Sparks fly as Matt Johnson rebuilds a winch handle for a Bucyrus-Erie 2400.
Those pessimistic individuals amongst us claim that the minute we're born, we start dying. Sadly, the same can be said about your equipment - the moment it leaves the manufacturer's plant, it begins down the road to the scrap heap. However, while this scenario sounds bleak, the fate of your machines does not lie entirely in the grease-stained hands of a gear-head god. Giving your machines the upkeep and repairs they deserve can postpone their inevitable demise by years, even decades. It'll also help keep them up and running during your busy seasons, giving you the opportunity to do more work. In short, a proactive equipment maintenance strategy can make you more money in the long run.

To see a successful maintenance program in action, we paid a visit to Meadow Equipment Sales & Service Inc. in Carol Stream, Ill. Meadow is a 35-to-40-person, family-owned water well drilling company that does a wide range of work, including residential and commercial wells, as well as service work on residential and commercial pumps. President Chip Kerry says, "We'll work on anything from a 1/2-Hp to a 350-Hp submersible pump, and we'll drill anywhere from a 5-inch, 180-foot deep well to a big city well that is 1,600 feet with a 17-inch bottom. We cover the whole range."

This extensive scope of work requires a fair amount of equipment: Kerry says the company owns seven rigs and approximately 48 rolling pieces of equipment, including trucks, support vehicles, etc. As you would expect, this much machinery requires a great deal of maintenance, which has prompted Meadow to keep three full-time mechanics on staff. They do about 90 percent to 98 percent of the company's maintenance work themselves, making it uncommon for the equipment to visit another shop.

During the rebuild, Meadow completely removed the Ingersoll-Rand TH55's derrick and spent about $6,000 just in parts to repair it, reports head mechanic Matt Johnson.

Planning Ahead

Asked to describe the philosophy behind his maintenance program, Kerry uses one word: preventative. "We try to get ahead of the curve on breakdowns," he explains. "We don't always do it, but we try to maintain the equipment."

"The major advantage [to our program] is that we minimize downtime in the summer," Kerry says. "We have all our rigs available during the summer, so we can maximize sales. We can take on as much work as humanly possible because we know the rigs are solid and there's no problem running them eight to 10 hours a day, five to six days a week without breakdown. It allows us to take on as much work as we can get the men to do. When we're paying union help, every hour we can save and put to production versus downtime makes a big difference in the bottom line."

Planning begins early in the year when Kerry gets together with key staff members to determine what major maintenance projects and/or purchases need to be added to the budget. "In January or February, we look over what equipment is getting old and is no longer cost effective to maintain. That's how we come up with equipment to be replaced," Kerry explains. "Then the department heads give me their wish lists of new equipment that they'd like to have, and we prioritize that into the budget, as well as look at what equipment we want to rebuild - in other words, we decide if it's more cost effective to rebuild it than to replace it."

For example, Kerry says that every year, one of the company's four tophead rotary rigs is scheduled for extensive repairs. "We'll spend between $20,000 and $50,000 a year to rebuild one of the rigs, depending on what we think it needs," he notes. This year, Meadow chose to pull an Ingersoll-Rand TH55 from service for rigorous maintenance. According to Kerry, "It would be about $450,000 to replace it versus $50,000 to rebuilt it. We made an economic choice."

Matt Johnson tinkers with the Ingersoll-Rand TH55.

Strategy in Action

It is chiefly up to head mechanic Matt Johnson to implement Meadow's preventative maintenance plan in the shop. "We try to be as thorough as we can and catch stuff before it breaks," he says.

To help detect minor problems before they become too overwhelming, Johnson's shop consistently follows a routine maintenance schedule for the equipment that the company owns. "We try to conform as much as possible to the manufacturer's recommendations for servicing," Johnson says. "But then we also look at how a machine is being run. Obviously, a drill rig is out on a job running at high rpms all day long, so if we can catch maintenance problems a little early, then we definitely do that. And then with some of the trucks, the crews will take them to a job in the wintertime, and they'll will just be sitting there idling, which is not very much stress on the engines, so we might let them go a little bit longer."

In general, after 250 hours of work, the drill rigs are scheduled to come into the shop for servicing, whether or not they are experiencing problems, he says. The mechanics perform tasks such as changing the oil and checking out various components on the rig. Johnson says that other pieces of equipment are slated for maintenance, as well. Compressors, for example, generally come in after 1,000 hours of work, while machines like flatbeds used to haul equipment to and from jobs are scheduled every 3,000 miles.

To help himself and the other mechanics remember when the equipment is due for routine servicing, Johnson keeps current a maintenance board that hangs in the shop for all to see. "With the exception of the boss's vehicles, every single piece of equipment here is on that board - everything from our biggest drill rig and air compressor down to a little 3-Hp trash pump," he proudly explains. "Whenever we service a vehicle, we record the date and we write down when it is due for its next interval. It's a quick reference. We can look on the board and say, 'This machine hasn't had anything done to it for four months.' We'll then talk to the operator and ask him how many hours he's been running it during the past four months and what the hour meter says. Then we'll tell him, 'The next time this thing is within reaching distance of the shop, we're going to take it from you and service it.'"

Johnson notes that in addition to routine maintenance, the board also keeps track of when certain vehicles are due for state inspections and emissions tests.

Kevin Newsom sands the Ingersoll-Rand TH55 to prepare it for painting -- one of the final steps in the rebuild process.

No Typical Days

While Johnson likes to focus on preventive maintenance, the truth of the matter is that drilling is highly unpredictable, and maintenance problems will arise no matter how well maintained the equipment is. "There is no such thing as a typical day here," he remarks, laughing. "First thing in the morning I start out and stand and wait for something to break because all the crews come in and they need to get out on the road. So we're basically here to make sure everybody can get out in the morning."

After the crews are off, Johnson and his fellow mechanics work on whatever is in the yard, whether it is preventive maintenance or repairs. However, Johnson always is ready for an emergency to take center stage over scheduled jobs. "The machines here we have on a priority basis. The drill rigs are the number one important things. If a drill rig goes down, everything gets put off to the side until that is up and running again," he says. "And it kind of works its way down: the equipment that goes with the drill rig - like the big independent air compressors - is pretty high priority, while something like the pickup truck that they use to run parts around is pretty low on the list. Anything that keeps those big jobs going gets number one priority."

Johnson is connected with the crews on the jobsites so, if need be, he can drop everything at the shop to tend to a crisis in a remote location. "I have a Nextel two-way radio with a cell phone on it, and so does just about every person in the company - whether it's one radio per crew or all the people on the job might have their own," he says. "It's simple to get in touch with me. I keep it with me at all times when I'm working."

Recently, Johnson claims that he has been called to the jobsites several times a week. "Today, I came in and we started to do a little more prep work to paint a machine, and then I was gone for a couple of hours because they had a captive air tank on a job - a big one inside a building - and they wanted to see if they could patch a hole in it rather than replace the tank. We couldn't do it, but we do a lot of fabricating and welding - most of it here in the shop. We also end up going on the jobs and doing stuff like that to help out the crews," Johnson explains.

Skill Sharpening

However, some of the time Johnson spends on the jobsite isn't actually maintenance-related. If a crew is shorthanded and he isn't busy in the shop, Johnson says, "I have helped out on the drilling crews, I've helped out on residential pump service, and I've done just about everything there is to do here - not as much as the other guys who do it every day, but enough to get a little taste of it."

This cross training ultimately has helped his mechanical skills, Johnson asserts. "When you can get out there and see how the equipment is being used, it gives you a better feel. If they have to run the equipment really hard just because that's the way they need to do the job, you know that that piece of equipment might need a little bit more attention than something else. So whenever we get something in here, I usually try to grab the operator and ask as many questions as I can," he explains.

To become more proficient mechanics and keep up with industry trends, Johnson and his co-workers also attend training programs on a regular basis. Recently, Johnson went to an air breaks seminar and an eight-hour emissions course.

Mike Nailer wires a standby generator that will be used in the field when it is finished.

Special Projects

When they aren't responding to emergencies or performing routine maintenance, Johnson and his crew often are working on larger, more intensive projects. For example, on the day we visited, Meadow employee Mike Nailer was doing major work on a portable generator that will be used in the field when it is finished.

Probably the most massive undertaking of late is the rebuilding of an Ingersoll-Rand TH55, which was very near completion when we dropped in on Meadow's shop. Johnson starts to describe all the things they did to the rig: "We totally rebuilt the engine; we took it all the way down to the block, and we had the block and the crank magnaflux. We removed the derrick and replaced the rails that the tophead travels in. We replaced the rollers and the bearings for the tophead," he says.

Pausing for a moment, Johnson realizes that the repairs are too numerous to recount from memory, so he simply says, "We did so much, but the major thing was the engine." Johnson then goes on to explain that the rebuild involved a lot of small repairs that, when added together, took a lot of time to complete. "Some of what we did were just little things, like the air lines - it wasn't a real big deal, but we spent about a day replacing air lines on it," he says.

Whether doing a major rebuild or a scheduled tune up, it is easy to see that it's Meadow's forward-thinking attitude that ultimately makes its maintenance program so effective. Obviously, Johnson plans to keep this successful strategy in place: "I think what we try to do here that we're most proud of is paying attention to the small details that most people might overlook. For example, we take the extra few minutes to replace a seal that only is leaking a little bit now, but you know that in six months, it's going to be leaking a lot. We try to pay attention to as many of the little things as possible, because 10 little things can add up to one big thing."