Recollections: Drilling, Blasting and Hydrofracturing
I agreed to write for National Driller knowing that its readers and water supply contractors in general are well-versed, intelligent and some of the very finest people in the world. With obligatory opening compliments out of the way, let me tell you a little about myself.
I grew up in Central Wisconsin, the youngest of five brothers with a no-nonsense father, who taught us early on about dealing with customers and Mother Nature. My father, Frank, began drilling wells in 1914 and all of his sons made water supply their respective life's work.
In days gone by, most water wells in Central Wisconsin were rather time-consuming because of the hard Precambrian rock that is the only aquifer available to much of the region. In our pre-rotary days, hard rock water wells were drilled with cable tool equipment and before that, some were core-drilled. This part of the country also had quite a few large-diameter dug wells. Drilling progress often was slow and rock hardness was referred to by whatever footage you could drill in a day in the hard rock: for example, 5-foot-a-day rock.
In the '50s, our family put our first air rotary rig, a new Winter-Weiss model 10TE to work and we were able to drill a hard rock well in a couple days. Some of you may recall Mr. O. C. Gossett with the Winter Weiss Co. When the rig was delivered, O. C. bought a house here in the village and moved his family. I always wondered if he moved here to take good care of his customer or if he was just fond of us; I concluded it must have been a little of both. Representing the Winter Weiss Co., Gossett also was a guitar player, singer, storyteller, preacher and all-around good guy. I met his son Al on the wrestling mat in Auburndale High School, where we competed to see who would represent our team in regular competition.
In early rotary days, I remember being called by a dairy farmer whose existing well was a poor producer at 285 feet, drilled into dense, hard granite some years previous. As we discussed his water needs and where the well ought to be located to take advantage of potential fractured granite, he told how the driller actually moved in and lived with the family. He became part of the family for the months it took to drill the well. The well was dynamited numerous times (pre-hydrofrac) without an increase in flow. It was not unusual to detonate 50 pounds of 80-percent glycerin in hopes of improving well yield. This particular well had a very limited yield and after years of putting up with a shortage of water, he decided to have a new well drilled.
We positioned the new well at a location on his farm where we expected to encounter fractured rock. These early demonstrations (fracture trace analysis without the benefit of satellite or aerial photos) were largely successful when experience and intuition prompted good well-site selections. Our site selection was good and the well yield was more than what was needed for his farm. The farmer, short of water for years, had used water sparingly out of necessity, and I felt I had to convince him that his new well would provide all the water he needed. After we buried the water line, we suggested that he saturate the backfilled trench to hasten settling. Reluctant to waste water after many years of scarcity, he watered the trench with a full stream as a smile and a look of contentment came over him. Like a kid with a new toy, I thought. After (wasting) considerable water, he was satisfied that his well was a great producer, having seen a convincing practical demonstration.
Dynamiting hard-rock water wells in Central Wisconsin, once a common practice but now seldom used, leaves a number of recollections. One such recollection involves a skunk affectionately named Sweet Pee.
Nephews had gathered a litter of baby skunks and had approached my dad for funds to have the skunks de-scented. He financed the task with the understanding that he would get a skunk in exchange. They were de-scented and ours made a pretty good house pet for several years.
One summer afternoon, the skunk dug out from under his fenced enclosure and disappeared. Some days later, I went to retrieve a box of dynamite from the enclosure where it was stored and as I entered, a skunk was staring at me. Should I assume it was Sweet Pee or a capable cousin? Should I play it safe, or give him a chance to turn around and stifle my approach? I chose the safer alternative and returned later to get dynamite. The skunk had left the premises and, to this day, I wonder if it was our pet.
Thinking back, it always was a bit of a rush to touch off the charge and watch a column of water tear out of the well with enough energy to send it skyward - often as high as the well was deep. We would hustle back to the wellhead to listen if water was dripping, spraying or running freely into the well, the first hint of success.
The depth to set the charge either was at zones thought to have some potential or at the bottom of the well. That logic was that the column of water leaving the borehole would pull out some “fracture filler” and actually open veins.
One recollection involving blasting was one in which a competitor set a charge in a hard rock well below casing that had not yet been cemented in place. You may have guessed: As the significant blast chased the water out of the well, the 6-inch steel casing followed. The blaster's report of what happened was believable, but I went to the site to look for myself. The 40-foot string of steel casing was sticking out of the ground 10 feet from the borehole, standing proudly. The string of 6-inch steel casing was propelled high enough to provide enough inertia to drive it back into the earth 10 feet into firm clay. Before blasting, we always took the wind into consideration so drifting rubble would not do damage.
Another recollection - this one during the Reagan military build-up when low-flying jets on their way to Hardwood Range (for bombing and strafing practice) were a common occurrence: We set a charge that sent a column of water directly into the flight path of an F16. The fighter was mere seconds from the column and, as he went over our heads, we wondered if the pilot thought that it was meant for him. Nothing ever came of it - the Feds didn't show up - so we chalked it up as a quite a coincidence.
As the years went on, the blaster we often used was getting old, a little shaky and perhaps a little forgetful. The regulations involving dynamite tightened up and we channeled efforts to more effective methods to increase well yield from hard rock wells.
We began hydro-fracturing wells in the '70s when we designed and built the first frac rig in this area. That original unit still is in good working order but has been retired from daily use, replaced by the MAX-2 you may have seen advertised in National Driller.
Some of us are fortunate to have experienced, and perhaps contributed to in some way, the evolution of equipment and procedures used in the water supply industry.
Remember: Well drilling is the only job where you start at the top. Greetings from Wisconsin. n
The opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the individual writing the column. Individuals are not speaking for the National Ground Water Association, its voluntary certification program or the master ground water contractor (MGWC) designation.
De-scented, Sweet Pee the skunk made a good family pet for several years.
The original hydrofracturing unit Haupt used.
Central Wisconsin's geology includes hard Precambrian rock - the only aquifer available to much of the region.
David Haupt received his MGWC certification at the 1989 National Ground Water Convention in Anaheim, Calif. - at that time, the designation was “master well contractor.” A caricaturist's rendition of Haupt circa 1988.