National Driller attended the recent Field Day and Mud School put on by the Indiana Ground Water Association. The event was hosted by Franklin Electric at the company’s facility in Fort Wayne, Ind., and featured marquee sponsorships by GEFCO and Baroid IDP. More than 100 drillers turned out April 25 for training in best practices and the city’s mayor, Tom Henry, was even on hand to officially decree “Indiana Ground Water Day.”

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By all accounts, organizers delivered a successful event. It even showed the hardiness of drillers, who thought nothing of enduring 40-degree temperatures and a steady rain to see GEFCO’s new 20K and Mud Doctor in action.

The highlight for me, though, was inside, where I took part in a far-reaching roundtable with DeLancey Davis, Franklin vice president and president of North American Water Systems; Troy Alexander, president of the Indiana Ground Water Association; Aaron Harmon, president of GEFCO; and Charles Cunningham, GEFCO’s vice president for sales and marketing. 

We covered a lot of territory, from product development to the state of the groundwater industry to the future of drilling. I’ve had a chance to digest it all, and want to bring some of the highlights to my readers.

One Well, One Home

I hear a lot about how tied the water well industry is to the housing market, which is recovering but still soft. That made me wonder if the days of a single home, single well industry are over.

“No, not at all,” Alexander said. “Most of the subdivisions I deal with are all private wells for each individual home. Once you get into, well this well’s going to run 12, 15 houses it jumps to another level. … You got to do water sampling quarterly. It jumps to that level where, you’re back into thinking, ‘This is going to cost too much. I want my own well.’ ”

Davis laid out his thoughts.

“A lot of the drivers that forced mass water distribution systems, a lot of it is driven by the ease of single ownership for a community,” he said. “But what everyone’s realizing now is the amount of water wasted in that system. We look at this aging infrastructure throughout America, we’ve got systems out there that are 50, 60, 70 years old. They’re losing an estimated 40 to 50 percent of water every day, just through leaks — and there’s no money to replace that.”

“If you want to talk about the most efficient system, the least costly, the most effective water delivery system, it’s going to be a well system.”

Making Groundwater Voices Heard

It’s crucial for the industry to have a seat at the table in conversations about new laws and regulations. National Driller wrote in our May issue about the importance of being part of policy discussions. It was heartening to hear echoes of that sentiment.

“It’s greatly important,” Alexander said, adding that much of that importance involves helping to explain to lawmakers what “correct” regulations might look like from a groundwater professional’s viewpoint.

And speaking up isn’t much different from a manufacturer’s perspective.

“Think of government as a computer — bad data in, bad data out,” Davis said. “If we as an industry are not doing a good job educating all the policymakers at every level, then what do we expect?”

Davis used the example of federal grant assistance for rural communities. There was a time, he said, when the USDA deemed well water “bad,” and wouldn’t offer grants to install wells.

“If we’re not very proactive in making sure people understand what’s going on all around from a groundwater perspective, then shame on us.”

Chasing Gold in the Golden State

California’s drought has zoomed to the top of a lot of people’s minds, whether those people are farmers trying to get by or drillers who can fetch $200 or more per drilled and cased foot.

“California is certainly driving a lot [of business],” Davis said. But that’s not necessarily a great thing, long term.

“You never like to see markets get overheated like that, though. Certainly, there’s going to have to be some rationalization around water usage and water policy in California. At Franklin, we’re trying to stay very close to developments out there and making sure we’re part of the solution. I’m sure everyone else views it that way. We all view ourselves as stewards of groundwater, and we want to behave rationally and responsibly.”

The Next Generation

Drillers and water professionals I meet at conventions talk about the industry’s “next generation” problem. Who takes the reins when a third generation doesn’t want the family business? How can contracting companies attract and retain young talent?

“It’s not like someone’s going to go out there and build a school just to train well drillers,” Alexander said.

“What I see in our field is guys retiring, and nobody to take over the companies. When I first started in ‘94, I covered a 50-mile radius. I’m now up to 75-80 miles.”

He talked about companies like his losing people for a variety of reasons, including how hard the work can be. No one is patting me on the back about working outside on a day like this, he said as he gestured to the window where we could see the rain sheeting down.

“There’s too many people who want to sit behind a desk,” Alexander said. “There’s not a lot of people who want to get out, get dirty. … Not everybody’s going to be the CEO of a company. Somebody’s got to do the actual field work.”

Davis said Franklin Electric’s experience is a little different. It often attracts workers who graduated college with degrees in engineering or other in-demand fields. That’s not necessarily the case, however, for smaller contractors trying to find young, strong hands to do work in the field.

The Trades Stigma

So if drilling, like other hands-on professions, has trouble attracting younger workers, is it because of a stigma associated with trades work? What can the industry do to head off any negative perceptions?

“I think you have to start with the education,” Cunningham said. “Because, if you read a lot of industry news, tradesmen are in demand more than college graduates. But kids growing up don’t know that. Their parents, or the media or just culture says you go to college and get a good job if you want to succeed, but that’s not really the case. Certain kids certainly need to be on a different path and now our schools are starting to recognize that.”

Even though Franklin’s experiences attracting talent differ from, say, a small drilling contractor, Davis recognizes how much his company depends on a successful customer base.

“We certainly see a great need across the board for more investment in trades,” he said. “I think that’s an area that a lot of people are going to do really well in. But, fundamentally, what we’re talking about are people that are running small businesses — and small businesses that become not-so-small businesses.”

The Industry in 10 Years

Each of these industry veterans had a different perspective on the future.

Harmon said GEFCO expects more advancements in the rigs it offers to contractors, whether those are brand new products or existing products that have evolved.

“Safer products, more environmentally friendly. For us, efficiency and safety are the first two things we discuss any time we even try to tweak an older product. It’s got to be safer. It’s got to be more efficient. It’s got to be easier to use.”

Cunningham added: “The contractor’s got to get more done, better, faster for less if they want to stay in business. As manufacturers, we have to provide the tools to allow them to get there.”

Davis predicted more “sophisticated” product lines.

“Virtually everything that we’re developing now has some sort of intelligence built in,” he said, adding that new products will be smarter for both contractors and end users — with the end goal of promoting efficiency.

“But I see a lot of runway. This industry has a lot to do yet.”

From a contractor’s perspective, Alexander said the future will demand drillers make the case better for the products and services they offer.

“These people go out and buy a brand new vehicle that costs them $30,000, $40,000 every five years and don’t expect it to last more than five years,” he said of potential well customers. “But they want a $5,000 well system, $10,000 well system to last for eternity? As soon as you bring that to the table, they’re like, ‘You’re right. I want to come home and turn that faucet on’ ” and just be able to get water.

“This is how you sell, this is how you promote.”

Jeremy Verdusco is editor of National Driller.