Since 2005 with my current employer and before that working for distribution, I have heard the “I drill with water only” conversation. To a new territory or distribution person, this argument leans toward the driller as his record is on his side. Sooner or later that lucky driller won’t be so lucky.

Just last month, I heard the drill (no pun intended) from a newer sales person in the field. He had tried to argue with a driller about the correct mixes for different soils. While the young gun had facts on his side – “facts tell and stories sell!” — the problem with new sales folks and drilling hands alike is the lack of real world experience. They got no story!

As I drove yesterday, I thought about this and an article started to form. What a perfect opportunity to use my monthly word allotment to educate distributor sales folks and drillers at the same time? It’s a reminder that the mind and a parachute both operate best when open.

Drilling with water only and speeding have a lot in common — when you get caught it’s going to cost you! It may cost a little or it may cost a lot — we’ve seen both examples in the field. I go years without a speeding ticket. In fact, I might be one of the luckiest road warrior sales types out there. I set my cruise control, for the sake of this article, a bit higher than the posted speed. And, 98.7 percent of the time, I don’t get caught. In fact, I used to brag that I didn’t get nabbed (my pipe stuck) and how I made good time getting to my destination (record pulling speed).

That changed on the Friday before Memorial Day in 2014. I had just finished working with a driller in southern Ohio. I had four hours of windshield time between me and a three-day weekend. As I cruised along the rural Ohio road, I was shocked to see an oncoming Ohio State trooper pull a U-turn and go full “Smokey and the Bandit” on me! What was this all about? I had driven that road many times at this speed and it had been 10 years since I had been pulled over anywhere. This delay in my trip was going to be costly in time and money. As the state police officer approached my car, she asked for my driver’s license and insurance card. She asked, “How long since your last ticket?”

Keep my horrific speeding experience in mind as we switch to the side of another rural road in South Carolina. I was traveling with a distribution salesman and we came upon a horizontal directional driller pulling pipe in the afternoon sun. When we exited the truck I, or my shirt logo, was quickly spotted by the owner of the company. “Don’t need no mud man on this site,” he said as I approached. “We can talk about tooling, but we don’t use mud.” Taken a bit back, but not one to get in anyone’s face, I faded in as my distributor talked tooling with him.

Like a cue from the heavens above I soon saw driller, locator and hands standing around a daylighting hole they had dug. I walked away from the tooling huddle and over to the obvious focus of a major work stoppage. They were stuck and the bore was over as they knew it.

On this particular road, they had drilled several shots and used straight water (and a bit of polymer). The clay was not very reactive and we were able to flow cuttings on the shorter shots. They got lucky. This shot was longer and was set back from the road more than the rest. This bore was going great until they hit the spot that changed from local clay to sandy silt.

Like a child’s Chinese finger torture game, the clay had turned to sand and the drilling fluid (a.k.a. water) left the hole like a flushing toilet. With the water now exiting into the sand, nothing was left holding the hole open. Add the crushing formation to the fact that there were clay cuttings left due to the lack of suspension, and Mother Nature was giving a bundle of HDPE a serious “hug”! They were stuck.

This was years before my ticket in 2014 but, as I type and replay the scene, I can see my head turning to the owner and wishing I would have said, “How long has it been since your last ticket?” Meaning, how long has this lucky streak been? Four-hundred foot out and just crossing diagonally under a county highway and the expense of a proper drilling mix was the farthest thing from their mind. The time to vacuum and dump drill spoils seemed silly to discuss when there was pipe to dig up and tooling to try and recover now.

In a perfect world, we like to think the soil conditions will not change on us but all readers know that isn’t so. The question is, had they been set up for a clay mix and suddenly hit a 25-foot sandy area, would they have lost the hole as fast? The answer is, probably not. While we would not have had a PAC in the mix, we would have had a small amount of bentonite in our fluid that would have created a filter cake in the bore walls. While this might not have stopped the fluid loss completely, it would have slowed it down and given us time to react or drill past the zone. The bentonite platelets would also have helped us carry the clay cuttings from the hole and keep it nice and clean.

Many of you have seen the picture with this column at one of our Mud Schools, but the beaker on the right shows what happens when a water only drilling fluid encounters sand — total penetration, and fast! That’s why you never see sand castles on the beach when the tide goes out.

Don’t get a drilling ticket; set up for success on every job. The savings really is in the preparation. I still like the story of the driller who walks up to the tradeshow booth and says, “I’m still using that mix you gave me, but I don’t know why. I never get stuck!”