How Drillers Can Work with Engineers, Build Better Wells
Both Bring Experiences that can Improve Water Well Design
There are many ways to design, drill and complete water wells. The proper design and successful installation of water wells is how civilization has been able to progress. The simple fact is, water is life and where we are unable to provide water, the growth of life is unsustainable.
As an industry, we have witnessed several “Day Zero” water events around the world. What is a “Day Zero” water event? It is the day that a city, town or community starts water rationing. All water taps are turned off in homes and businesses, and citizens go to collections points to retrieve daily water rations. In March 2018, Cape Town, South Africa’s population of over 4 million people were rationed to six gallons a day per person. The World Resource Institute lists 17 countries, home to one-quarter of the world’s population, as in extremely high water stress areas. In the near future, it will be common to see many major cities in “Day Zero” situations.
I know what you are thinking right now. “How does this apply to my drilling company in a developed nation surrounded by clean water, where my backlog continues to lengthen every day?” You are right. It’s a great time to be a groundwater professional.
What about the millions of Americans living in water-stressed areas? Those stresses could include the impacts of drought, poor water quality or water systems affected by contaminants. These problems call for superior well design and efficient completion for the best well productivity. These solutions apply to residential and municipal water wells from Teeswater, Ontario, through Central Florida to other continents like Australia.
Well design and implementation are collaborative processes that require the engineer and drilling company to educate one another. All too often, I get a message saying, “Look at what this specification wants me to do.” Or I get one saying, “Can you help me understand why the company chose the following drilling method and equipment?” I love the opportunity to contribute. However, the two parties involved need to start the dialogue together to find the best solution that satisfies project expectations. Developing an open collaboration culture with candid communication enables the water industry to design better water systems.
Earlier this year, my team was evaluating a well design that specified a long string of pit casing in conjunction with standard surface casing. The team’s initial response was the industry standard: “Look at what this specification is requiring us to do.” However, instead of just going with the standard, we opened up a discussion with the engineering firm. The firm explained that the previous two wells in the field were designed with the same casing configuration. After further discussion, we learned that design came from several earlier projects where that casing configuration prevented losing a rig to subsidence. The well we were evaluating had competent clay soils for several hundred feet, and a low risk of surface destabilization. That simple discussion led to a design change that saved money and time on the project. That, in turn, freed up funds for innovation or more wells.
Drillers, if we expect engineers to collaborate with us in the design phase, we must continue and promote that culture from the first turn of the bit to completion. Discussions about tooling and drilling methods are just as crucial as design specifications, as they significantly impact the production of the well. When a designer requests a specific drilling method, such as reverse circulation, as opposed to conventional mud, we have the opportunity to explain why we chose the particular plan we did. It is our chance to contribute past knowledge of success and failures. We also get to learn from prior experiences that the engineer has in a specific area. I welcome guidance from knowledgeable engineers, geologists and hydrogeologists. They have saved me from repeating mistakes other contractors made on similar jobs.
It is easy to say, “OK, we got the scope of work and specifications. Now go stand over there and wait for samples.” It is not easy to create a collaborative culture between engineered design and drilling. We come from different schools of thought and backgrounds. Engineering is rooted in what is known, and drilling is heavily based on discovering the unknown. We compound that difficulty with many drilling techniques and applications that are developed privately within individual companies. To break down the challenges that come with creating a collaborative culture, consider these two quotes to describe the thought process of an engineer versus a driller.
“Well designers should adopt a process of water well design that will guide them through the virtual maze of design considerations and options. Plenty of construction techniques and construction materials are available for well installation projects, and those options must be sorted out by the well designer.” — Marvin F. Glotfelty, “The Art of Water Wells”
“A good plan, violently executed now, is better than a perfect plan next week.” — Gen. George S. Patton
Of the two quotes, only one is a hydrogeologist and licensed driller. It’s not General Patton. Yes, he was excellent at execution and drilling people. Drilling is a disruptive process that often requires violent execution to prevent the loss of a borehole. But drilling also involves the math, physics and science of a well engineered solution. You can learn a lot from both quotes. I recommend reading Glotfelty’s book “The Art of Water Wells” for greater insight into well design and communication.
As an industry, we can collectively improve water well lifespan and production by collaborating and questioning 20th-century drilling methods and well design. Innovation in water well design has been a slow process, from the way we create the scope to the way the well is constructed. We will continue to see more Zero Day situations happen across the globe. The best way to combat those days is through collaboration, working together on alternative solutions for better designs. We call the concept of changing a design before a project starts “development.” It is not a coincidence that well development is the most critical and final phase of creating a productive water well.