Touring the Geotechnical Landscape
The diversity of the drilling industry was on full display during a recent telephone tour of the geotechnical side of the industry. Everybody's putting holes in the ground, but where they're doing it, how they're doing it and just what the heck they're doing it for in the first place are what made the trip interesting.
All Geotechnical All the TimeThey like it, it keeps them busy and they're good at it. That's why the folks at Crux Subsurface Inc. in Spokane, Wash., only do geotechnical drilling projects. Nick Salisbury tells us that his 4-year-old company (30 employees; six rigs) does 90 percent geotechnical exploration and 10 percent geotechnical construction. "About 80 percent of our work is transportation-related," he explains. "Customers in that market include state departments of transportation or the Federal Highway Administration - or private engineering firms working for those types of entities. Our projects include new roadways, realignments, bridge construction and replacement, seismic upgrades on roadway structures, retaining wall foundations, tunnels and landslide mitigation. The remaining 20 percent of our work is for public utility-type companies - doing pipelines, dams, power transmission line corridors and the like."
"Early on," Salisbury explains, "we took a run at the environmental projects, but it's a tight market with less than ideal working conditions so we got out of that."
The company's expertise within the geotechnical market is difficult-access geotechnical drilling "That's why we have only track-mounted and helicopter- and crane-portable rigs," the 17-year industry veteran notes, adding that Crux Subsurface engineers and manufactures all of its own equipment. "We're called on when rock recovery is an issue or sample quality is a real issue; we've developed a lot of different sampling techniques that benefit our customers."
Asked about his firm's development, he recounts, "We started at two rigs four years ago. We typically will do a fair amount of growth at a time and then stabilize for about a year. So we went from two rigs to four rigs, stabilized there for a year, and then went from four rigs to our current six rigs. We'll remain stable at six rigs for at least the next 12 months. After that, we'll re-analyze the market in the western United States and determine whether we'll do another growth spurt."
Looking at what lies ahead, Salisbury tells us, "We consider ourselves fairly progressive. We're starting to offer value-added services. One is a downhole-oriented color video log of rock borings; it shows fractures and their orientations - north, south, east and west. We get into some types of geophysics like that and will continue to get more involved with those types of things. We'll be looking to find new and better information-gathering devices that can enhance drilling programs."
Just Part of the RepertoireFor Mike Crimaldi, drilling operations manager at Mid-America Drilling Services Inc., Elburn, Ill., geotechnical work is just one of the many types of projects his company handles. "We're a diverse operation," Crimaldi explains. "We do core drilling for the mining companies - gravel pits, limestone quarries. We do direct push geoprobe-type work for environmental, micro-monitoring wells, regular environmental drilling and product recovery wells. We have to do a lot of different things to keep ourselves busy. Geotechnical alone is a small percentage of our business; it's certainly not enough to carry us."
Like so many of his peers, Crimaldi confesses, "I've been in the drilling business since I could drive." He has managed Mid-America since its inception just four years ago, and the company now runs 12 crews per day. He offers this take on the attractiveness of geotechnical projects: "Some companies, as they get older - they've already gone through their growth spurt and they're at a plateau, or it's at the end of a career or a generation's career - they tend to slow down and are more selective about the work they take on. The geotechnical work is attractive to them because they can drill all day without having to buy any products. It's just drill the hole and throw the dirt back in."
Crimaldi explains that the geotechnical projects, "generally go through an engineering firm. We provide the services that they can't provide themselves - things like ATV or limited access or core drilling. If the engineering firms are doing geotechnical drilling in-house, they tend to keep it very simple - like 50 feet of standard sampling. Anything other than that, they generally use a sub and that's where we come in.
"We recently did a very big geotechnical drilling job for an engineering company that won a piece of a highway interchange rehab contract," he relates. "They're going to widen the highway and put in new off-ramps. There were 300 soil borings involved in getting the interchange designed. We worked on our part of that project every day for, I'd say, two months."
Asked if geotechnical drilling might become a larger part of Mid-America Drilling's operations, Crimaldi cites the circumstances that would limit any major expansion into that market: "There are three parts to geotech drilling. The first part is getting the contract for the job; the second part consists of the engineering services and foundation design and recommendations that need to be provided; the third part is just the drilling. So our company doesn't have anything to do with the selling of the job, doesn't have anything to do with the engineering of it, and doesn't have anything to do with the foundation design or recommendations. We pull up, knock the holes in the ground and provide the samples. We really don't deal with the client." While he surely would welcome the work for his growing company, since it's mostly out of his immediate control, Crimaldi won't be agonizing over it. An area that he predicted would become a growth market is geothermal drilling. "That's going to be hot in the future," he reveals.
New TechnologiesSpeaking from the Wareham, Mass., offices of DRAGIN Drilling Inc., Carrie Collins tells us that her firm's geotechnical work, "typically involves a lot of the construction that's going on around here. We've done central artery projects - some of that has been geotechnical and some has been dewatering. We've also done some quarries - looking for stability - and rock anchors for cell towers.
Collins' 5 1¿year-old firm (113 employees) performs mostly environmental work and specializes in large diameter or deep auger drilling. DRAGIN's rig fleet consists of a CME High Torque 95, CME 1050, CME 850 and an Ingersoll-Rand T2W.
Asked about the types of projects that keep her firm busy, Collins relates, "We've done quite a few landfills. We created a technology that incorporates 24-inch augers instead of the bucket rigs. The bucket rigs go in and dig the hole and if the landfill is unstable or if they encounter any leachate, the borehole can collapse. With our system, the wells are going in through the hollow-stem auger and the sand pack is built around it. It's definitely a more efficient and reliable method and we're building up on that a lot."
Gas extraction wells present another market opportunity for DRAGIN. "There are two types of systems," Collins explains. "The extraction well can be put in with a flare on top - the wells just vent and the methane burns off. Some of the more innovative GCs have gone to - especially on larger landfills - a collection system, and they actually put a small power plant on site and use the methane. One of those projects even saw the power sold back to the town. We did a lot of that but it's slowed up in the past nine or 12 months. Maybe that section of the industry is just on hold due to spending freezes - it's not a top priority for the government at this moment. But it's not going anywhere; that's for sure.
"A good many of our projects are both environmental and geotechnical," Collins continues. "An engineering firm and a geotech firm will be on site and we'll do the drilling and they collect the samples they need for their own different reporting. Not all the geotech firms have all the necessary OSHA training or other requirements for haz-waste jobs."
An interesting project DRAGIN handled a while back was the Metro West tunnel project. "Tunneling was being done from the western part of the state to Boston to redo the water supply system," Collins recalls. "The tunneling was done using the same type of machine used to do the Chunnel in Europe. Before that machine could be brought in, we had to go in and do the rock stabilization. We did high-pressure grouting by injecting the formation with a special microfine grout that comes from Japan so when they go in with the boring machine, the rock was stable enough to help prevent any of the ground water from getting into the tunnel, and to help stabilize any of the rock fractures."
Speaking about where the geotechnical market is headed in her area, Collins admits, "It's hard to tell right now; things have been swinging in all different directions. We thought the environmental sector was starting to slow down, but now we're seeing it going into the actual remediation - recovery wells and extraction systems. On the construction side, we do a lot of work on the central artery and that will be winding down over the next couple years."
Collins points to an obvious trend for DRAGIN: "Over the past five years, the majority of our large projects have been in Massachusetts. We're finding now that we're having to go a little farther out. We've been as far as Niagara Falls and down to New Jersey."