If anyone gets around, it’s Gary Sprowls, MGWC, a drilling supervisor at Jackson Geothermal, based in Mansfield, Ohio. Sprowls oversees commercial geothermal closed loop jobs in states including, but not limited to Ohio, Missouri, Alabama, Virginia, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, New York and Kentucky. The 42-year drilling industry veteran spends a great deal of time on the road. With jobsites typically consisting of anywhere from 60 to 300 boreholes, it isn’t unusual for him and his team to spend two to six months away at a time. He’s dealt with everything from pumps to water wells to environmental wells to irrigation wells. He even ran his own business before joining Jackson Geothermal almost a decade ago. Sprowls says the work he does comes with a lot of challenges, but that the tests and trials are ultimately what keep him going.
Q. What do you do and what keeps you coming back every day?
A. What I do every day is basically make sure the crews have everything they need: Water, fuel, loops, sand, grout, all the paperwork’s done, we have the right equipment there. That’s what I’m pretty much responsible for doing every day. Sometimes, if a driller’s sick or something, I still operate the equipment itself. I haven’t done that on a consistent basis in six or seven years. I’ve been with Jackson for nine years and for pretty much that whole time I haven’t been on a drill rig day in and day out. What makes me come back every day is pretty much the challenge. With the particular job we’re on right now, each and every hole is different, so it’s a challenge and it’s somewhat of a battle to accomplish what we’re trying to do — get a 400-foot hole in the ground and then get coiled up plastic to go down a straight hole, two of them. We don’t do anything with the horizontal stuff anymore. We used to.
Q. What does a typical workday involve?
A. The typical work day is trying to get as many holes in the ground as you can. In the geothermal industry it’s more high production, get as many holes as you can in the ground and loops in the ground. The problem with that is that each and every hole is a little different. We do get some jobs that are what we call “a piece of cake” jobs, so to speak. But to get a hole in the ground, sometimes you can only get one a day. That’s the frustrating part, just getting one when you have 300 to do. That’s 300 days, a long time.
Q. What does it take to succeed in what you do?
A. A great deal of patience — patience and understanding. Trying to figure out what’s going on under the ground sometimes hydraulically with the water and caverns. That’s been our biggest nemesis lately is caverns. Once you drill into the top of it, you’ve got to be pretty careful once you hit the bottom to make sure that your hole doesn’t drift off on you and that you can still get your casing through the cavern or get your loops through. It takes patience to understand what’s going on under the ground, which you really can’t see. You’ve kind of got to feel for it and know what you might do better the next time.
Q. What do you wish you knew when you started?
A. How much additional paperwork there is today than there was 30 years ago. That’s my job now: to keep track of things and make all the notations of what was good, what was bad. But the DOT throws a lot in for us well drillers. For us, for instance, say we’re driving today and three months later we drive to another job. Well, we’re not on the road every day but we’re treated as if we’re everyday truck drivers. I wish I knew that. I don’t know what I’d have done differently, but it’s really trying sometimes to keep up with the DOT and their regulations and moving a rig from one place to another. That’s the biggest thing. The other thing I wish I’d known about is, personally, I don’t like mud or grease, and that kind of goes along with the profession. Especially on the geothermal side, it’s really, really muddy. Sometimes we’ve got to contain most of our water, especially if the well’s making a lot of water. Sometimes we’ve had sites where it’s like a 2-foot bathtub and you’re basically walking around in mud and water to get to the rig because we have to contain it and we can’t get rid of it fast enough. So that part, the mud part, I don’t much care for.
Q. What tool can you not imagine working without?
A. Most obvious right now is probably cell phones, communication-wise. For instance, if you’ve got a problem — like today the rig broke off casing down at 170 feet — you can walk over and call and say, “What do you want to do? Do you want to try to retrieve it?” But that isn’t usually a call I try to make. That’s usually the guy that buys the casing. That’s usually the owner. If it had been 30 or 40 years ago, you’d have to jump in your truck and go to a payphone and call the office to see what they want to do. Since we’re all very time conscious in the geothermal industry, that’s tough. I guess at first we had two-way radios, but you sometimes were out of range and had to go call. So, as far as a tool for communication, that’s probably the upmost important.
Q. What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?
A. When I first got into this profession, my dad was in partnerships with a company and I went to work for his competitor. That man there always would tell us when you go on service to work on pumps or install pumps, “Don’t just fix the problem. Fix what caused the problem and then you’ve got the problem fixed.” That, more than anything, has stuck with me in everything I’ve done over the last 40-some years. If you try to do something, you don’t want to just patch it and walk away. You want to try to fix what caused the problem and you’re more productive that way.
Q. How would you describe the present state of the industry?
A. I was raised and brought into the industry with cable tool drilling. My oldest son is in the industry also, and I had him at least understand cable tool drilling because it’s so slow and methodical that when you get into rotary and get high paced, you miss a lot of things if you just go straight to rotary and start drilling. Other guys might think differently, but it gives you a good concept of what Mother Nature’s got there for you. Then, if you go to rotary, you know you can drill faster, you know what you’re in, you know what you’re doing, you know how to react in certain situations. You just don’t see the cable tool drillers like you used to. It’s kind of a dying breed. You just wouldn’t have time to do it in geothermal. You couldn’t possibly drill 160 wells or 300 wells in three to four months and make any money. So it was a good tool, especially for me to help me understand basic geology. I think that really helped me when I used rotary to drill sand and gravel wells. The cable tool rig actually gave me the opportunity to do what I think I can do today, and the knowledge. The equipment today is so much more — when I had my business I could work on my rigs. Today, I really don’t know that I understand enough about the electronics on the rigs to start to work on them. It’s made it more difficult to actually do field work without calling somebody to come out and do it for you.