In year 2002, I was the drilling inspector for several community colleges. In my first meetings with the college engineers, I advised them that I had found that straight bentonite wasn’t the proper grout for closed loops. I advised them that sand with a mixture of bentonite grout was the newest technology at that time. Needless to say, with the design people, that recommendation went nowhere!

As usual, the drilling contract was awarded to the lowest bidder – a drilling contractor who wasn’t set up for installing closed loops. The equipment was in a poor state of repair, the employees weren’t experienced in geothermal loop installation, and the owner couldn’t seem to care less. They only averaged one 300-foot hole over two or three days – with two drills and four to five men. And this didn’t even include the instal lation of the loops and grouting.

Note: I had previously advised the college that the owner of the drilling company never came to the jobsite to spot-check the job. If the owner doesn’t care, neither will the employees. My comment got back to the owner, and he showed up the next day to discuss my previous comments with the college officials. He advised me that he had 21 rigs, and he didn’t have time to attend to each one. I apologized to the owner, added the comment that he had about 20 rigs too many, and left. We never talked again.

Due to a void in the holes at around 130 feet, the contractor had a problem installing the loops. The crew thought the hole was caving, or rocks were falling over the drilled hole at 130 feet. Their real problem was that the loops didn’t have a long enough rod (guide) to hold the loop straight, causing the loop to bend in the void and miss the drilled hole.

Due to the void problem, the drilling contractor asked for a change order and a lot more money – and it was awarded. Afterward, I was contracted to oversee (inspect) the drilling, and the college asked me if I thought the change order should have been awarded. I told them that I thought it was nice for the state to award the driller more money for knowing less. The college also asked me if I thought the drilling contractor was qualified to drill and install geothermal loops, and I advised them, “Only by accident!”

Several months later, the drilling contractor had installed and grouted 68 11⁄4-foot loops. One loop was tested for thermal conductivity, and showed poor thermal transference. However, the thermal testing contractor explained that the electric generator used for the testing quit during the night, but they still were able to do a reasonable thermal conductivity test – “Wrong answer!” – which the college accepted.

After the loops were in, fused together, manifolded and run into the building, the system overheated and was less than efficient from the start.

Another very qualified geothermal drilling contractor bid and was awarded a contract for the same college at a newly constructed building, in the same vicinity of the previous 68 loops. This company provided a nearly new Schramm 450 drill, a support truck, a grout machine, a backhoe and two well-qualified employees. This company installed one hole per day – drilled, looped and grouted – and moved to the next hole.

The college official asked me if I thought these people were qualified, and I told the college that they were so good that they didn’t even need an inspector. Just like many times in the past, Porky talked himself out of another good job.

Update: I went by the college just a short time ago and found out that the loops installed by the unqualified contractor were leaking and inefficient. The college again was using a cooling tower because the air-conditioning units were overheating and shutting down. I further was advised that the loops installed by the experienced professionals are working great.

This leads me to another thing – salaries, which I keep harping about! People today can’t live on $12 to $14 per hour. Contractors have to realize that today you’re going to have to pay a qualified and reliable employee $25 to $35 per hour (depending on the geographical area), plus benefits. That’s about $1 per foot. If a driller can’t get me 300 feet per day, I don’t want him.

Many businesses have a backlog of work and are in need of good employees. That’s a great time to go up on the price of your drilling by at least $1.50 per foot and hire some qualified employees. You may lose a few jobs because of higher prices but, believe me, you will operate more professionally, be more respected and make more money in the end. Learn to sell the quality of your job, as opposed to your competition. The higher price of a job soon is forgotten, but the quality of a job never is forgotten.

In the recent past, I have contracted to drill for people for short periods and have been paid $300-plus dollars per day (based on 8 hours to 12 hours per day), plus lodging and transportation. These people have advised me that I have made them more income than they ever have made before.

Qualified drill operators are out there driving trucks, working in shipyards; operating computers or running their own businesses. Raise your pay scale, charge more for your work and hire these experienced drillers back into this profession – or run the risk of this being the last drilling generation.