I had the opportunity to speak with a few of the industry's leading suppliers of equipment and accessories, and asked them about the latest trends in their markets. Their responses were quite varied; I'm sure if I spoke with four, five or six more suppliers, I'd have gotten four, five or six different takes on the situation. That's a big part of what made the exercise interesting.
Converting to Hammers"The latest trend I see -- and I want to see more of it -- is the changeover from traditional rotary drilling methods to the downhole hammer method of drilling," says Tony Torquato of Torquato Drilling Accessories, Old Forge, Pa. "That, to me, is the most exciting new development world-wide. This means contractors will be able to drill more wells, and be able to drill them deeper and faster. And they'll be using different types of equipment. Instead of using a mud pump, they'd be using compressed air. Many of the drill rigs that are on the market are equipped with a deck-mounted air compressor. Now, if a contractor has a strictly rotary machine, then the conversion will be quite expensive, but for others, it wouldn't be a big deal. For example, take the most popular rig in the world, the Ingersoll-Rand T4W -- that machine is well-equipped for both methods of drilling, whether it be rotation or pneumatic.
"We have places in the Middle East where we're very active. Eighty percent of the water wells in that part of the world are drilled with downhole hammers. And these are large wells -- we sell bits from 17 inches down to the smallest being maybe 8 inches. They're drilling down to 2,500 feet for water. In this country, to pull a 2,5000-foot string out of the ground, you're talking about a very expensive proposition. But over there, the labor is not the factor that it is here. I see the more production-oriented contractors making that switch. It's faster, cheaper and certainly more productive," he observes.
For those contractors who strictly are rotary drillers, Torquato says that they can expect limited improvements. "If you look a traditional tri-cone bit, there's only so much you can do to make improvements. You can only make the bearings so good; you can only make it last so long. And even if you double the lifespan of the bearings, you still have that slower penetration rate."
Torquato continues: "In some markets, the drillers will use a rotary bit to set the casing, and then they'll convert over to the downhole hammer for the production drilling. They'll put the large top hole -- say a 12 1/4- or 17 1/2-inch hole -- through the overburden rotary-style, and then go down inside of that with their hammers. I just think you're going to see more and more of that.
"As far as the rotary industry goes, it still controls a lot of the water well markets in the world. In a lot of these places, people have been doing things that way for so long, they won't consider a change. But take a 8 1/2-inch rotary bit, if you will -- a good one is going to cost somewhere in the vicinity of $4,000. An 8 1/2-inch downhole hammer costs less than $1,000. And with the downhole hammer bit, you have the opportunity to regrind it and re-sharpen it; once it wears a little bit, you can refurbish it and use it again. With the tri-cones, there's only so much revitalization you can do."
One thing that concerns Torquato about the downhole hammers is the way in which they are being marketed sometimes. "Some of the suppliers have gotten carried away with speed; it's almost gotten to the point of being ridiculous. One guy says his hammer will drill 10 feet an hour; the next guy says his hammer will go 11 feet an hour. They're tripping over each other like that. What really happens is that once those hammers show signs of wear, the performances are going to level out. Perhaps there might be room for improvement regarding the service life of the downhole hammer bit, but again, there's a limit to what you can do to it.
"There's a lot of good equipment on the market; there's a lot of bad equipment on the market," Torquato stresses. He cautions contractors to be careful not to become guinea pigs by using the latest new-and-improved models with no track record. He also says you want to know if a hammer uses bits that only can be purchased from the manufacturer. "You pay more for them and if the manufacturer runs out of stock, you're done." Go with the proven products, he advises.
Analytical DrillingUp in Shakopee, Minn., Jerry Wolfe of American Drilling Supply reports, "We deal more with the environmental/geotechnical industry than we do with the water well part of it. Probably close to 50 percent of our business is PVC and probably will be for a long time. Anything related to sampling equipment is hot right now. But these things go in spurts; we never know what we're going to run into from day to day. Monitoring well equipment and accessories also are hot. We do a tremendous amount of work with geothermal recovery at landfills. We send out semi load after semi load of bentonite for landfill projects all over the United States. Anything dealing with non-nuclear heat recovery and fuel recovery -- to be able to produce electricity that's non-nuclear -- is in heavy demand. We'll get involved in everything from stainless steel wells to high-density polyethylene plastic. Other companies in the area are involved with the blowers that pull the methane from the wells.
"Our season runs from the end of March right through January. The water well contractors start slowing down in November, but environmentally, we're going as strong then as at any other time of our season. We carry an inventory of between $85,000 and $150,000. With the way freight is now, there's no such thing as a faraway shot anymore. I can have bentonite almost anyplace in the United States in two days. That's been a big help for us."
Specialty NicheSherwood Hall of Atlantic Drilling Supply Inc. in Largo, Fla., tells us that his company "supplies a lot of specialty items, which often aren't actually new, per se, but might be unfamiliar to contractors who haven't had cause to need them previously. I get a lot of engineers calling me and saying, 'This is what I'm trying to do; what's the best way to get this done?' We have a lot of experience with these specialty-type situations and can custom-make whatever is needed, particularly when it comes to piping -- we do a lot of custom stuff. We do that with pumping, too. I don't handle the everyday home-user water well pumps and tanks; it's all specialty products. In this area, there are so many companies doing the everyday type work, they're giving the stuff away."
Hall points to a new drilling fluid technology that has come out recently -- "a bentonite-based product that can be used in salt water, which couldn't be done before. There also are some special hole-plugging compounds out now that seem to have caught on.
"Variable speed environmental testing and recovery pumps now are available in
2-, 3- and 4-inch sizes," he continues. "They had been available in 2-inch, but the 3- and 4-inch sizes are relatively new. You can vary the speed on them and vary output with the same pump.
"We still have a lot of cable tool work going on down here -- less and less every year, but there's still a lot of it. Contractors come in looking for things that haven't been made in years and probably aren't ever going to be made again. Or maybe one manufacturer still makes a part, but it's done only as special runs. That's having a big impact on the cable tool operators. There used to be three people making the carbide cable tool bits; there's one now. The market just isn't there. I don't think the situation has driven the prices out of sight -- surprisingly. But the supply options on getting accessories for cable tool equipment are getting fewer and fewer every year. Still, there's an attraction to that type of operation. You can set up and drill with a cable tool rig relatively cheaply -- say $15,000. It's a bailing wire and chewing gum operation -- you can't get certain parts so you jerry-rig a lot of things and it's labor intensive."
Hall mentions a fairly recently introduced product that has not been very successful in his market -- a rotary attachment for cable tools. "I don't know that there's one in use in the Southeast," he notes. "It can be cost-prohibitive for guys who are running on a shoestring. It's a great idea and it seems to work just fine, but nobody -- around here at least -- is willing to invest $20,000 in that $15,000 rig. I thought that might take off, but it hasn't in this part of the country. It's cost-prohibitive in the context of what these guys are trying to do.
"We're pretty busy with the environmental sampling and soil sampling and engineering design drilling," he explains. "And the probe systems play a big part in that. That market really has mushroomed in the past couple years. That's the one facet of drilling that has really exploded in the last year or two. You can go in cheaply and quickly with minimal residue with which to deal.
"And of course, the horizontal drilling was the thing that exploded several years ago, but right now, that's on the downturn. It over-expanded; there were too many people in it. Initially there was a lot of work there, but now there isn't. For example, we had jobs that were running horizontal holes from Miami to Tallahassee for fiber optics -- we're talking 500 to 600 miles. But once that's done, they're not going to do it again." Hall suggests that this particular area still is going to see some utility work, but nothing to the extent that was going on previously.
Asked what types of products drilling contractors would like to see that simply aren't technologically feasible at this time, Hall laughs and says, "Automated drillers -- that would make a lot of people happy." Maybe someday.