Scott Adelsbach, owner of Geothermal Drilling Solutions says he has a “different theory” on going deep for geothermal.

“The only reason to go deeper is if you’re stuck with space,” he says. The inventor of Riginabox is rarely “stuck,” having developed a low-overhead geothermal rig that fits through a 2-foot opening — perfect for work in many existing basements.

Big rig owners may scoff, but Adelsbach has found no lack of customers in the greater Chicago areas.

“If somebody needs to go 500 feet, they’re not going to want to use our machine. It’s as simple as that,” he says. He contends that the vast majority of customers don’t need the depth a bigger rig can do. Plus, he finds an important selling point in basement loops: For customers, everything connects an interior mechanical space, making maintenance accessible.

The former homebuilder says he can install a shallow, multiple-loop system — all connected in a series — for a typical 10-story building within the building’s own footprint. He’s used a few different versions of Riginabox over the last seven years and now, with a new third version that works under a 7-foot overhead, plans to start making turnkey, all-electric Riginabox packages available commercially.

We spoke with Adelsbach about the Riginabox and how he developed it. Our conversation here is edited for space and clarity.

Q. This Riginabox concept has a very small footprint. Did your company start out with a full-size rig doing bigger jobs?

A. Well, what we actually did is a couple things. I had a local driller come out and look at my own home for the purpose of putting in a loop field. Before this, we did a couple projects that were slinkies — because I was an excavator with my homes at the same time, I would put in slinky systems — but I had a local driller come by for my own house, and he was unable to get into the backyard. It was a new construction home and we already poured a concrete driveway. He had said that we would have to either remove or trench the concrete driveway. That was the only way he was going to be able to do it.

So I did some research at the time and I found a smaller drill rig down in Houston for sale — a small manufacturer. It’s a trailer-style drill rig. I actually purchased that machine and started doing my own verticals with the idea that we could get into smaller locations in the city. We’re just outside Chicago. My main market is the Chicago area but, in general, we do more work in the city itself than anywhere. That machine we used for about three, four years. That’s where I learned most everything I knew about drilling. I had no previous experience actually with any drilling or, quite honestly, I never actually watched an actual drill rig in person.

Q. Really?

A. This entire system, including machine, I developed based on common sense. I’ve seen a couple of videos here and there on YouTube, but never had any actual exposure to drilling itself. I just kind of learned in the field and, obviously, did some different classes at the time.

Then what it came down to was all these projects we were doing in the city. We’d have a 25-by-25 backyard that would be available for drilling, and our trailer was about 16 feet. You had to bring the skid steer down to move it around and into tight corners, and typically couldn’t even get that little drill rig into the backyards. I was tired of being contacted by people looking to do a geothermal system, and going to questions about their garage, whether it’s in the way or not for access to that small backyard, as well as just full accessibility.

Most of the projects we were doing at the time were gut rehabs where they would remove the basement slab and drop the slab down, a lot of times to accommodate a 7- to 8-foot ceiling so they can have additional living space. ... They would remove the entire slab. So that’s when I realized,  “Hey, we have twice the amount of space inside the building that we do outside in the backyard.” So that’s when we developed this this machine. That was about seven years ago.

Q. So the problem you were trying to solve was just one of access then?

A. Yes. Basically, anywhere in the Chicago area there was typically little access for getting to that backyard. They’d have a very small front yard where, sure, you could do large, deep wells and get one or two in. The problem is you have your sewer going through and your water lines going through, not to mention blocking sidewalks, if you’re even able to do it in the front yard. Then there’s permitting and angry neighbors. So that was kind of out of the question, the idea of big machines in the front. So the rear was really the only possibility. But not having access to that rear yard, or having access to anywhere, therefore left only the footprint of the building. (Not to mention actually the detached garage. Sometimes we’ll actually put a loop field right inside the detached garage.) But yeah, that’s kind of where it all came from. Since then, we’re actually doing large commercial buildings all the same way, as well as a lot of residential homes all throughout Chicagoland.

The key ingredient, in a sense, is the structure itself. We actually push against the structure for downforce and stability. We actually use the ceiling floor joists. We don’t push a lot of weight up where we’re not doing any damage whatsoever or stressing out the structure, but that’s really the key to drilling quickly. We can still use the machine outside [with anchors] ... but, yeah, we use the structure of the building. Once we’re in place in inside the building the machine basically is jacked up to the structure each time it’s moved. Once you’re pushed and positioned up against the ceiling, you start the drill. 

Q. Tell me about the specs of this machine. What kind of depths can you go to, what do the loops look like that you’re installing, that sort of thing?

A. The machine itself is designed to use typically 5-foot pipe, two sizes: Mayhew Jr. and CA21. It actually itself holds the pipe. The racks to either side and the rear of the box hold 150 feet of CA21. It holds 100 feet of Mayhew Jr., right on the machine. What that does is it actually assists the weight of the machine if we are outside the structure, not to mention inside the structure. ...

It’s a one-man operation, which is another big plus to it. I can set it so it will be automatic drilling for each 5-foot pipe, where you can walk away and clean the mud pan and anything else you might need to while it’s going that 5 feet. It takes about 30 seconds to change the pipe with one person. So 5 feet really ends up not being all that unattractive versus 10, 15 or 20 because of the time for change.

Essentially, this third generation has all the components to drill, quite frankly, easily 300 feet.

Q. Does it struggle past a certain point, just by the limited weight of the machine itself?

A. There’s a five-to-one ratio torque hub for the up and down movement, and then there’s also a one or two ratio chain drive on the rotation part of it. But when it comes to overall strength, the machine can pretty much be designed to whatever the drilling application is. We can change out the swivel. This swivel on this one [the third generation device], in particular, is good for a down-the-hole hammer air compressor. It has an inch-and-a-half water inlet. It’s a larger swivel versus the one we’ve been using for the last seven years. This is at the third generation. But ultimately, yes, it is fully capable of doing most anything outside of granite. Granite is the question. We have not had a chance to test anything when it comes to granite. But it’s fully capable of doing most anything that a larger machine could do, but it’s not going to go do it as quickly.