Contractor:Shore Drilling Inc., Oceanport, N.J.

Project:Install one 40-foot,4-inch well down-gradient of contaminated gas station

Location:Northern New Jersey

Conditions:94 degrees F, 94 percent humidity

Drilling method:Hollow-stem auger/Air-rotary DHD

We knew this would be a challenging job. We were drilling offsite in a residential neighborhood, but we had to keep as much equipment as possible 300 feet away from the gas station. We were going to drill through an unknown thickness of fill before we encountered the native cobbles and boulders. Our plan was to drill with our hollow-stem augers until we got refusal, switch to rotary (using the augers as casing), and drill to our final depth of 40 feet to set the well. Our client asked us to do this job because we had adapted our mid-size Ingersoll-Rand (now Atlas Copco) A300 to run air rotary. The rig is mounted on a Ford F700, and is small enough to tuck into the tight, wooded area where the well was to be located.

We traversed a nicely manicured lawn with plywood, pulled out some shrubs, trimmed some trees, then set up the rig carefully and drilled with our augers to 14 feet where we got refusal. We then switched to air rotary (dragging 300 feet of 2-inch air hose from the compressor to our rig) and quickly drilled to 40 feet. Everyone was excited that the job was going to work just like we planned - maybe we would even be home early. However, that was not to be.

When we tried to install the well, we discovered that the borehole had collapsed and filled in just 1 foot below our augers. We went back in through the augers with our air-rotary tools to clean out the borehole, only this time it was filled with water and mud (so now we were making a mess, too). When we stripped out of the hole the third time, we found that it had filled again (just a quick note to tell you that we use 5-foot rods on this truck, so pulling out of a 40-foot hole requires breaking eight tool joints and carrying each rod to the racks on the side of the truck (which means walking 15 feet back and forth through the mud that we just spread all over the place). We set the air-rotary tools aside and proceeded to grind, bump and smash our way down to 25 feet with our augers (this is the fourth time in the hole). We switched back to air-rotary, drilled to 40 feet and finally were able to set the well (fifth time in hole).

With the air-rotary tools and 6 inches of mud spread all over the place, we started pulling the augers and cleaning up. We put five augers in the hole and only three came back out (my augers are “Truspins,” which are about as rare and popular as Ford's Edsel, so every one lost is lost for good). At this point, I didn't care about the augers, so we simply grouted $2,500 worth of tools right in the borehole. We then began the cleanup - we still had to power-wash all the tools, creep back across the lawn on plywood, sweep, push around, slop in and hide the mud we made. Then we had to load the plywood on our support truck, roll up 300 feet of air-hose, move the compressor so it did not interfere with traffic or parking, develop the well and complete the flush mount before we left the site. Generally, once the well is set, we all relax, however, it was summertime in New Jersey - it gets dark at 9 p.m., and it had been dark for at least an hour.

The final blow was when my customer waited 45 days to call me and discuss the bill. He wanted to see if I could find a way to reduce the final cost! I was so angry, I tried to reach through the phone and grab him by the neck. Luckily, my wife was in the office, saw my face turn red and intervened before I bit off his head. I agreed to look into the invoice and see what I could do. I'm very reluctant to add additional charges to my final invoices. I generally bid jobs by including every imaginable cost and, most of the time, the final invoice is less than the initial proposal; I had done the same on this job despite its problems. However, the gloves were off now. I added the additional costs for the compressor, charged him for the lost augers, added my time, included the extra helper and overtime for the rig and crew, and a per diem, considering we all missed dinner that day. The revised invoice was bout $8,000 higher, and I included a note thanking him for the opportunity to review this invoice because I had a chance to include items I had previously missed.

My customer did authorize payment of the initial (lower) invoice. The lesson I learned from this experience was all about change orders. I should have hit the pause button and advised the customer that, after a certain point, any additional equipment, including broken tools, additional material or time would be charged over and above the proposal. This would give him the option to pull the plug and either cut his losses or authorize more money. Finally, even though I lost some equipment and money on the job, we did impress the customer with our willingness to stick with the job, no matter how difficult. And more important than that is the fact that we all went home safely at the end of the day.