A lot sure has happened in the last 25 years.

The very first issue of National Driller.
The occasion of a major anniversary gets people thinking about how they got there. And while 25 years is relatively infantile in the drilling industry with its five-generation (and longer) firms, it's still a good chunk of time.

I was fortunate enough to spend some time reminiscing with a great friend to the industry, John Schmitt, who got his start in the drilling business as a companion in 1940, and currently serves as the executive director of the Michigan Ground Water Association.

Looking back, Schmitt recalls two main issues in 1980, one of which we're facing today - fuel prices. “Back then, there were places where you simply couldn't get fuel - at any price,” he says. “There were persistent rumors that gas rationing was imminent; word had it that the coupons - a la World War II days - already were printed. This was a heck of a thing for anyone in a fuel-dependent industry such as ours.

“But the biggest problem we had back then was the interest rate situation,” notes Schmitt. “It was outrageous - 21 percent. Not many people wanted to borrow money at those rates; building was down to almost nothing. That put a dagger into much of the work of our industry; it was tough to find a drilling job.”

He cites the experience of one particular dealer who, in 1979, sold 60 drill rigs, and sold 12 in 1980. “That's how fast it dropped off. And you could hardly see it coming. In 1978, things were so busy; we just couldn't get to all the work. By, 1980, there was no work.

“But that's not to say there weren't any opportunities,” he notes. “As a result of the high oil prices, the geothermal heat pumps started to gain popularity - it was supposed to be the savior of our industry. At our annual convention that year, we had three seminars devoted to geothermal wells. At that time, the idea was to drill two wells. You were supposed to pump the water out of one well into the heat pump, and then it was disposed of into the second well. Sadly, this never worked out as the return wells invariably would get plugged.”

Steel Prices/Availability

On another front with similarities to today, Schmitt notes “steel was going like hotcakes. The oil fields were working hard and using every pound of steel they could get their hands on.

“Basically, it was a pretty tough time to be in the ground water industry. There was a big downsizing of the industry - among both contractors and suppliers. And that has continued steadily over the years since. Some companies have had several parents. In and of itself, this isn't a bad thing; the devil's in the details. But I think that consolidation will continue in a natural fashion; it's just the way things happen.”

Also around 1980 is when the PVC casing became popular - and that meant using rotary as opposed to spudding it in. “There's no way you're going to drive any PVC. That represented a big change in methodology and materials.

“Another trend of the time was the evolution of the water specialty house. Dealers had been getting their pumps from a plumbing supply house, which more or less treated us like second-class citizens. So people opened stores that offered pumps, casing, screens, tanks and maybe water conditioning, but that's it. You didn't go in there to buy a ball cock for the toilet or something like that. So when we'd walk into those places, we were treated like professionals, and those firms did very well. And that definitely was a change for the better.”

Better Equipment

"The equipment today is so much more sophisticated today than 25 years ago,” Schmitt relates. “It's more reliable - you'll get better performance and you'll get a longer lifespan out of it. The improvements in productivity and performance in the way we drill wells over the past 25 years has just been tremendous. There was a time when if you drilled a well a week, you were doing all right. Today, a well a day would be considered mediocre.

“Pumps are much improved, too. Not all that long ago, you knew you were going to have to baby-sit the pumps with service calls. But you could have installed a pump in 1980 and maybe you had to go back to it once - maybe to change a pressure switch or something minor like that.”

Asked what has surprised him the most over the past two and a half decades, Schmitt cites “The interest of the government - federal, state and local - in our industry. Hardly ever a good thing. Our industry has done a good job providing a safe, reliable supply of water to people. I don't have a problem with the government wanting to certify that the supply is safe. But getting into restrictions on drilling and limits on capacity are another thing altogether.” Schmitt cites the example of a homeowner who wanted to keep his well. “The government said, 'OK, you can keep your well, but we're going to charge you a fee to go across your property with the water main, and then we're going to charge you $100 per month to use your own well.' Another example is a requirement that you have to haul away the test water. You're pumping water from the ground, putting it on the ground and you have to haul it away? That's absolutely ridiculous; they're trying to fix something that isn't broken. Are there problems here and there? Yes, there are. But not to the extent that we need all this so-called help from the government.”

Thoughts on the Future

Looking ahead 25 years to 2030, Schmitt says, “I would hope that the issues that are of concern here at the beginning of this century are resolved by then. And I hope that for the places that are hurting for water due to infrastructure problems or natural circumstances, those situations are resolved.

“And maybe we'll be drilling wells by the sonic method. I understand a foot a second would be the standard speed; you could drill a well in an hour.

“I think the industry will continue to become more consolidated - among both contractors and suppliers. On the supply side, you might see maybe a couple or three pump companies selling a number of brands. As for drillers, the days of the one-, two- or three-person shop will be coming to an end. It will be more of a corporate-type operation. And that's not necessarily bad as long as you have the proper approach. But we're still going to need the drill rig; we're still going to need the person to run it.” And he notes that with more people available, those emergency calls can get spread around.

The Leaders of 2030

Go to one of the many upcoming trade shows and look for that snot-nosed kid with the holes in the knees of his jeans climbing all over one of the rigs. That kid probably will be one of the people reading National Driller and leading the industry in 2030 and beyond. The more things change ….

What was going on in 1980:

  • Ronald Reagan is elected to his first term as president.
  • Gallon of gas averages $1.25 per gallon.
  • Cable News Network (CNN) premiers.
  • Super Bowl XV: Oakland Raiders 27; Philadelphia Eagles 10.
  • Mount St. Helens erupts in Washington State.
  • Inflation: 13.5 percent; Prime Rate: 21 percent.
  • John Lennon assassinated by Mark Chapman.
  • First-class stamp cost 15 cents.
  • Iran-Iraq war begins (U.S. sides with Iraq).
  • Miracle on Ice: USA 4; USSR 3 in Olympic hockey semifinal game; U.S. beats Finland 4-2 for gold medal.
  • Rubik's Cube and Sony Walkman make their debuts.
  • Most popular television show: Dallas. (Who shot J.R.?).
  • U.S. leads boycott of Moscow summer Olympics to protest Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
  • Top movie moneymaker: “The Empire Strikes Back.” Other releases include “Caddyshack,” “Ordinary People,” “Airplane,” “Raging Bull” and “Coal Miner's Daughter.”

What Will Be Happening in 2030?

Experts generally agree that these events will be taking place in the year 2030:

  • Plans for the first human landing on Mars set.
  • Projected insolvency date for the Medicare Trust Fund.
  • Sunbelt will contain two-thirds of country's population.
  • Time Warner's copyright on the song “Happy Birthday to You” expires.
  • Proportional growth of older drivers means 39 percent increase in fatal car accidents.
  • Human aging genes will be fully catalogued; clinical trials designed to increase life span will be initiated.
  • Major advancements in geothermal energy technology.
  • India passes China as most populous country with 1.45 billion people.
  • Annual per capita health care spending will be 31⁄2 times current levels.
  • AIDS deaths plummet; new killer is hepatitis C.
  • Hydrogen-powered cars replace gasoline cars as oil-fueled economy fades away.
  • Solar panels will heat most residential water.
  • World hunger will be cut in half.
  • Far more workers will be involved in repair, maintenance and recycling activities than in the extraction of virgin materials and production of new goods.
  • Materialism wanes as the effort and cost devoted to producing, buying/selling, consuming and discarding material goods becomes out of fashion.