It’s a huge-enough decision to become a drilling contractor in the first place. And it’s no small deal when a drilling contractor decides to enter the geothermal market. How about the person who does both?
Michael Basgall ran a plumbing department at a multi-trade shop – HVAC, plumbing, electrical. “We had a guy who would drill for us on our geothermal projects,” he relates. “He was about 90 minutes north of Wichita, where we did most of our work. He’d drill the holes, and our plumbing department would do the supply and return, and fuse the manifold.” That went on for a year or so, and with mixed results. Basgall wasn’t entirely pleased with the driller’s professionalism in general, and his grouting work in particular. During a conversation with a co-worker, they wondered why they couldn’t do the drilling themselves. “Probably because we don’t have a drill,” was Basgall’s short answer. He started looking into it and knocking on doors at banks, and finally got one to say, “Yes.” Basgall Geothermal Drilling Inc. of Walton, Kan., officially started in May of 2011.
“I worked very closely with the ClimateMaster people through my first year to get my training,” Basgall explains. “They told me it’s a rarity to find a driller who can do the loops, the supply and return, the manifolds, and the flush and fill. I run a turnkey operation – all the HVAC people have to do is supply power to the flow control, and turn it on.
“The rig we run is a Vermeer D20x22FX Series II; it can drill anywhere between 20 degrees and 90 degrees. And if I’m not busy drilling, I can do boring work for some of the utility contractors in the area. But 80 percent of the time, I’m doing geothermal.” He says it’s often difficult to justify doing water service work because of the logistics involved.
His commitment to efficiency extends to his preference to doing horizontal loops. “I’ve done geo jobs where I’ll put in horizontal loops, and grout the loop as I pull back,” he relates. “Let’s say I put in a vertical loop; I’m going 200 feet down, and then filling it with grout – hopefully. Sometimes I’ll hit an aquifer; you can’t stay there indefinitely topping it off and topping it off. On a horizontal bore, I’m going down between 15 feet and 20 feet deep, and 99 percent of the time, I’m not hitting any cavities. I use half the amount of grout, and I can do the job a lot quicker – and my prices reflect that. I recently did a 3-ton job – complete – in two days.”
Basgall has another operational strategy that’s a little different from most: “I’ll do the drilling – either vertical or horizontal – and then I’ll bore the supply and return into the house,” he explains. “I go under the house, and come up into the basement floor. I’ll cut a 12-inch-by-12-inch section out of the basement concrete in the mechanical room, and steer my drill there. The only way you know I was there is the concrete patch in the floor. As far as the yard is concerned, there’s nothing until you get all the way out to where we hook up the manifold.”
Further minimizing the footprint is Basgall’s practice of drilling a vertical hole, moving the rig just a couple of feet, and then drilling an 80-degree hole. With vertical-only drilling, the holes need to be much farther apart, which disturbs considerably more ground. “And that’s nice for a retrofit job on an existing home where there’s an established yard,” he points out. ”There’s almost no place that I can’t get my drill rig into.”
Asked about market conditions in his area, Basgall tells us that there’s a little bit of new building in his market area. “We travel all over Kansas, and it’s slowly picking up,” he says. “Right now, we’re doing about 60 percent new construction and 40 percent being retrofit. That’s real good for this area. And if that retrofitting average stays that high when new construction truly picks up ….”
For the most part, Basgall keeps his prices the same despite the jobs location. “Occasionally, on a small job, I might charge a little bit of a location fee just to cover some of the fuel expense,” he says. “But, generally, it’s the same price whether the client is 20 minutes away or two hours away.”
More about the company’s drill rig: “I bought it brand new; it was rig number 15, and from what I understand, 11 of the 15 were shipped out of the country, so I was a bit of a guinea pig. I did a lot of welding and made some mechanical changes to it to make it more user-friendly.” Basgall went over some of those alterations with Vermeer, which, to its credit, took them to heart. When Basgall showed up at last year’s IGSHPA show, Vermeer was exhibiting its latest rig, which featured three Basgall-inspired improvements.
Basgall Geothermal is a typical family-run operation. Wife Brenda takes care of the office-type responsibilities; oldest son Bradyn is getting some field experience when he’s not in school; and the youngest son, Corbyn, gets his fingernails dirty helping with the fusing when time allows. Father-in-law Stan even gets in on the action, helping move equipment from one jobsite to the next.
Basgall recently completed a 5-ton geothermal installation at his sister’s home in Wichita – a ranch-style house built in the 1950s. “They have a beautiful backyard with an in-ground swimming pool,” he explains. “Behind the backyard is a triangular area that has never been seeded or sodded. After temporarily removing a couple handles from the rig, we managed to maneuver the rig between a fence and an oak tree, and squeezed into that area to do the drilling. We drilled the loops, and then bored the supply and return around their pool and into their crawlspace right next to the foundation wall of the garage. We core-drilled two holes through that wall that separates the garage from the house, brought in the supply and return, and then ninety-ed up to set the flush tees and the flow control. The heat pump has a hot-water generator on it – they have never turned on the power to the water heater. Their bill for this past May was $162; last May, it was $460.
Basgall sees opportunities on the horizon: “Here in Kansas, we’re way behind the curve. Many areas around the country are going geothermal in a big way; I don’t thinks it has caught on here as much, but I think it’s coming. With new construction, it’s really a no-brainer.” As to retrofitting, ne notes, “I did a home show last year and talked to people, and the initial cost is the big barrier right now.”
A more ominous thing that Basgall thinks is not too far away is the EPA stepping in and regulating the use of well water to run geo systems. “Last year in Hays, Kan., they were regulating people who owned their own private wells on watering their yards. There’s a big housing development near Wichita that features $3 million-and-up homes. During last year’s heat wave, we had 11 people call us in one week, asking what they could do about their houses that couldn’t get below 80 degrees inside. They all had pump-and-dump systems, and their wells were going dry, so they couldn’t keep the air-conditioners running. My only answer is you have to go to a closed-loop system. If your well won’t supply the water, you don’t have much in the way of options. With the pump-and-dump system, you’re depending on the quantity of water available, the quality of the water available, and the cost to put all of that in and maintain it – there’s a lot to it. A closed-loop system is zero maintenance, except for changing the air filter on the heat pump. Spend the extra $1,000 or $2,000 for a closed-loop system, and have no maintenance. That pipe is going to outlast everyone that’s on the face of this earth right now. You’ll go through three heat pumps before you ever worry about your loops or your supply-and-return pipe.”
Looking ahead, I asked Basgall at what point of his company’s growth will he have to add rigs and employees. “Last October, I almost bought a second rig, but I decided to wait,” he says. “I want the company to grow naturally, and when things got a little slow over the winter, I was glad that I didn’t have two rigs sitting idle. I did have opportunities to bid some 50-, 60-ton commercial projects, but there’s no way I could tie up my rig on a commercial job and not take care of all my residential HVAC customers, which are my bread and butter. I want to be smart about it and focus on the things that mean the most to me – the job being right, and the customers being happy. That’s what will give me the longevity I want.” ND