By the year 2020, the world population will be 7.5 billion people. Is your company prepared to drill for that added demand of water and natural resources?

Many companies are scaling up for the aforementioned demand by updating their jobsite’s equipment and drilling rig. Scaling up for the 21st century can be hard. Beyond the standard request for more horsepower, larger mud pumps, bigger air compressors and greater hoist capacity, what new expectations are going to pop up in 2015? What new technologies should become standard on a rig or jobsite? What safety measures should take precedence? What environmental regulations will become more important? 

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Henry Ford once said, “If I asked my customers what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse.” Bigger, faster and stronger in the drilling industry is easy. Innovating safety and site management is what it will take to truly move water well drilling into the 21st century.

A drill supervisor once yelled at me on a Texas jobsite, “Too much safety talk slows a job down, stop being an (expletive) and get to work.” I then got in my truck and left the jobsite because it was unsafe. A few hours later, a chain wrench was being used improperly to break apart a drill rod. The chain wrench broke and hit a roughneck. He woke up four months later in the hospital. That accident could have been prevented through automation.

Hands Free, Out of Harm’s Way  

It is time to expect innovation of equipment for ease of use. Equipment that makes jobs easier, in turn, creates a safer jobsite. The industry continues to push to give rigs more speed and performance to get the job done faster. The next progression should be more hands-off technology, or hands-free technology. Hands-free breakout systems and rod handling will increase speed while keeping employees safer.

Hands-free breakout systems can untighten drill rods without a driller or helper touching the rod. They work by using two cylinders with dies that come together above the connection of the rod. Then the system rotates to untighten the rod. The system applies even pressure to both sides of the rod, preventing the possibility of slipping. The driller performs all of the operations while the helper stands out of the way. Australia leads the world in promoting hands-free equipment that removes employees from handling rods. This safety standard has decreased accidents on jobsites considerably.

Rod handling systems are a major innovation that can keep drillers and helpers safe by removing the physical labor needed to handle drill rods. Rod handlers and loading arms are not new technology. The innovation comes from programmable sensors and switches to make these systems work smoothly and efficiently. Drill rod handling systems controlled by the driller’s helper increase safety by allowing the driller to concentrate on drilling while the helper preps the next rod. When fewer employees have to physically handle drill rods, the jobsite becomes safer. All rod handling, carousels, single rod loaders and breakout systems can be safe when drillers and helpers follow the manufacturer’s recommended process of operation. Any tool becomes a hazard when not respected.

Keeping the Noise Down While Drilling

Drilling is a disruptive process that cannot be done silently. Increased horsepower, bigger pumps, and large air compressors create noise levels that can be disruptive and can lead to a jobsite shutdown. Noise mitigation is a term that will be used more frequently in 2015. Drilling companies are sometimes required to reduce their overall noise or noise pollution. In these situations, the company must meet noise levels that are regulated during certain daytime and/or nighttime hours.

On a project in northeast Washington State, a company had to meet a daytime noise level of 70 decibels and nighttime level of 60 decibels. The company was drilling in a rural area with less than five dwellings nearby. The noise pollution of the rig had to dissipate 300 feet from the rig to the regulated levels, or the job was shut down. The company was able to reduce their everyday operating decibels of 97 to the required levels by using different forms of noise suppression technology.

The first step was enclosing the power units on the rig and mud pump. Next, they installed specially designed mufflers on the power units. The first two steps reduced the jobsite’s noise levels by five decibels. Although a reduction to 92 decibels was a good start, it did not meet the local regulators’ expectations. Next, the company purchased special construction sound barriers. The barriers were installed on all four sides of the jobsite, and the noise level on the outside of the barriers was further reduced to 55 decibels. The company was able to promote their new quieter equipment and continued to be the only company to drill in that area.

Reducing noise pollution is the first step in keeping jobsite neighbors happy, but what about inside the sound barrier’s fence? If you are reading this article to a driller across the table from you and he just said “WHAT?” then this next section is important.

Protecting Driller’s Ears on the Job

The OSHA board says, “Habitual exposure to noise above 85 decibels will cause gradual hearing loss in a large number of individuals, and increased decibel levels will accelerate this damage.” This means that 85 decibels is only a starting point. At 90 decibels, and every 5 decibels beyond, the amount of exposure time to damage unprotected ears is cut in half. It only takes eight or more hours of exposure to 90 decibels to cause hearing loss. At 95 decibels, it only requires four hours to cause irreversible hearing loss. A typical rock concert can reach 120 decibels, and an unprotected ear should not be exposed for more than 15 minutes to those levels before damage will start to occur. Traditional earplugs or muffs, when used properly, can reduce noise at a minimum of 15 decibels. That means an operator who is using a machine producing 90 decibels can reduce the exposure by wearing hearing protection to 75 decibels, which is a safe level to work. With soft earplugs the level of reduction depends on how well the earplugs are fitted to the user’s ear. Advances to overcome fitting issues have led to custom molded earplugs. These plugs can reduce exposure levels by up to 30 decibels.

Ear plugs and ear muffs can be used together to achieve even greater reduction. The latest technology in hearing reduction is electronic earplugs. These earplugs are capable of reductions greater than 30 decibels. At this time, proven electronic earplugs do not justify their price versus less expensive fitted earplugs. Please consult or for more information on hearing protection safety guidelines. A 21st century drilling site should take every opportunity to reduce the noise levels on site and off.

Managing Solids, Fluids on the Job

Drill solids and fluids management is the last technology that needs greater attention in 2015. Drill solids are created on every hole. The drilling company needs to be environmentally responsible on how to contain and dispose of fluids and cuttings. The first step is to outline a plan for maintaining drilling fluids and solids containment. The fluids section of the plan should include the calculated volume of fluid needed to complete the hole. Next, the solids separation plan must have the proper time to help maintain the drilling fluid. If gravity solids separation with physical labor to remove drill solids is the plan, then you cannot drill faster than your shovel man. Mechanical solids separation will speed up the process and help maintain the planned volume of fluid and waste, as originally calculated.

A solids control system does not magically reduce the amount of drilling fluid volume needed to complete a hole. It helps reduce fluid volumes by maintaining good fluid properties. In turn, the system reduces the need to add clean fluid for dilution rather than to maintain the correct volumes to drill the hole. It’s only as efficient as its largest drill solid and keeping that solid intact. A pickup pump with nine impellers has completely removed the necessity for an inline flow cleaner or large scalper. If the pickup pump sucks up a quarter-size solid and turns it into 100 flea-size solids, then the unit has to work twice as hard. Solid control systems that can remove large solids at the scalper and 74-micron-size solids at the hydrocyclones start the process off correctly. The system is finishing the process efficiently if it contains the solids laden fluid in the “dirty tank” and only allows cleaned drilling fluid back into a separate “active system” to pump back down the hole.

The second step is drilling solids management. A solids control system with a linear shaker can create semi-dry solids. These solids will need to be stored in a filter container, or filter sack, to help facilitate the complete drying of solids. Dry solids in many places are easier to dispose of than wet solids. Again, drillers should have a plan in place to contain and dispose of fluids and solids. When hydrocyclones are improperly operated, they will generate waste that is more fluid. This is a twofold problem. It creates another waste to dispose of and the cyclone will also pump dirty fluid out the overflow and into the active system. Maintaining the manufacturer’s recommended operations gallons-per-minute and psi to the hydrocyclone will ensure efficient cones with semi-dry solids.

Finally, the greatest challenge is to determine what to do with drilling fluid and solids laden drilling fluid at the end of the project. Drilling waste disposal is the third and final step. In the last five years, I have used the following tools to turn fluids into solids: chemical additives, filter bags, cutting dryers, large filter press and million dollar centrifuges. Just like drilling, there is never a universal solution. Chemical additives work well with the right combination. The combination often changes and an experienced mud engineer is needed to achieve successful results. Filter bags turn into large mud water balloons and over time will desiccate to a bag of dried solids. Cutting dryers and filter presses require long processing times and slowly get the job done. Centrifuges are highly efficient at removing ultra-fine solids, but are also high maintenance. Centrifuges do not fit 90 percent of the industrial drilling work due to price, reliability and solid size separation.

The key to turning drilling fluid waste into solids is finding the right combination of the tools listed. Baroid IDP’s System Floc 360, in conjunction with System 360, worked very well for removing solids in wire-line coring applications. It was the ingenious combination of mechanical solids and chemical separation that was simple to use that made System 360 a feasible solution. The key to proper fluids and waste management is making a plan and following through with all three steps.

Before we know it, the population of the world will be 7.5 billion people and with that comes the greatest demand of water and natural resources ever known. Companies that can look past speed and power will be the most successful. Companies not visionary enough to anticipate the need will be passed up. The end of the year is the perfect time to reflect on what worked and what needs work. Don’t ask for a faster horse; raise the expectations of the industry to the next level. 

Brock Yordy is product manager and drill trainer for GEFCO, an Astec Industries Company.