A good many water well drilling contractors have been eyeing the geothermal market as a way to augment their businesses as the water well market has been declining. Second-generation driller Darren Winczura is one such contractor.

Alf’s Drilling & Supplies Ltd. was established in 1975 in Viking, Alberta. “My dad used to be a seismic driller way back when,” Winczura relates. “When he built our house, he went to rent a rig from the gal that owned the seismic company, and he ended up buying it. That’s kind of how he got started in the water well drilling business.

“In 1988, he was killed in an airplane accident. I was away playing hockey at the time. I came back home, continued my apprenticeship and went to school. I got my water well ticket, and I drilled water wells for a number of years. In 2002, I was doing renovations to the house, and my uncle told me I should put geothermal in it. So I looked into it a little deeper and decided to go ahead and do it. From there, we became a geothermal dealer, though we didn’t do a whole lot of it at first.” In 2006, Winczura talked to his business partner, Brian Vitek, and they decided to make a commitment to geothermal – Alf’s Geo & Drilling was born.

“These days, on the water well side of our business, we do mostly water well testing instead of drilling, which accounts for probably 60 percent of our total business,” says Winczura. Asked if that ratio will trend one way or another in the near future, he replies, “If we see higher natural gas prices – in the $7 to $8 range – then the geothermal becomes even more attractive.

Winczura explains how the two markets compare to each other: “On the water well side, you’re drilling a hole and placing casing and grouting. With geothermal, you omit the casing. You drill the hole, you run your lines down, you run the tremie pipe down and you grout. There’s no casing because you want the geo pipe to contact the ground and get the heat transfer. As far as the geo pipe goes, we put down either -inch, 1-inch or 1 -inch. The hole size is anywhere from 3 -inches to 5 1/8-inches.” By the way, the company runs a 1250 Failing – “It’s an older rig, but it works well,” says Winczura.

He continues, “It’s very similar in the way you drill. You need a clean hole so you can get your casing or your geo pipe down. One thing with the geo pipe – you want to make sure you have it tied down when you’re grouting, because once you start pumping that grout down, that pipe tends to want to fly out of the hole. Of course, once the grout sets up, that pipe is down there forever.”

His take on the early returns of this geothermal venture: “It’s gone really well; the response has been really positive. We’ve had 100-percent customer satisfaction. Once the loop is in the hole and grouted properly, it’s there forever. It does its thing and there’s nothing else to do to it. As far as the furnace machinery goes, we’ve had the odd electronics board issue or fan motor issue. It’s like anything else – never totally maintenance-free. But all in all, I can say they’ve been very reliable; people are very happy with them.”

Asked about his geothermal client base, Winczura tells us, “We do mostly residential and small business projects. There is increasing demand for geothermal in the commercial building market, but we’ve stayed away from it because it requires a much bigger investment and a lot more paperwork. We market to the homeowners. We were just at a home show, and we had a very good response. I put on some seminars, and what I’m finding is the public is a lot more aware of geothermal now compared to just three years ago. We also do open houses at our shop, which has geothermal in it. The first year we did it – 2007 – people were rather skeptical. Now we have people asking more technical questions; they’re more knowledgeable about geothermal in general than they were a few years ago. They’d come by and put their house plans on our computer in order to get quotes and so on. So people know that it works. The other big thing about geothermal is the green aspect of it. When you put a geothermal unit in your house, it’s like taking two cars off the road or planting 750 trees.”

Viking is a small town (pop. 1,200) located in central Alberta, so Alf’s market is quite vast, geographically speaking. “If we had to rely on working around here, we’d go hungry,” Winczura says. “We’ll travel up to four hours. And I have an airplane, so if there’s a service issue or something, I can load up the plane with whatever I might need and away I go.”

His advice to water well drillers looking at taking the plunge into geothermal? “Get educated on how to properly grout the hole so that the system works properly and the aquifer is protected from contamination. And if the project calls for a 250-feet hole, make sure it’s there, because a big thing with geo is you can’t have a hole that’s 200 feet and another one that’s 250 feet. They’ve got to be at least within 5 percent; that’s very important.

“There are a couple different kinds of geothermal systems. One is forced-air heat-ing and the other is hydronic heating, which uses a water-to-water system. So we hook up these water-to-water units to a holding tank, then a plumber comes in a takes it wherever it has to go within the building. We drill the holes, install the loops, tie them into the building and hook up the unit. We get the unit running, but an electrician has to come in get everything wired properly. So the only thing we don’t get into is the duct work.”

The typical project schedule for Alf’s new residential geothermal projects: “We install loops during the spring, summer and fall while the home’s basement is being dug. The drilling can take a couple days or so. After the house is up and insulated, we go back in and do the hookup and get the units running. It takes about a day to hook up and pressure test and get the loops into the basement. Then, depending on how many units we’re putting in the house, it can take a day or two to get them up and running.”

“We’re booked well into the summer,” Winczura notes. “The word’s getting out and we’re hoping to expand.” Very encouraging hearing that from a drilling contractor in these times.