John Schmitt grew up in a drilling family and drilled his first well nearly 70 years ago. Readers know him as our longtime columnist, but his service to the water supply industry stretches back decades. He ran a well and pump company, but also distinguished himself with roles at the top of his state association and the National Ground Water Association (NGWA). In his retirement, he has written a regular column for The Driller (and its earlier incarnations) for many years, sharing expertise on cable-tool drilling, pumps, well construction and many other topics.
“I’ve got some knowledge that a lot of folks don’t have due to the changing times,” he says. “I feel I have an obligation to exchange that knowledge with other people because when guys my age are gone, the technology is going with us, sadly.”
We had Schmitt on a special, in-person edition of our Drilling In-Site video and podcast series. Our talk at his rural southeast Michigan home ranged from well development to professional networking to — Schmitt’s specialty — cable-tool drilling. This is an edited summary of our talk. Click here to see the full video or here to listen to the podcast.
Q. You've worked in the industry a long time. How have things changed in the years that you've been witnessing this industry?
A. The biggest thing I see is that, when I was a young man at 18 drilling that first well by myself, the industry had a lot of what you might call mom-and-pop operations. In other words, a man or … two men, maybe a father and son, maybe a man and his nephew, that ran a drilling business. That's just about gone now. The analogy is, it's a lot like farming and, ironically or maybe not ironically, a lot of well drillers started as farmers. They needed a well ... found an old well rig, next thing you know, they're in the well-drilling business. Today, I believe, 1% of our population are farmers. A farmer used to have 40, 80, 120 acres. Now, he's got 10,000 acres. That's the biggest change that I've seen.
The technology too. I mean, when I started, if you could drill with a rig a well a week, around here you were considered a darn good driller — a well a week. Now, if you can't do a well in a short day, you're considered a pretty bad driller. And the equipment, [like] pumps. [It used to be] You sold a pump and you knew you were going to hold it by the hand until the day it died. Now, you install a pump and you might not see it for 15 years. Tremendous changes — like our society as a whole, tremendous changes.
Q. We recently interviewed hydrogeologist Thom Hanna. He praised development in the cable-tool era. Cable drillers spent so long on a well, he suggested, that they didn't mind spending whatever time it took to make sure it adequately pumped before they left the site. Can you talk a bit about development from a cable-tool perspective and how you see it as different from methods that have come along since?
A. Please don't [take this to mean] denouncing rotary. You can do a good job with a rotary. You can do a good job with a cable tool. You can do a good job or a bad job with a sledgehammer and a point — you know, an inch and a quarter pipe, driving it into the ground. I think in the hurry-up world of today, especially for the domestic well, development is kind of a thing of the past. In other words: Get it done, drill it, cover it up, slam, bam, get down the road. If you got problems say, "Well, I didn't do that." I know that — and, again, this is not a denunciation of rotary — but I know that fellas seem to have a lot of problems now and then getting good bacteria samples. Well, it dawned on me — and I remember talking with my friend, John Schneiders from Kansas who is an expert in groundwater and water chemistry — they're not getting the mud out of the hole and the bacteria is hiding in the mud. So you can chlorinate and chlorinate and chlorinate, but the bacteria is hiding in the mud. It's never going to be in contact, so the chlorine's never going to kill the bacteria.
In the cable-tool method, we didn't use any mud or we use very little mud, so development was very important to get good clean water. The bromide, so to speak, that my dad and I always went by was, if you had more than two grains of sand in a five gallon pail you had too much.
There are a number of methods of development: surging, bailing, backwashing using a high-pressure jet to develop in a screened well. I think you made a good point in your, in your question. It took you a little longer to drill the well, maybe a lot longer, with the cable tools. So you didn't mind spending some hours on development and making sure you get good clean water. I think development, especially in the domestic well area, is kind of lost.
Q. The industry is in this awkward point where the drilling has gotten a lot more high-tech, so it's not just a high school diploma so much anymore. What is your advice for someone considering drilling as a path for their career? What would you tell an 18- or 20-year-old thinking about going into this line of construction?
A. I think they should get as much formal education as they're comfortable with. … I'm not saying that four-year college is for everybody, but there are community colleges. I know some drillers who are darn good drillers, and their communication skills were very weak, especially in writing. They couldn't write a good letter if their life depended on it, and sometimes it did. I would recommend that a man or woman going into the industry get as much education as they're comfortable with. Then get hooked up with somebody who knows drilling, whether it's a relative or somebody you can go to work for. … There's no place you can really go and get a degree in well drilling. This is hands-on and out in the field. To make a long story short, get as much education, formal education, as you can and then hook up with somebody that is experienced and get your basic experience yourself.
Q. Can you talk a little bit about how your engineering degree informed the type of driller and businessman that you became?
A. That's kind of a tough one. I think that the fact that I had a degree, and my degree is in mechanical engineering, it gave me the confidence to accept almost any challenge and come up with a reasonable solution. Oddly enough, when I started in the industry full-time in 1959, college graduates who were drillers were pretty rare. They're not nearly as rare anymore. I think I just would have to say it gave me the confidence to meet any challenge and understand it.
The Full Interview
We interviewed John Schmitt for episode 36 of our Drilling In-Site series. Our talk covered changes in the industry, his time leading state and national industry groups, cable tooling and other topics. See the conversation at www.thedriller.com/insite, or listen to the podcast version at www.thedriller.com/insite-podcast. You can also find episodes on Apple Podcasts and Spotify. Search Drilling In-Site and tap Subscribe.
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