R.A. Simmons Drilling Co., of Buchanan, Va., has turned geothermal drilling into a specialty. The company operates 30 rigs, working in Tennessee, Kentucky and North Carolina, and does all types of drilling, including quarrying, water wells, contamination, remediation and environmental wells. For the last 14 years, Simmons Drilling has been doing geothermal projects, and currently runs four to five crews specifically for geothermal work.

The Roanoke, Va., Northside High School will be the yet-another area school project Simmons Drilling has done. Past commercial projects include post offices, courthouses, churches, historic buildings and military installations, and Simmons Drilling has drilled many residential projects as well.

Simmons Drilling has a sound and economical approach to doing business – educating and training employees to follow business practices that focus on excellence and efficiency. “Having the right people makes it possible,” says Simmons’ Steve Brooks. Each driller understands the objective and realizes that client satisfaction is the ultimate goal.

Brooks speaks very highly of the drillers. “They have to know a multitude of tasks in addition to drilling. They also are truck drivers, geologists and welders. They are all real professionals.”

An Educated Decision

The population of Roanoke County is estimated at roughly 93,000, with 28 public schools in the county that serve more than 14,000 students. Northside High School is renovating its facilities, and has decided to use a geothermal system for its heating and cooling requirements. Installing the system will cost the school about $1 million, and is just part of a $28.3 million dollar renovation project.

The decision to install a geothermal system was made for several reasons. Frank Moeller is the project manager for Spectrum Design, the architectural and engineering firm on the project. Moeller explains that Northside High School is the fifth school where the company has designed a geothermal system into the project. “For a school that is spending public money and will own the building for decades, it is a no-brainer if the conditions are right.”

Moeller advises schools to at least drill test holes and perform a cost analysis. There have been times when a project didn’t work out, but it can be a solid solution for some. “We encourage our customers to at least give geothermal a fair shake,” says Moeller. “School boards want to know that there will be a concrete payback.” Moeller estimates that Northside High School will see payback in five years, which could be even less if energy costs stay at the current rates.

For this school’s geothermal project, Simmons Drilling will drill 155, 400-foot wells. They have three T4W drill rigs on the site with TD50 down-the-hole hammers drilling 5-inch holes using Atlas Copco Secoroc bits. When complete, the 155 holes will equal 62,000 feet of drilling, and 23 miles of polypipe will be used in the ground. In total, the project was expected to take two months of 10-hour shifts. Because of the hardworking crews and equipment, they are ahead of schedule, according to driller Brent Jones.

The Geothermal Advantage

Steve Brooks cites the many benefits of geothermal when selling a system, with key points being cost and value, reduced maintenance, and versatility of installation. Geothermal immediately starts its payback as an energy source. According to Brooks, the installation costs of a geothermal system can be comparable to a conventional system, but the big advantage is that the operational costs are so much less than traditional fossil fuel systems.

Maintenance costs of a geothermal system are extremely reduced compared to conventional heating and cooling systems. The in-ground pipe is backed by a 55-year warranty, and requires virtually no maintenance. As for installation, the footprint of the loop field can be placed almost anywhere – under ball fields, parking lots and under structures. In a closed-loop water-only system, ground water is not extracted or in jeopardy of contamination because the same water is circulated throughout the polyethylene pipe for life of the system.

Educating customers is very important, Brooks points out. “Many people still don’t understand that geothermal is a closed-loop system that’s safe for ground water and not harmful to the environment.” Water is not pulled from the ground, and there is no contamination of the ground. A closed-loop system has water running through black plastic tubes that are grouted in place.

Brooks says the geothermal industry is good business for the right drilling company. “It is not for those looking for a quick buck or the faint of heart,” he notes. It takes education to make money and do it right. “It’s taken us 14 years to get good at it. To know what you’re doing when drilling is not good enough. A good crew is critical; those people need to know what they are doing, and also what each other is doing. If there is a deviation, they need to adjust.”

The Right Equipment

“The T4W drill rig is simple to use,” according to Jones, who has been with Simmons Drilling for 15 years and drills mainly geothermal wells. “That’s the best thing about it; it’s just easy to run. The fact that it’s a bigger drill makes it a versatile rig because it can do larger and smaller jobs, whereas smaller rigs can’t do the larger jobs.”

Brooks stresses that it is important to have an efficient hammer. It has taken 12 minutes per rod on this job. Atlas Copco also has consulted with Simmons Drilling about the importance of using the tooling that is the best for the job. Brooks continues, “It is very important to understand the cost per foot so you know you’re getting the best value for your hammer and bits, but also look at the life of the tool. Don’t forget the longevity of the hammer.”

Jones also comments on the TD50: “The one I’m running right now is the one I started with on this job. I get 200 feet more a day – 1,000 vs. 800 – by using the TD50. With the savings in labor and fuel cost, it saves the company money every day.”

Jones explains that backpressure will slow down drilling, and more air usually is required. “The TD50 has been designed not to build up the air pressure, while still maintaining a good penetration rate. A driller doesn’t need all that air pressure to get the results he’s looking for,” he says.