Water Well Construction Starts With Customer Communication
During his 40 years as a groundwater industry consultant, he’s spent a lot of time working closely with water well drillers. One important slip-up he sees happen quite often in the domestic market involves the way drillers approach water well design. “They’re designing kind of just a hole in the ground that makes water and aren’t thinking in terms of the long term operational life of the well or the efficiency of its operation,” he says.
That doesn’t mean intentions are bad. The common practice stems from an effort to cut costs for the customer, but, Krautkramer says, the opposite ends up happening. “The misconception in the domestic well market is that cheaper is better. The completion of the well is the last place that you want to save somebody money, because it’ll usually cost them more in the long run.”
Convincing a client to spend more is way easier said than done though, and with that challenge in mind Krautkramer has put a lot of brainpower into considering how drillers can give water well owners a reliable, efficient well that won’t need to be repaired every few years and won’t increase the electric bill because not enough screen was installed. As the 2008 National Ground Water Association William A. McEllhiney lecturer, he designed an entire talk around this, titled “How Much is Enough? Making Decisions in the Water Well Industry.”
Pulling from his lecture and industry experience, he shared with National Driller a general set of steps to take when designing a water well, and what factors should influence design decisions.
As a consultant, the first thing Krautkramer does is sit down and talk about what the client wants. He says this practice isn’t inherent in the drilling industry and it should be. He says the most important step is establishing an initial project definition, which calls for a lot of communication with the customer. “If you’ve got a list of 10 or 15 questions and they have to specifically answer those questions, number one you’re more likely to build a well that they need, and number two, if they change their mind two years later you’ve got a record of what they said they wanted.”
A good set of questions will help define both the drilling and the use of the well. “Each area has its own questions, each type of well has its own questions, but a driller is going to know what he ought to know before he gives a price,” Krautkramer says.
While the technical questions will differ based on project specificities, he says the number one question every driller should ask the customer is “What’s the anticipated demand on this well?” That translates to, “How much water do you need?” and the driller will often have to help the customer answer because many people don’t have a sense of how many gallons of water per minute they use.
It helps to know what they intend to do with the water. For example, will it irrigate acres of crops or just provide household drinking water and wash their dishes? Even if they don’t have a farm to water, they may have the desire to wash dishes while clothes are in the washer, someone else showers and another person washes the car. If that’s the case, they may not use as much water total as an irrigation system, but they’ll use a lot of water at once.
This question is such a big deal because its answer will help the driller design the right-sized well. “If they answer 50 gallons a minute and they’re going to use it for a single home, then point out to them that a single home doesn’t use that much water,” Krautkramer says. “Either build them the smaller well that’s cheaper or inform them that you can drill for the 50 gallons a minute, but you have to do some other kind of design work in order to make sure they can get that, and that it’s something they likely don’t need to spend the extra money on.”
Another critical question to ask the customer is “What else is happening on the property?” he says. Drillers need to know what existing objects or future plans there are for the property to assure proper setback from potentially contaminating activities. The last thing a driller wants is to find out, after the well is drilled, that the homeowners are planning to install a septic tank just feet away. Krautkramer says it’s also important to make sure the well location meets physical and regulatory requirements and that construction can actually be accomplished there.
The next step, after going through the listed questions for customers, should be to explain how their answers guide design decisions. If they want more water, it’s important to inform them that will call for bigger casing and a stronger pump. Sharing what the implications of their desires are is a good business practice, Krautkramer says. “Because if (another driller) comes in and says, ‘No, I’m just going to drill a 6-inch well, I’m just going to pound in the ground,’ at least the customer knows he’s not comparing apples and apples.”
Once the question-answer session is completed, it’s time to emphasize not only what the initial design plans are, but to highlight the importance of value. The customer should know that if they want a long-lasting well they’ll have to pay for it, so it’s important to explain to them that spending more money on the completion and development saves more money on operation and maintenance. “Most of the time people think of wells in the short term and a well is something you usually have for 50 years. Over 50 years, paying 25 percent more for power adds up to a lot, and having to bring a driller in every three years to develop the well costs a lot,” Krautkramer says.
It’s always a balance between the best well and the lower cost, but when a driller thinks in the long term, listens carefully to what the customer wants and communicates what it will take to get them what they want, the chances of a properly designed, reliable well go up significantly along with customer satisfaction.
Once a design plan is in place and casing size is decided on, construction can go a number of ways, but Krautkramer says the same general steps should be taken, and factors considered, every time.
Surface seal: “The first drilling is where the well’s surface seal will be placed. Know what you must protect against and drill a sufficiently large and deep starter hole to facilitate placement of a compliant and physically effective seal.”
Drill the well: “Drill to the bottom of the aquifer if practical. You cannot screen what you do not drill and the efficiency of the well is much greater if the full aquifer is drilled. The only excuse for not drilling it all is if the demand is very low, like (for) a simple domestic well and you are certain that there is more than enough water and more than enough available drawdown. Even then, it is better to drill more than you need to rather than just enough to meet the proposed demand.”
Completion of the well: “This could be as little as leaving an open bottom casing to as complicated as a long sand/gravel-packed screen assembly. What is done is a complicated decision based on economics and reliability. Think in terms of the operational life of the well, not just getting through a pump test.”
Development: “This is the cleaning of the well to remove the fine materials from around the well. Much of the dirtier material is the result of the drilling process. Each driller has a sense as to how much disturbance has been caused by his drilling process. The decision as to how much and what type of development should be made based on effectiveness and the ultimate efficiency of the well, not just on the cost at the time. Underdeveloped wells are inefficient and that costs the customer every time the well has to pump from a lower pumping water level throughout the entire operational life of the well. Those costs quickly exceed the cost of a few extra days of development.”
Testing: “This phase requires that sufficient information is developed to reliably project the performance of the well in the long term. A constant-rate test for several hours at a minimum is needed to plot and project the aquifer response, even if the driller does not intend to do that analysis. The data needs to be collected frequently in the beginning of the test and can be taken less frequently toward the end. Record the data carefully in a neat and readable manner such as a field book. Many a test has been lost because the paper the data was recorded on became either too soiled to read or too damaged by rain or mistreatment to read. The test is actually about the data, not the water. Sample water quality at the end of this test, it is the cleanest sample you will get.”
Reporting: “All that you learned and defined during the project needs to be preserved in a formal record that the customer and the agencies can use. Most states have a form for reporting water well projects. The location information is critical for proper use of the information by investigators such as hydrogeologists, engineers and regulatory people. The next time you complain because a regional study does not describe the resource as you know it to be, ask yourself if you told the investigators what you know about it through your reporting protocols.”
Once the water well construction process is underway, roadblocks and game-changers are bound to present themselves, but with a strong dialogue with the customer in place and a solid plan recorded, even technical troubleshooting isn’t so troubling, Krautkramer says. “As one of my former mentors who was a very wise driller once said, ‘Sometimes the only reason to have a drilling plan is so you’ve got something to change.’ That was meant to be funny, but it’s true. If a driller is going down one road in the field and suddenly has to change direction to do a different kind of well, if he hasn’t talked about what the plan is, it’s more difficult to talk to the customer about what the change in the plan is and why.”
In his experience, he says it isn’t that drillers aren’t very good communicators; they are, when they communicate. The issue is making it a habit to have a thorough discussion with customers, which is undeniably challenging. “The general rule of any business is if it will substantially change the cost or the outcome, the customer should be consulted. I wish this was as easy to follow as it is to state.”
In the drilling business, he says most jobs come from the driller’s reputation and how former customers talk about him or her. “That means that a good well and a happy, informed customer is your best marketing tool.”