Editor’s note: This article also will appear as an open letter to HVAC contractors in The News , a trade publication serving that industry. We hope to receive a response-in-kind from the HVAC perspective.



When bidding earth-coupled heat pumps, heat-exchanger design usually is one of the first steps. There are many choices – horizontal loops, pond loops, vertical loops, open loops, etc. These choices usually are site-specific, with no two jobs being exactly alike. If the best choice is vertical loops, your system probably just became more efficient, and your life, more complicated.

Vertical lops are going to require a hole in the ground, and for that, you are going to need a driller. This is where I’ve seen more problems than all the other aspects of the job, and I’ve been involved with this industry for more than 40 years. The reason: Two very different sets of skills and equipment are required to accomplish this. Think of the football star and the guy who makes his shoes. They have to work together to achieve success, but neither has a good handle on what the other does. Oh, they think they do. The shoe guy watches every Sunday, and, by his own admission, knows more than that dumb quarterback who just threw six interceptions in a row. The quarterback figures that anybody could make a decent pair of cleats a lot cheaper than the highway robbery he just paid for his. They both are wrong. As I said, it takes two completely different skill sets to win the game.

When hiring a driller, I have a few suggestions that can make the job go a lot more smoothly.

First, just as the selection of vertical loops, drilling is site-specific. There is no drilling method that will work everywhere. What works on the coast won’t work in the mountains, and vice-versa. Find a driller who knows the drilling conditions at your location. Sometimes, drilling conditions can change from one end of the project to the other. Usually the drillers in closest proximity to the project are a good place to start. Or, if the property has a well on it, find out who drilled that well and talk to him, as he will have a better feel for the conditions than anybody else.

If you can’t find a driller who knows the location well, you may be ahead to hire a driller to drill a test hole. This may or may not be a useable hole for your project, but it will allow the driller to give you a fair bid for his work. Without a test hole, he may be shooting in the dark, and give you a price that either is too high or too low – either way, one of you is not going to be happy. If you go this route, pay the driller for the test hole separately from the rest of the project, and adjust the price. The price for the project might stay the same, or it might be higher or lower, due to conditions the driller finds on the job.

Next, certification. Most HVAC contractors who install earth-coupled heat pumps are IGSHP-certified, or should be. They often think the driller should be as well. I’ll let you in on a secret about driller’s certification. Until recently, the driller went to the same class you did. He heard all about BTUs, mass airflow, thermal transfer and I don’t know what all, but most of it had nothing to do with drilling. Most of the drillers I’ve talked to will admit sleeping through a lot of it, and coming away with the skills to check the breaker if their heat pump quit. After that, they learned enough to call somebody who knew what to do.

There now are certifications that are geared more toward the driller, but not many drillers have been through it yet, so I don’t think certification should be at the top of your list of qualifications. Some of the most productive – and successful – loop installers are not certified.

Cost: Be prepared for it. On a lot of projects, the cost of drilling and loop installation may be well over half of the total bid. It may come as quite a shock to the HVAC contractor, who never thought about the equipment costs, labor costs and skill set needed to drill a hole in the ground.

Unfortunately, I’ve seen many an HVAC contractor totally freak out at the cost of drilling. Suddenly, they come to an idea that is best explained by consumption of large amounts of whiskey: They decide they can buy a rig and drill those holes for nothing, and not have to pay that highway robber who happens to own a rig. How hard can it be? After all, that driller just stands there in the mud, raking in all sorts of vast riches. Doesn’t even know enough to go in out of the rain, for cryin‘ out loud. Kinda like the quarterback and the shoemaker.

It doesn’t bother those of us in the drilling industry all that much, because we know where this is headed. Here’s the scenario: First, the HVAC contractor gets sold a brand-new rig that may or may not be suitable for the purpose. Next, he gets on location and finds out that there are all sorts of other necessary equipment that the rig salesman didn’t bother to mention – more money and time spent. Then, the nice man from the government probably will show up to ask about his driller’s license. Driller’s license? “I’m not drilling a well.” “No, but you are making a hole in the same ground that my drinking water comes from and I wanted it protected.” After that hurdle, you actually get to drill. Now you are getting somewhere, saving money, getting the project back on schedule, all that good stuff, until you lose circulation, stick the pipe, twist off or lose the bit, or any number of problems drillers face and avoid every day. Now what?

The usual response – after an appropriate amount of cursing – is to throw more money at the problem. I’ve actually seen contractors spend 6 weeks on a job that should have been done in 2.5 days, rather than admit their mistake. This is where the friendly local driller shows up, and offers to take that mess of their hands. Some drillers have gotten some pretty good rigs for pennies on the dollar that way.

In a nutshell: Hire the right driller, pay him fairly, and then get out of the way. You’ll both be happier and more profitable.

One other note: On larger projects, you may need to hire more than one driller to complete the project on time. In this case, you should consider hiring a consultant well versed in drilling and loop installation to oversee the drilling end of things. He can coordinate the materials, logistics and details necessary for the job. There are many other facets to it, but this should give you a starting point. If I can be of any help, e-mail me at rockbit8@hotmail.com. 
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