Drilling large commercial and municipal wells in cramped quarters is not for everyone. In addition to limited square-footage, obstructions can include utilities, geography, trees and more. Traut Wells, based in Waite Park, Minn., deals with this regularly, often in metropolitan areas, where additional obstacles like busy roadways, pedestrian traffic and nearby developments are typical. David Traut, co-owner of the water well drilling business, has been an active groundwater professional since 1977. He says a lot of added planning and non-drilling responsibilities come with limited access sites, and he spoke about the topic at the National Ground Water Association’s (NGWA) 2015 Groundwater Expo in Las Vegas. National Driller interviewed Traut afterward on what goes into successfully completing a big well when space is tight. About half of the work Traut Wells does is municipal and the rest is residential, so he has a good sense of what makes largescale projects in tiny areas unique.

Our interview has been edited for space and clarity.

Q. Why cover big wells/small lots as a lecture topic?

A. The challenge is when you’re drilling a well, in my perspective, it’s always geology driven. Geology drives what choices you make upstairs, as far as equipment and methods and so forth. It’s pretty common, at least in the Midwest here, when we’re working for a municipality, usually the municipality is getting developed or fully developed or becoming congested. So the city only has so many parcels of property left that they can stay within the footprint of the city boundary and still give you a little piece of land to build a well on. So, for us especially, we end up with, usually a very small piece of real estate to work on, and then you still have to build a large-diameter deep well and deal with a lot of issues. If you are working in the country, in an open field, you can let the water and everything just kind of blow on the land surface and Mother Nature will separate the water from the filth, so you’ve got a pretty good solid sized piece of real estate to work with. You don’t have to worry about things escaping offsite and causing issues like running into a storm sewer and going to a tributary or what have you; whereas, when we’re working in the city, you have to be aware of pedestrians, their uses, utilities, trees, the whole list that we went through in the presentation. So there’s a lot of things to consider and how you handle it varies from where you are because of the type of drilling you might be in.

Q. When you say small spaces, how small are you talking?

A. The state code requires the municipality to order a 50-foot radius around the well, meaning that’s the immediate protection area, which means they must have the say-so and control over that footprint so bad things don’t happen, like somebody stacks chemicals too close or something like that. So the municipality needs to control that space. Obviously sometimes we get a bigger space, but it seems like as evolution happens and as development happens, all of the good chunks of land or the open spaces get used up and as the city needs to add additional wells or replacement wells, they’ll have a lot here or a lot there or the edge of a park or the corner of some piece of property that they’re not using. A lot of times that piece of property is not built on because there’s something that’s not desirable, like it’s on a hillside or just didn’t fit a place to put a house or a business or what have you. So, consequently, we end up with sometimes challenging pieces of real estate and many times it’s only 100-by-100-foot square chunk of dirt and you have to put the well exactly in the middle. If it’s in a park, you may have a roadway or a sidewalk or underground gas line or any number of other things that you have to work around as well.

Q. What are some of the key challenges that come with taking on projects in tight spaces?

A. Basically the first problem you have is if you’re going to be drilling a large-diameter deep well, you need a pretty significant size drill rig. So the first thing is you may have to get in a drill rig that weighs 30 to 50 tons to bring in with your support equipment and what have you. Then you’re going to have the tooling that goes down the well shaft for drilling. That could be another 20 or 30 tons. Then, of course, as you’re drilling, you’re going to create drill spoils and cuttings, so they come to the surface and you could have 100 yards of drill cutting that are going to get piled up and there’s no space to stack it on site. So you’re going to have to manage that and have a continuous operation where, as you’re removing the cuttings, you have a dump truck or a slurry truck basically removing the cuttings from the site because there’s no place to stack it on site. And even if you did stack it on site, if there’s any grade involved or whatever, you have the potential for turbid water to leave the site and you can’t let that happen because if it makes it to the storm sewer and makes it to a stream that is basically clear water, it’s going to make that stream discolored and there are going to be fines and issues.

Q. Are waste management and other non-drilling responsibilities something you’ve come to completely manage in-house, or does your business subcontract?

A. We have to make arrangements for dumping locations. So, in other words, when we’re dealing with cuttings, we may haul it or we may subcontract it. It goes both ways. But at the end of the day, not every site will take it. Sometimes, because of the nature, nobody will take it and we may have to take it to a landfill as what they call top cover or something.

Q. What projects involving big wells and tight working quarters stick out most in your mind?

A. I think each one has its own uniqueness. We recently just drilled between the sound wall of the interstate and the interstate, which was about 50 feet from one end to the other. Of course if you’re working right next to the existing interstate, the traffic doesn’t slow down just because you’re working right off the curb. So it was important to make sure that, not only do we keep it clean and prevent anything from running onto the freeway, but of course we had to make sure that nothing got away from us that would potentially cause a traffic accident or something getting onto the freeway. So there’s always those types of preparations that you have to plan around and say, OK, “What if A, B, C or D happens? What’s my backup plan, what’s my contingency plan?” Because sometimes when things start moving along, surprises come up and you have to be able to deal with it. So, that’s probably my most recent one.

Q. What obstructions do you run into most often?

A. The topography will make a big issue because you may have this 100-foot square space or 200-foot square space, but if there’s only a small bench where you can park your rig and the rest is basically hillside or it goes off into wet land or a tributary, of course the space exists for setback issues to make the regulatory people satisfied, but it doesn’t do any benefit for us as far as bringing in all of the equipment and the like to get the job done without letting anything escape offsite. So many times you’ll have to go in there and you’ll have to do site preparation, grade changes and the like so that when you’re driving in and out of the jobsite you can’t be putting any debris on the road. So we’ll have to bring in rock that actually cleans the truck tires, so when you drive in and out of the jobsite you don’t track dirt onto the highway. So that’s just another problem with hauling stuff in and out, is you’ve got to maintain a safe site so debris isn’t getting on the roadway and causing problems with traffic.

Q. What about trees? Are those common obstructions? If so, how do you deal with them?

A. It’s very common in our business. You get this spot. If it’s treed, you’re going to have to deal with the trees and the stumps; make them go away. Sometimes people will take them for firewood, but usually you’ll have to have a chipper come in, and chip and shred and make mulch out of the branches. The logs sometimes can get hauled away. The stumps have to be disposed of in an area where they’ll, a lot of times, have a stacking area for stumps and recycle or grind them up. So there are going to be some cost issues there, hauling out stumps and what have you to get ready for the drill rig to even come in.

Q. What other kinds of changes have you made to sites to increase functionality?

A. We’ve had to basically remove part of the hillside just to get a flat spot to work in and there’s no extra space, so we have to basically shuttle in all of our equipment on a timely basis, which means your drilling tools when you need to drill, bring your steel pipe in when you need steel pipe. So you have to basically bring it in in phases because there is no extra space.

Q. What characteristics stop you from bidding on a particular site?

A. I get bored easy, so I usually look at every one as a challenge because I want to figure out a solution to the problem. So it’s not too frequently that I’ll walk away from a project, provided it makes sense. There are some projects that are just outside of our rig’s capability and outside of our equipment’s capabilities and then, certainly, we will not want to venture down that path.

You have to understand the geology that you’re going to be drilling in and what kinds of surprises the geology might throw at you, which is going to drive what type of equipment is going to be the best type of equipment for the task.

Q. Should any particular drilling methods be avoided in small spaces?

A. There’s no general rule. In my opinion — and it depends on where you are in the country — in my geology, because we have fractured rock and lost circulation issues, typically foam and mud do not work well because it would be too hard to manage that with that kind of volume onsite. Now, countrywide, when you’re working in wide open spaces, mud and foam are very popular and they work well.

Q. Any tips for successfully completing such a project?

A. You have to understand the geology that you’re going to be drilling in and what kinds of surprises the geology might throw at you, which is going to drive what type of equipment is going to be the best type of equipment for the task. And it may not be the fastest. There are a lot of people up in our area that still run cable tool because it’s easier to control a lot of the variables, because you’re basically drilling and driving. There’s certainly faster ways to drill a well, but when all things are considered, it may not be the best way in the end for the spaces, the handling of the materials and so forth.