
  • Less expensive than timber
  • Lifetime warranty

Limitations of Timber Piles

  • Salt-water corrosion limits life of piles
  • Pile Cap installation costs are greatly increased due to deep excavation requirements where sub-soil water level is very low
  • Low joint strength limits the depth of the timber piles
  • Lower load-bearing capacity
  • Timber piles must be cut off below the permanent ground water level to prevent decay. If the water table at a site is at a greater depth, extra cost of excavation needed to provide the pile cap may render the choice uneconomical
  • Increased safety concerns during installation in filled-in ground

What is a Pre-Costruction Drill-In Pier?

A Pre-Construction pier is a type of structural pier, which is installed below the structure before it is built. The pier is tied into the footer of the structure to keep the structure from moving due to weak or compromised soils. Normally this consists of a type of multi-lead helical pier that is driven with precision, deep into the ground until it rests soundly upon the underlying load-bearing strata.

The helical piers are embedded within the foundation via a custom footer bracket. When the building contractor places the concrete foundation, the bracket is essentially embedded into the footer by twisting the rebar into the top bracket thus making the Pre-Construction piers an essential part of the foundation once the concrete has cured.

More and more architects, engineers, and construction professionals are paying closer attention to the potential of soil issues such as buried debris, clay, muck, and sinkhole damage. These professionals are taking precautionary measures to prevent the problem before damage begins. By installing a deep foundation system prior to building, you can ensure the structure will rest on a solid base for years to come.

Pre-Construction piers are easy to install, only taking 2-3 days to drive and weld a whole house. They are also cost effective when compared to other retrofitted soil improvement systems and all Pre-Construction piers come with Helicon Lifetime Warranty on workmanship, completely protecting you with the most comprehensive warranty in the industry, and you could easily save thousands of dollars in sinkhole coverage premiums by using Helicon for your restoration project.

Pre-construction piers provide stabilization for the foundation of a structure and prevent the downward settlement of buildings in areas prone to sinkholes or with unstable soil conditions, such as muck, clay, and buried organics.

Simply put, pre-construction piers are helical piers that are designed to be installed with precision, until they are secured deep in the ground, protecting your home.

How do Pre-Construction Piers Work?

Pre-construction helical piers are installed prior to pouring footings as specified by the engineer’s installation design. (These are the same piers that have long been used to stabilize, and often lift the foundations of existing homes that have settled.)

Rugged steel tube sections are hydraulically driven until they reach the depths of competent load-bearing soil strata or bedrock. The top of the pier is then cut to the footing elevation and a footing bracket or plate cap is welded to it. Rebar is added and the footing is poured, making the pier and bracket assembly integral to the foundation.

Your foundation rests upon these piers, not potentially unstable soils closer to the surface. This precaution ensures that your new home will not settle due to weak soil conditions or sinkhole activity.

What is the Installation Process of Pre-Construction Piers?

preconstruction aerial
  • Your engineer’s installation design is reviewed and installation points are marked off in cooperation with your building contractor.
  • The Helical Piers are hydraulically torque driven into the soils to the specified depths.
  • Excess pipe is cut at the bottom of the proposed footer and pipe is made ready for the top bracket.
  • The top bracket is welded to the top of the pier.
  • Process continues until all the Pre-Construction Piers are installed.
  • Work site is cleaned up.

Use the Helical Pier Load Calculator to Determine Optimal Solutions


The recently launched Helical Pier Load Calculator from TMG Manufacturing is a welcomed addition to the tools engineers can use to improve their geotech construction needs. Helical Piers are an excellent choice for stabilizing existing structures that have been damaged due to settlement, or to prevent future settlement. Their main function is to support and stabilize the load bearing walls. The weight of the structure is transferred off the weak soils and onto the Helical Piers but they require significant care in planning and material selection. Programs such as this Helical Pier Load Calculator provide that support.

This engineering software platform gives designers the ability to analyze a variety of faced systems. The platform is available via Helicon’s website and, “will help designers to determine the optimal solutions for our respective clients” says Casey Messer, COO of Helicon.

The Helical Pier Load Calculator provides allowable load, size of pipes, and safety factors, allowing engineers to quickly and easily modify design characteristics such reinforcement location, which is used to determine installation torque and allow load values. The tool produces results in real-time, ensuring accurate material quantity estimates for the load capacity of these piers.

The software integrates important industry design methodologies and convenience to provide for general information purposes. “The Helical Pier Load Calculator is just the latest example of Helicon’s commitment to developing innovative solutions that will advance the use of pre-construction helical piers in the current geotech construction ecosystem here in the state of Florida with the potential for expansion into new markets outside the state,” said Jay Silver, President of Helicon. Silver went on to say, “We are proud of this technology and the value it will bring to our partners in the design community.”

More Information About Pre-Construction Helical Piers

For more information about pre-construction helical piers, check out Helicon's Pre-Construction Helical Pier service overview booklet that can give you precise specifications about the process.

Helicon is the premier geotech construction company in Florida. Based out of Tampa, FL., we are a licensed general contractor leading the industry in full-service geotech construction work.

We are experts in pre-construction, soil and structural stabilization, & sinkhole repair. As the premier provider of geotech construction services throughout the state of Florida for nearly 15 years, Helicon prides itself on providing high-quality service, for both insurance companies and private customers, with handling all repairs and pre-construction work for both residential and commercial projects. We strive to exceed everyone’s expectations.

Helicon has successfully completed thousands of projects in the state of Florida with a focus on the Tampa Bay metropolitan area, including the surrounding counties of Hillsborough, Pinellas, Pasco, Hernando, Polk, Citrus, and Marion. Our professional Helicon Team is trained and equipped with the tools and expertise needed to execute a flawless and professional experience using the latest technology to repair or prevent for your particular project.

We invest in our teams ensuring they remain up to date on the latest industry technology and training. Our Office Team will answer all your questions, provide professional service, give knowledgeable advice, and execute a project that will fully satisfy our customers.