It looks like one of the strangest winters I remember finally is coming to an end. It started late, and we all hoped it wouldn’t interfere with drilling too much. When it finally hit, blizzards hit in unexpected places with a vengeance, rain flooded normally dry areas, and the cold set in fierce enough to make up for a late start.

Now that it’s finally starting to end in the south, everything is greening up beautifully, and it’s time to look forward to another peak season.

Talking to drillers from all over the map this winter, I noticed a couple of interesting approaches to the weather. Some of the guys up north, especially the mud drillers, just drained their pumps, put the rig in the barn and hunkered down for the duration. A lot of the air drillers toughed it out like they do every winter. In the south, as the weather came and went, most of the drillers worked right on through, as usual.

The point I’m trying to make is, now that peak season is approaching, I hope everybody got their off-season maintenance done while it was slow, so they won’t be waiting for parts in some customer’s front yard with a big backlog of work as the new drilling season progresses. The guys up north with their rigs in the barn had plenty of time to throw another log on the fire and do routine maintenance. A lot of the guys down south hate the cold, and only stay outside long enough to get the well drilled and get home. I’m seeing a lot of rigs in the south that aren’t going to make the summer without some serious work. If you haven’t already done it, now is the time to rebuild the mud pump, repack the swivel, change the oil, and do all that other stuff that will carry you through the summer. Sometimes it’s just as unpleasant to work in 100-degree weather, as it is when it’s 10 below!

I don’t normally make predictions, but it looks like this drilling season is going to be a little different than what we’ve had over the last few years.

In the first place, housing starts are down some over what we’re used to.

I’m not sure of all the reasons for it, but one is that the mortgage lenders have had a habit lately of financing houses that customers in no way can afford. I’ve seen people refinance their mortgages twice a year for several years, just to get the teaser rate. When that comes to an end – and it always does – they suddenly find out they can’t really afford that house, and the bank gets it back. That does not encourage banks to write new mortgages.

This might be a time to look around the industry and get into some drilling that you may have passed up before just because “grandpa didn’t do it.” If you think about it, that rig doesn’t care what is at the other end of the hole – it might be water, oil, gas, heat, gold, cathodes, core samples, anything that the rig is designed for. It might take a few new tools, but since when can a driller have too many tools? As long as you are able to make a useable hole for the customer, you can keep your rig running.

Another problem that we are facing – again – is the shortage of drillers.

Just look at the ads in the back of this magazine. A driller with a decent set of skills can just about pick the place he’d like to live, show up and go to work tomorrow. Wages vary considerably throughout the country, but so does the cost of living. I think we could attract and keep more hands if we were able to pay them a little better, and this brings me to my last point.

The drilling industry, like most others, is governed by the laws of supply and demand. There wouldn’t be too many excess wells drilled if they were free, and there wouldn’t be that many fewer drilled if we actually charged enough to make a decent living, instead of just getting by. There are going to be X number of holes drilled this year, pretty much no matter what the cost is to the customer, so we need to charge enough to keep the lights on and the motor running. The NGWA has a nifty new program that is designed to help a driller figure his actual costs of drilling – and doing business. The drillers I’ve talked to who use it were pretty shell-shocked at what it really takes to run a drilling business. I hate to hear a driller say he never loses a bid because he’s too high – this is proof-positive that he’s too low!

Drilling in the 21st century has changed and progressed to the point that it’s sink or swim for a lot of drillers. Do you have a good life jacket?