Greasing the Drill Rig

How automatic grease systems and manual grease banks can make this preventive maintenance task safer for your crew.

By Mike Price

Shawver Well Co. Inc.’s commercial field supervisor pumps grease into the storage reservoir of the automatic grease system on a GEFCO 30K drill rig.
Photo courtesy Shawver Well in Fredericksburg, Iowa.

Most water well contractors will attest that greasing the drill rig is one of the more mundane tasks they encounter working in the industry.

Greasing is an important preventive maintenance task, yet crawling under the rig or up in the derrick while carrying a rag to wipe off the grease points is one of the dirtiest jobs on a drill rig. Then comes filling the grease points, otherwise known as zerks, with a manual, electric, or pneumatic grease gun.

“While not every grease point needs to be greased as often as others, some need to be greased every 12 hours and others once a week,” says Gary Shawver, MGWC, president of Shawver Well Co. Inc. in Fredericksburg, Iowa. “Human nature often says, ‘I’ll get that zerk the next time,’ and finally that point fails.

“Assuming you have that bearing in stock in your inventory—many don’t carry a lot of inventory on parts—you’re going to be down a day. If you don’t have it in stock, you’re going to be down two days to a week. It’s huge if that rig is out of service.”

The difficulty in getting to certain grease points on the rig quickly becomes a safety issue. Oftentimes the derrick must be put down so contractors can crawl up into and through it to get to the points.

It’s for these reasons that some contractors in the industry have chosen a different way—greasing their rig with an automatic grease system or manual grease banks. In fact, manual grease banks have been standard the last two years on 85% of GEFCO Inc.’s new rigs (more on that later). Here, we’ll look at the benefits of both automatic grease systems and manual grease banks.

Automatic Grease Systems

Commonly used in the blasthole mining industry, an automatic grease system is driven by an electric motor pump and sits in a central position on the deck of a drill rig. The system has a unit that meters out the grease and a unit that is the reservoir for the grease. From the unit that meters out the grease, one-quarter inch tubing feeds into manifolds that then branch out to various grease points on the rig.

Based on a timer, the system dispenses measured amounts of grease at predetermined intervals to the points required per the rig manufacturer’s recommendation.

The numerous grease points on a drill rig led Shawver to take a hard look at putting an automatic grease system on one of his rigs in the early 2000s. There are 60-plus grease points, plus another 30 if the chassis of the drill truck is included.

“I knew that I was having (rig) downtime because some grease points were not getting greased as often as they should,” says Shawver, who contributes a bimonthly column for Water Well Journal and served on the National Ground Water Association Board of Directors from 2010-2013.

Pictured are (top) a fan drive manual grease bank and (bottom) a mast hinge and mast cylinders manual grease bank.

“This is not to take anything away from my crew who ran the rigs as they were very focused on production. And there are many other grease points that are not in the derrick that need to be greased regularly, and if they are not, a bearing pin/bushing is going to fail. These failures cause downtime. If they cause downtime when they are in the field and in a position that the repairs are difficult to do, this is even more of a dilemma.”

A lose-lose situation can ensue: Downtime is non-revenue producing time, and rig parts or repairs can be costly.

It became a no-brainer for Shawver after crunching the numbers: To grease every zerk completely on a drill will, on many rigs, take a minimum of 1½ hours if one is efficient. That’s a revenue loss of at least $2000 depending on one’s hourly rate. Having the automatic system grease those points and preventing rig downtime sealed the deal for Shawver.

Today, four of the five rigs that Shawver’s company runs have an automatic system on it. The system, which costs approximately $13,000 to $15,000 for an average drill, can be retrofitted on a pre-owned rig or installed on a new rig.

Two companies that specialize in installing automatic grease systems, also called auto lube systems, automatic lubrication system, or centralized lubrication system, are PetroChoice Lubrication Solutions and VOGEL Centralized Lubrication Systems. These companies can install the system at a contractor’s shop. It takes at least two days for the work to be done.

A close-up of an automatic grease system. The unit on the left meters out the grease. The unit on the right is the reservoir for the grease.

“It doesn’t take very long to pay for these,” says Ryan Budke, general manager at Shawver Well. “It pays for itself in a year. The return on your investment is quick.”

In his 16 years at Shawver Well, Budke says the company recently replaced two sheave pins after they wore out on a 2000 drill rig. This was the first time they needed replaced in 20 years. Budke is unsure how often they would wear out if they didn’t get greased regularly by the automatic system, but he is not willing to find out. Each pin cost $300.

U-joints, as far as Shawver knows, are the only points on a rig that cannot be greased by an automatic system. However, Shawver stresses the importance of U-joints getting greased per the rig manufacturer recommendation (typically every 40 hours).There are usually no more than five or six U-joint points.

Shawver Well services its rigs every 300 hours and usually refills the grease storage reservoirs during this time. If it doesn’t need refilled, it will the next time the rig is serviced, Budke says. There is also a light on the back of the rig on the operator’s side and it goes green when the system is greasing automatic or manually.

Shawver recommends monitoring the unit every 50 hours to see that it is pumping grease by checking for residual grease coming out of the bearings. Monitoring the levels of grease in the storage reservoir is also a natural spot to check to ensure the system is working.

With the cost of equipment today, Shawver again points to financial numbers to help back up his argument over the merits of going with an automatic grease system.

“Based on a new drill costing a minimum of $750,000, the cost of an automatic system at $15,000 is 2 percent of the cost. That is nothing on a new rig,” he says. “Even on a used rig that is in good condition it is not going to be over 5 percent.

Shown are (top) a crown block manual grease bank and (bottom) a drill truck manual grease bank. Manual grease bank photos courtesy GEFCO Inc. in Enid, Oklahoma.

“If an automatic greaser saves you one day of downtime during your busy season, that’s huge. It’s just getting the industry to look at that and realize that.”

Manual Grease Banks

A manual grease bank provides a single easily accessible point for supplying grease to hard-to-reach grease points on a rig. It consists of a plate with nipples on the outside of the plate and tubing connectors on the back. Each grease point has caps on the connector bodies.

This allows the grease points to be filled at ground level, making it convenient for the contractor to grease with a manual, electric, or pneumatic grease gun. Manual grease banks do not account for all grease points on a rig, just the ones difficult to reach.

GEFCO, a drill rig manufacturer in Enid, Oklahoma, has been offering grease banks as an option to customers for 15 years. However, the company has been making it standard the last two years on 85% of its new rigs.

The automatic grease system greases the sheave for the top head cable on top of the mast. Automatic grease system photos courtesy Shawver Well.

On a new GEFCO rig, manual grease banks are installed for grease points at the fan drive, mast hinge and mast cylinders, and crown block. A grease bank is also standard under the hood of the drill truck. See photos displaying these grease banks on a 2019 GEFCO 40K drill rig.

Chip Nelson, GEFCO’s director of sales and marketing, shares that customers have responded positively to the manual grease banks.

“Grease banks make it easier and safer to grease,” Nelson says. “They’re not having to crawl around and get into tight areas on the rig, so it makes it easier for them to do it. Of course, the easier it is, the more willing contractors in the field are willing to do it.”

An upside to manual grease banks is that they are considerably less than automatic grease systems, costing approximately $500.

In addition to being on new rigs, GEFCO installs manual grease banks on pre-owned rigs at the shop per the customer’s request, Nelson says. Other rig manufacturers offer manual grease banks as well.

Because greasing is such an important part of preventive maintenance, manual grease banks are becoming more common on small equipment such as mud pumps and mud cleaning equipment.

“On smaller equipment and less expensive equipment, it makes sense to do this in lieu of an automatic greaser,” says Shawver. His company has manual grease banks on its mud pumps and mud cleaning equipment.

“In fact, we had that done on a few rigs back in the 1990s before we started putting auto greasers on our newer rigs.”

The maintenance for a manual grease bank is simple: Clean off the points with a rag before greasing. Grease attracts dirt and there is always a residual of grease on the grease points when one is done greasing. The next time to grease comes along, simply take a clean rag and wipe the points off before greasing.

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It’s interesting following the advancements in the water well industry and how they take their own course and time in becoming standard on the jobsite.

Shawver points to equipment examples like the water truck, grouters, and air hammers all making today’s contractor drill smarter and faster. And as noted above, manual grease banks are beginning to grow into a standard on drill rigs and other equipment.

Likewise, Shawver has been impressed with the improvements in drilling fluid operation by the downsizing of mud handling equipment and their newfound portability in recent years. He then turned to automatic grease systems and speculated on their future role in the industry.

“I would think at some point automatic greasers are going to get there too,” Shawver says, “but it’s a little bit different with greasers because it’s a maintenance issue versus an onsite drilling issue.”


Mike Price is the senior editor of Water Well Journal. In addition to his WWJ responsibilities, Price contributes to the Association’s scientific publications. He can be reached at mprice@ngwa.org, or at (614) 898-7791,
ext. 1541.