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Comparison of Diesel and Hydraulic

Hammers for Pile Driving

Insight into the resurgence of the diesel pile hammer

By Michael D. Justason, M.Eng., P.Eng., Product Manager, Bermingham Foundation Solutions

This paper compares and contrasts diesel and hydraulic piledriving hammers. The body of the paper examines the following
criteria for comparing and evaluating the two types of hammers:
operational criteria, controllability, verifiability, efficiency,
effectiveness, cost, and environmental concerns. The future
development of intelligent pile-driving is also addressed
briefly. It is assumed that the reader has a general understanding
of the theory and operation of both diesel and hydraulic impact
Although the basic principles of the diesel hammer have not
changed in 65-years, this paper underlines the reasoning behind
pursuing, modernizing, and perfecting this simple and efficient


Contractors, owners, and equipment manufactures evaluate
several criteria in the selection of pile driving equipment. The
following sections will examine the merits of diesel hammers
with respect to several evaluation criteria. The merits of diesel
pile hammers will be compared and contrasted with hydraulic
impact hammers the main competing technology. The purpose
of this section will be to rationalize the further development and
modernization of diesel hammer technology. Evaluation criteria
will include the following:
Operational criteria such as safety, reliability (minimized
down-time), familiarity, and operating weight
Controllability (can the impact velocity/force of the
equipment be easily controlled?)
Verifiability (is there some means of assurance that the
equipment is performing as intended?)
Efficiency, Effectiveness, and COST (does the hammer
perform the required work in a reasonable time at a
reasonable cost?)
Environmental concerns (noise, vibration, and emissions)
Optimization (this is an advanced evaluation criteria that
may only apply to high-volume specialty pile-driving

1. Operational Criteria
A. Safety
Equipment manufacturers of all types of hammers have
addressed the issue of safety. It is difficult to give an advantage
to either diesel hammers or hydraulic hammers in the area of

safety, as the safety of a pile-driving operation depends more on

the activities surrounding the process of pile-driving than the
operation of the pile hammer itself.

B. Reliability
The simplicity of operation of a diesel hammer gives it an
advantage over hydraulic hammers in the area of reliability.
During operation, a single-acting diesel pile hammer can have as
few as five (5) moving parts, most of which can be serviced or
replaced in a matter of minutes. As a self-contained, selfpowered unit, a diesel hammer requires no external power
source, and thus avoids potential problems related to a hydraulic
power unit engine, pump, and hoses. While problems with
hydraulic hammers generally necessitate repairs by a qualified
service technician or manufacturer representative, problems with
diesel hammers can most often be diagnosed and solved by the
contractors own site personnel.

C. Familiarity
It would be very difficult to find a piling contractor in the
world that does not have experience with diesel pile hammers.
This evaluation criterion, while it may seem trivial, can be a
major factor in a contractors selection of pile driving
equipment. Contractors in the United States seem particularly
loyal to diesel hammers.

D. Operating weight
The operating weight of a pile hammer can influence the
selection of the crane or piling-rig, which can be the single
largest equipment cost for a contractor. Typically, a diesel
hammer will deliver higher impact energy than a hydraulic
hammer at an equivalent or lesser operating weight. A more
thorough comparison of two competing technologies is shown
later in this paper.
It should be noted that the weight of the hydraulic power
unit associated with the operation of a hydraulic hammer is often
forgotten. Hydraulic power units are generally large, and while
these units can sometimes be mounted on the back of the piling
rig, many times they cannot, creating an added complication to
the mobility of the piling operation. Dedicated hydraulic piling
rigs can overcome this problem by incorporating the necessary
hydraulic flow to run the hammer into the design of the base-unit
itself. However, these dedicated rigs are expensive and as such
have very little penetration into the North America.
In the area of operating weight diesels have the advantage.

2. Controllability
One of the main misconceptions about diesel hammers is
that they are not controllable. This is partly due to the fact that
the performance (impact energy) of a diesel hammer depends on
the soil resistance, and the mass and stiffness of the pile
foundation being driven. Because the capacity of a pile
foundation depends on the performance of the pile-driving
hammer, governments and consulting engineers have shown a
recent preference for hydraulic hammers, since the impact
energy or stroke of a hydraulic hammer is relatively
independent of the pile resistance. The interdependency of the
pile capacity and the hammer performance can add an extra level
of complexity and uncertainty to the pile installation process.
Traditional diesel hammers are equipped with discrete
energy settings. These settings control the amount of fuel
delivered to the hammer, and thus the resulting stroke and
impact energy. More modern diesel hammers are equipped with
an infinitely adjustable fuel delivery or throttle mechanism,
which allows the operator better control over the hammer
performance, up to the maximum performance permitted by
the pile resistance. Many governments and consultants are not
yet familiar with these features.
While these newer
developments have increased the controllability of diesel
hammers, the advantage of controllability must still be given to a
properly functioning hydraulic hammer.

monitoring system to include other features for greater QA and

QC in pile driving. In the early 1990s, Berminghammer began
offering a Pile Driving Monitor (PDM) with the ability to
record; pile depth, blow count, measured impact energy, and
various other pertinent information. A similar innovation by
Pile Dynamics Inc. has been the SaximeterTM. This device uses
sound to detect the blow-rate of a particular hammer, and using a
basic formula, the device can estimate the stroke, or the potential
energy of a hammer. It also offers the ability to do blow counts,
and to store other pertinent QA and QC information. While the
standard SaximeterTM offers no ability to detect impact velocity,
there is a version of the device called the E-SaximeterTM that
uses proximity switches, similar to the Berminghammer PDM
system that allows it to monitor impact velocity for either diesel
or hydraulic hammers.

3. Verifiability
In pile driving, QA and QC typically consist of pile
installation records that log the number of blows per unit of
penetration, and the final tip elevation for each pile. Very often,
however, the performance of the pile hammer is not logged on
the pile installation record, or more disturbing, the pile hammer
may appear to be operating at the desired impact energy, while
in fact it is not. This can lead to a potentially dangerous
situation, whereby piles are believed to have more capacity than
they actually do.
Historically, the most common problem with diesel
hammers has been the phenomenon of pre-combustion or preignition. This problem still exists for diesel hammers that
operate using a fuel delivery system known as impactatomization.
Unfortunately, a diesel hammer that is
experiencing pre-combustion may not show any visible signs of
a problem. The hammer may still run with the desired stroke,
yet the impact velocity may be reduced, causing the blow-count
to increase and creating the artificial impression of pile capacity.
A similar problem can occur with an improperly adjusted
hydraulic hammer. If the hydraulic cylinders that lift the ram are
activated prematurely, then the actual impact velocity of the ram
can be reduced. Again, a dangerous over-estimation of pile
capacity will result.
Diesel hammers that operate using a more modernized fuel
injection system do not experience pre-ignition. Verification of
the performance of a diesel pile hammer is possible through the
use of an instrumentation port that allows for monitoring of the
impact velocity of the ram using magnetic proximity switches.
Testing has shown that fuel injected hammers do not experience
a loss in impact velocity as the hammer temperature increases.
This innovation has lead to further development of the velocity

Figure 1 photo of PDIs E-SaximeterTM

Figure 2 photo of Berminghammers PDM

Combined with either of the above monitoring systems, the
true impact (sometimes called kinetic) energy of a hammer can
be verified.
Some hydraulic hammers have built-in hammer monitoring
systems, usually on the hydraulic power unit, which can provide
impact velocity and/or energy information. Currently, these
features are only available on the more sophisticated hydraulic
In general, the verifiability of both diesel and hydraulic
hammers depends more on the hammer manufacturer than it
does the type of hammer. In other words, some manufacturers
of both diesel and hydraulic hammers have addressed QA and
QC issues, while others have not. Some consultants and

4. Efficiency, Effectiveness and COST

The true energy efficiency of a pile-driving system must

consider the amount of work performed in a given period of
time, and the amount of diesel fuel consumed to perform that
Data on fuel consumption for diesel hammers, and hydraulic
power packs, suggests that a fuel-injected diesel hammer can be
as much as ten-times more efficient than an equivalent hydraulic
hammer. This fact alone is justification for the further
development and pursuit of diesel hammer technology, and a
testament to the true efficiency of diesel hammers.

A. Efficiency

B. Effectiveness

Since the introduction of PDA testing, the concept of

efficiency has become popular when discussing pile driving
hammers. The efficiency (as it has been discussed in the
popular sense) can be defined as the percentage of a hammers
rated (or potential) energy that is delivered to a pile (as
measured by a PDA testing system). Use of the word efficiency
in this manner is incorrect and not what manufacturers of PDA
equipment intended.
It is the nature of diesel hammers that some portion of the
hammers potential energy (ram mass x actual stroke) is used to
compress air used for combustion. This results in an impact
energy (or kinetic energy) that is less than that of a free-falling
mass. Hydraulic hammers, by contrast, operate using a remote
power source (power pack), and do not need to use any of the
rams potential energy for the operation of the hammer.
Although frictional and other losses still occur, the ram in a
hydraulic hammer acts more like a free-falling mass (in fact
some hydraulic hammers even have an accelerated ram).
Unfortunately, the industry rates all hammers using the
maximum potential energy of the hammer, which is clearly a
flawed rating system when comparing diesel and hydraulic
hammers. When using this flawed system of hammer energy
rating combined with the misuse of the word efficiency, diesel
hammers are at a distinct disadvantage. Surprisingly-educated
engineers often refer to diesel hammers as being typically 2030% efficient, while hydraulic hammers may get an approving
nod accompanied by comments referring to an efficiency of
Some of the more clever hydraulic hammer
manufacturers rate their hammers by their actual impact energy
creating a magical class of 90% efficient hammers.
More recently, consultants, PDA testing companies, and
academics have begun correcting their terminology. What was
incorrectly referred to as efficiency is now referred to more
correctly as the energy transfer ratio. This ratio is of interest
when performing drivability studies and when evaluating the
entire hammer-pile-soil system, but should never be used to
assess the efficiency of a particular hammer. This terminology
problem reached a critical point when, on several occasions,
project specifications explicitly excluded diesel hammers. One
such specification actually declared that; Diesel hammers will
not be allowed due to their inefficiency. These types of
comments are cause for great concern, and illustrate the
importance of proper use of language in engineering. The
misuse of the word efficiency has undoubtedly hurt the market
for diesel pile hammers, and there are a large number of
contractors, consultants, and state engineers that still have a false
impression of the inefficiency of diesel hammers.

Before exploring the concept of energy efficiency and

driving effectiveness in greater depth, it must be realized that
the nature of the energy delivered by a diesel hammer and a
hydraulic hammer is fundamentally different. A diesel hammer
uses a small mass with a high impact velocity to produce impact
energy, while the converse is true of a hydraulic hammer. The
higher impact velocity of a diesel hammer is commonly believed
to be better suited to steel piles, capable of withstanding high
driving stress, while the lower impact velocity of the hydraulic
hammer is traditionally deemed more suitable for concrete piles.
These different characteristics of the two hammer types make
them more effective for different types of jobs, with different
types of piles and different types of soils. The complications
surrounding the whole hammer-pile-soil system makes the
evaluation of the effectiveness of a particular hammer very
difficult without actually driving a test pile. Even when test
piles are driven, it is rare that different hammer types are
Table 1 shows some typical specifications for a mid-sized
hydraulic and diesel hammer for comparison. Notice that the
rated energy of the diesel hammer is about twice that of the
hydraulic hammer, yet at 40-BPM (blows per minute) the diesel
and hydraulic hammers produce the same impact energy. This
suggests that the two hammers are roughly equivalent.
However, remember that the nature of the two energies is
different. Although both hammers operate at 40-BPM with the
same impact energy, because the diesel hammer has a less
massive ram then it must have a correspondingly higher impact
velocity (E=mv2). Also, because in pile driving, higher impact
velocity means higher impact force (F=vZ, Force equals
velocityimpedance), the diesel hammer can overcome a higher
soil resistance during driving and produce a pile of higher load
carrying capacity. The only disadvantage in producing a high
impact force is that the resulting pile stresses are higher; hence
the long-held belief that diesel hammers are better for driving
steel and hydraulic hammers are better for driving concrete. It
should be noted here that certain types of accelerated-ram
hydraulic hammers can also produce a high impact velocity and
a resulting high impact force. It should also be noted that a
controllable-energy over-sized diesel hammer operating at a
low stroke (high blow-rate) can prove as effective on concrete
piles as a hydraulic hammer.
Table 1 also shows that the diesel hammer is capable of
operating at a 36% higher energy than that shown at the
comparison level of 40-BPM, while its weight is about 21% less
than the hydraulic hammer. This suggests that the diesel

government agencies are familiar with the energy monitoring

systems available from leading hydraulic hammer manufacturers
(typically European), however, the idea of monitoring the impact
energy of a diesel hammer is less well known. Use of energy
monitoring systems on diesel hammers has allowed diesel
hammers to replace hydraulic hammers on jobs where the
owner/consultant had specified a hydraulic hammer with an
energy monitoring system.

hammer produces more impact energy per unit of operating

weight. This statistic is quantified in the last row of Table 1.
Table 1 Comparison of operating weights for comparable
impact energy diesel and hydraulic pile hammers

Rated Energy (ft-lbs)

Impact Energy (ft-lbs) @ 40BPM
Ram mass (lbs)
Impact velocity @ 40-BPM (ft/s)
Impact Energy at Rated (max)
stroke (ft-lbs)
Impact velocity at Rated stroke
Operating Weight with drive
system (lbs)
Max. Impact Energy per unit
operating weight (ft-lbs/lb)















The overall effectiveness of a pile driving hammer is

difficult to quantify as the above discussion demonstrates.
Cutting through the technical jargon related to velocities and
energies, leads to a single simple measure of the effectiveness of
a pile-driving hammer time. The time required to drive a
given pile to a given penetration and/or capacity is the best
measure of effectivenesskeeping in mind

Cost is probably the single most important variable in a
contractors evaluation of pile-driving hammers. In this respect,
the American Contractors loyalty to the diesel hammer is
explained. For a given impact energy, efficiency, effectiveness,
etc., the cost of a diesel hammer can be estimated at 50-75% of
an equivalent hydraulic hammer or even less in the case of
Chinese made diesel hammers. Capital cost of the equipment
combined with much lower fuel costs make diesel hammers the
clear-cut winner on the basis of economy.
As diesel hammers continue to catch-up to hydraulic
hammers in the areas of controllability and verifiability, their
lower cost will ensure their continued presence in the world piledriving market.

5. Environmental Concerns
Recently, diesel hammers have fallen out of favor in some
countries and some urban areas due to their environmental
impact mostly, noise, vibration, and black smoke. In the
United Kingdom, for instance, it has been nearly 10-years since
diesel hammers have been used. While no formal legislation
prohibits the use of diesel hammers in the UK, contractors have
avoided their use in an effort to avoid complaints, and likely to
appear more modernized. Many observers of the global
foundation equipment market would classify the diesel pile
hammer as nearing the end of its product life-cycle.

Air pollution from diesel pile hammers is currently being

addressed by manufacturers. It is entirely possible to improve
diesel hammer fuel combustion so there is virtually no visible
exhaust. Fundamentally, the diesel hammer should have an
advantage over hydraulic hammers with respect to exhaust
emissions given the higher fuel-efficiency of the diesels as
described previously. Of course, conventional emission controls
for diesel engines can be applied to the hydraulic power units
used to run hydraulic hammers.
Currently, the lesser cost Chinese diesel hammers have not
addressed the environmental concerns of air pollution and noise,
but they have been successful using so-called bio-fuels, as have
the manufacturers of more sophisticated diesel hammers.
Hydraulic hammer manufacturers also provide the option to run
their hydraulic power units on bio-fuels.
Noise continues to be a challenge for manufacturers of both
diesel and hydraulic hammers.
Hydraulic hammer
manufacturers have been more successful in this area due in part
to their lower impact velocity, but also due to the fact that a
hydraulic hammer can be completely shrouded. It is more
difficult to shroud a diesel hammer given its demand for clean
air and air circulation for cooling.
Environmental concerns are an area of continued
development for both diesel and hydraulic hammers.

6. Optimal Pile-Driving
This is an area of pile driving that is currently under
development. By combining the data from an on-board hammer
energy monitor and the data from a conventional PDA testing
system, together with a system for controlling the energy of a
hammer (such as the remote throttle), it is theoretically possible
to construct a control-system that is designed to operate a
hammer at the most effective energy setting, or perhaps a target
energy. The potential for an intelligent pile-driving control
system is very real. So far the only hindrance has been the
general lack of sophistication among hammer manufacturers,
combined with a separation between the manufacturers and
design engineers and owners. The recent increased demand for
QA and QC for pile driving, has paved the way for these types
of intelligent systems. These systems are coming, and with
them the resurgence of the diesel hammer; even in European and
other markets where they have fallen out of favor.


Through the discussions presented in this paper, it was
concluded that diesel hammers have an advantage over hydraulic
hammers in the following areas: operational criteria; reliability,
familiarity, operating weight; efficiency, effectiveness, and
The newer, more modernized diesel hammers (with energy
monitoring and variable throttle) were generally considered
equal to hydraulic hammers in their verifiability.
Hydraulic hammers were slightly more advanced in
controllability and environmental concerns.
The general conclusion of this paper is that diesel pile
hammer technology is worth pursuing and modernizing. The
main advantage diesel hammers have over their hydraulic
counterparts is their high efficiency and low cost.