How To Fish a Heavy Duty Power Cord through Buried Conduit

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Burying the conduit to house the extension cord made sense. How to fish the power cord through the pipe presented the only obvious challenge, as I’d never done anything like that before.

Then again, how hard could it be?

After all, we have the Internet now. If there’s something that needs doing, there’s probably a YouTube tutorial showing how to do it. And the cord did need to be buried. Our next improvement project included parking the Kubota TLB (tractor/loader/backhoe) in an area that could only be accessed by driving across the extension cord that runs between the solar generator and the water pressure booster pump. Sooner or later, doing that with the cord lying on top of gravel would guarantee the destruction of the cord. Burying a run of 1 1/4″ conduit pipe and fishing the cord through the pipe would save the cord from immediate destruction, not to mention getting most of it out of the weather.

Simple.

However, there were a few glitches and boo-boos along the way to completing this little project, as you’ll see in the text and photos below.

First, a medium sized mesquite tree had to be removed. No biggie; we have mesquite in abundance on our southern Arizona acreage, and I’m getting better at using our Kubota backhoe to dig the things out when they get in the way. I even managed to pull the tap root this time.

Next came the trench. A bit of thinking buttressed with online research made it clear that burying the conduit two feet deep would get the job done. That is, driving the tractor’s 7800 pounds across the buried line would not impact the conduit unduly if it had 24 inches of earth cover. Digging the 46 foot trench would have been a piece of cake except for the various obstacles that restricted the movement of the backhoe: At one end, the solar generator. At the other, a tall post we want to keep in place, at least for now…and ten feet or so on the other side of the post, the shed housing the booster pump.

Tricky.

Still, that part got done without much fuss. By digging first from one end and then the other, and then finishing the middle part by positioning the tractor perpendicular to the trench–and then scooping out a wider hole to make the two ends meet, the technique my wife insisted I use–the ditching did get done. Still no glitch.

But there was about to be.

Pam came out to hang with me while I was gluing the S-curve riser for the south end of the pipe run. Letting myself get distracted, I promptly forgot to glue an 18″ piece of straight pipe between two 90 degree elbows. That was Glitch #1. The riser wouldn’t rise nearly enough. Back to Home Depot for more conduit elbows and a couple of couplings.

You can start counting now. The Glitch Comedy Factory routine gets pretty good before we’re done.

Starting the trench.

Starting the trench.

Glitch #1 corrected:  Forgetting to include the 18" center piece of pipe the first tie around...resulted in an extra trip to Home Depot.

Glitch #1 corrected: Forgetting to include the 18″ center piece of pipe the first time around…resulted in an extra trip to Home Depot.

The completed conduit pipe run.

The completed conduit pipe run.

Burying the conduit pipe came next. We had a fair bit of bedding sand left over from last summer’s gas line installation. Using that in the bottom of the trench, surrounding the conduit and covering it to a depth of two inches or so, seemed like a really good idea. The front end loader made short work of hauling the sand over near the trench, but most of the dumping had to be done by hand due to the dirt piles from the excavation getting in the way of the tractor.

This was no problem; fine sand shovels easily into a wheelbarrow. It took no time at all to complete the bedding sand portion of the operation. With the sand providing protection from the many small rocks (formerly driveway gravel) mixed in with the excavation dirt, the front end loader could now come into its own.

Glitch #2: Focused on the backfill work and forgetting about the big tail hanging out there behind the tractor, sure enough, exactly according to ye olde all knowing wife’s prediction, I smacked one corner of the ten foot cargo trailer with the backhoe. Didn’t crush it but did leave a dent.

That trailer’s not going anywhere, as the weather has definitely damaged the top side, requiring extensive weather proofing up there. It’s strictly a storage unit now. But still, the boo-boo did put a definite dent in my bragging rights.

Front end loader, bedding sand, and wheelbarrow.  The cargo trailer that's about to get dented by the backhoe is shown in the upper left corner.

Front end loader, bedding sand, and wheelbarrow. The cargo trailer that’s about to get dented by the backhoe is shown in the upper left corner.

Conduit pipe, completely buried except for the curved riser at each end of the pipe run.

Conduit pipe, completely buried except for the curved riser at each end of the pipe run.

The next thing to do? Hey before we go fishing, it’s an absolute must to spray paint those curved above-ground pipe ends a bright fluorescent orange to keep Pammie from tripping over them. The last time she tripped badly outside (over a paint bucket that time), it resulted in a scary (and expensive) trip to the hospital. We don’t care to repeat that.

Before paint.

Before paint.

After paint.

After paint.

Fishing wire through conduit pipe has, apparently, two schools of thought: Those who favor using a fish tape and those who favor string and a shop vac. I didn’t know a thing about either technique until I Googled the subject.

In the end, I decided to go with the fish tape, mostly because of my familiarity with plumbing snakes, which push through pipe and then pull back. It turned out to be the wrong decision.

Fish tapes come in both steel and fiberglass versions. The Klein 100′ fiberglass version I purchased from Home Depot (not cheap) seemed like it ought to do the job of getting through the pipe. The fiberglass was definitely more flexible than the steel and had a nice, tapered tip that should push through the S-curves at either end of the pipe run with no major difficulty, but not so. I’m thinking it might have worked if the tip had been rounded all the way rather than coming to a point; it had to be the point that caught in the “connection crack” in the S-curve at the far end of the pipe. It could be worked through the near end with little fuss and traveled through the straight portion of the pipe easily, but at the far end…no way. Nothing doing.

I tried it from both ends. Same result either way: Hangup roadblock barricade at the far end. No way to beat it. Glitch #3.

The (not cheap) 100' fiberglass Klein fish tape that should have worked but did not.

The (not cheap) 100′ fiberglass Klein fish tape that should have worked but did not.

Hung up in the pipe, unable to exit the far end.

Hung up in the pipe, unable to exit the far end.

Obviously, it was time to try the shop vac technique. There are numerous YouTube videos showing how this is done. Basically, it goes like this:

1. Using a string on a reel (which I happened to have on hand, still in the packaging), stick one end of the string in a plastic baggie (for this 1 1/4″ conduit pipe, I used a little sandwich baggie, nothing in it but the string, and it worked beautifully).

2. Roll the zipper end of the baggie as tight as it’ll go and tape it that way. I used red duct tape, just because the red tape jumped off the shelf at me in Home Depot and looked good.

3. Stick the baggie into one end of the pipe, firm up the string roller (mine came with a sharp-ended plastic handle that dug into the ground nicely).

4. At the other end, tape-connect the shop vac hose to the pipe, and–

Oops again. Glitch #4. Our shop vac was right where it should be, but the hose had disappeared. Well, hey, it’s a good vacuum, but it’s hardly new and shop vacs aren’t that spendy. Off I went to Home Depot one more time, purchasing a new (and more powerful) shop vac for less than half of what the worthless fish tape cost.

5. Turn on the shop vac.

The results were downright astounding. The baggie and several feet of string made it into the shop vac’s holding tank in something like four seconds flat of vacuum run time.

The new shop vac.

The new shop vac.

Connection made, pipe to shop vac hose.

Connection made, pipe to shop vac hose.

Connection made, string to baggie.

Connection made, string to baggie.

The baggie is in the pipe, ready to be vacuumed to the other end.

The baggie is in the pipe, ready to be vacuumed to the other end.

Baggie and string in shop vac holding tank, four seconds of run time later.

Baggie and string in shop vac holding tank, four seconds of run time later.

Next step: Tape the string end (that had come through the pipe) to a larger rope and pull the rope through in the other direction. This worked very well, especially with my wife feeding the (purple) rope smoothly from one end while I tugged it through the pipe from the other. Pam loves being “helpful Henry”.

String taped to rope.

String taped to rope.

Purple rope pulled all the way through the pipe.

Purple rope pulled all the way through the pipe.

Ah, now we get to the crux of the matter, my personal silliness, the one part of the project making it clear my brain wasn’t firing on all cylinders. I thought I was really Simon Slick from Punkin’ Crick at first. The idea was to use a cutoff piece of old extension cord, plug the booster pump cord into that, tape wrap the purple rope to all of that concoction, and yank the entire mess right through the twisty pipe.

Uh-huh. It might have worked, too. After all, every one of our Border Fort power cords operates with the female end having been shoved through the same diameter of PVC pipe, a number of which pierce the thick walls of our domicile for precisely that purpose. But once the tape was applied…the bulky mess wouldn’t even fit into the pipe. Not at all. Not one solitary inch.

Glitch #5, obviously.

There was only one solution: Cut the cord, pull it through (taped to the rope) without that bulky plug on the end, and then splice it back together after it came out the other end. (If you’re not comfortable with electricity, the splicing could of course be a problem.)

Fortunately, that worked.

Right up to this point, it looked like a great plan.  Unfortunately, the tape-wrapped plug simply would not fit into the pipe at all.

Right up to this point, it looked like a great plan. Unfortunately, the tape-wrapped plug simply would not fit into the pipe at all.

So I cut the extension cord.

So I cut the extension cord.

Tape-wrapped the cord.

Tape-wrapped the cord.

Pulled the cord through the pipe (which took a bit of pulling, but it worked).

Pulled the cord through the pipe (which took a bit of pulling, but it worked).

And spliced the cord back together.

And spliced the cord back together.

Readers looking at these photos may wonder about the obvious dirt on the extension cord. I did wipe down the cord with my buckskin gloves before running it through the pipe, but this particular extension cord has been lying outside, wide open to the weather, for more than two years. It’s still functional, but yes, it’s grimy. That said, replacing the cord in the future, if necessary, will not be difficult.

To protect the splice area from the weather to the most extreme extent possible, enough “extra” cord was left to allow that (spliced) area to be pulled back up into the conduit pipe. Not far, just a few inches, so that the splice sits in the highest and driest portion of the above ground conduit curve.

The splice sits inside the highest and driest portion of the above ground conduit curve.

The splice sits inside the highest and driest portion of the above ground conduit curve.

The final photo shows the plug end of the cord, still wrapped in red duct tape, plugged into the solar generator.

The nearest plug (red tape), happily sending electricity through the buried conduit to the water pressure booster pump.

The nearest plug (red tape), happily sending electricity through the buried conduit to the water pressure booster pump.

Only one thing remains to be done: Applying some spray foam to each end of the open conduit pipe, sealing the openings from weather and bugs.

6 thoughts on “How To Fish a Heavy Duty Power Cord through Buried Conduit

  1. Nice job! Never thought of using a shop vac, and I probably would have put the extension cord directly into the pipes before final assembly and glueing (yeah, I know it can be tricky not to glue the cord to the pipe, but I like letting gravity help me get the cord through the expentions as much as possible… 🙂
    But it sounds like fun the way you did it! 🙂
    Manny

  2. Thanks, Manny. I did think of trying it your way but decided gluing the cord to the pipes would be pretty much impossible to avoid. And since at some point in the future, I’m undoubtedly going to need to replace the power cord, making the cord difficult to remove was a big no-no.

  3. I worked for a construction company for awhile, and was fascinated by the way they got the electric cables through the pipes. They had a (probably very expensive) tool that would just send a wire through the piping. Then they tied a cord to it and a rope to that. Then the wire would reel it all through. It was fun to watch them get it through. The rope was tied to the electric cables and that was how they got it through. Each consecutive one was stronger than the last one.

  4. Got it, Becky. That “each stronger than the last one” is the same thing I did; your construction company guys simply had a workable wire instead of going the shop vac route.

  5. You always figure out a way, Ghost. Nothing beats you when it comes to home improvements. You’re ingenuity always comes through!

  6. My ingenuity and the Internet, eh? I have to admit today’s tech, being able to Google all sorts of goodies, does help a fair bit.

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