Learning the Hard Way

Learning the proper way to test water became a focal point in author’s career.

By Gary Shawver, MGWC

When I first agreed to write this column, my goal was to try to help those who might read it get to the next level by shortcutting the learning curve. If I know I’ve helped one person do that, it’s worth my time.

As I mull over what column to write next, I always look back at my time in the industry, remember hard lessons I learned, and try to bring them to life.

As I was recently thinking about what to write—water testing popped into my head. I recalled the first time I was involved with a water test. And when I mention water tests, I am referring to the basic testing of non-public water wells. Where I operated my business in Iowa, the basic test was for coliform bacteria and nitrates.

First Lesson

My first recollection was early on in my career in the late 1970s before there was any public domain that did private water testing. I was still wet behind the ears just learning to operate a drill rig—much less knowing anything about the testing of water.

We had a customer for whom we had just recently completed a well for a new home and who wanted to get their water tested. The family had not yet moved into their home and much of the plumbing inside was yet to be done.

I realized my company could only grow if I had capable people knowing what I had learned the hard way.

My father gave me a water testing kit and told me to go take a sample. I went over to the home, found a garden hose hooked up to the freezeless faucet on the outside of the house, and turned the water on. I let it run for a couple of minutes and took the test.

It didn’t pass the coliform bacteria test. Neither did the next two tests I took. I shared this with my father and he asked how and where I took the test. I told him and he said, “Go back and take the hose off the faucet, flame the faucet, and take the sample right at the faucet.”

I did and the next test passed!

Why do I go into such detail about the test? Because that is the whole point of this column. The protocol for water testing is involved and learning it is a whole topic in and of itself. That first lesson was just the tip of the iceberg for my learning about water testing and how it related to so many aspects of the water well business.

As I became more familiar with water testing, and after I took over the business from my father, I often received calls a test had been taken and the water was bad. In fact, dealing with bad water tests became a big part of my day-to-day routine of running a water well business.

The calls had to be dealt with, so I educated myself on sorting out the bad water tests. I learned what to ask people when they called with bad water test results. I soon cut down on the amount of time dealing with these problems. The majority were tests incorrectly taken or due to poor testing technique.

Creating Standards

I realized I had to teach what I had learned to others as I could not do all the things I used to do and run the company. It was hard at times to try to get new people up to the level of what I had learned over several years.

This was an ongoing issue, but it was important since I realized my company could only grow if I had capable people knowing what I had learned the hard way.

DACUM Codes
To help meet your professional needs, this column covers skills and competencies found in DACUM charts for drillers, pump installers, and geothermal contractors. DO refers to the drilling chart, PI refers to the pumps chart, and GO represents the geothermal chart. The letter and number immediately following is the skill on the chart covered by the column. This column covers: DOF-2, DOG-9, PIC-2, PIE-18, PIE-21, PIG-7, GOD-8, GOD-9, GOE-2 More information on DACUM and the charts are available at www.NGWA.org/Certification and click on “Exam Information.”

Fortunately, I knew how to type. I decided to write out on the typewriter the procedures for the different things that had to be done a certain way. This way I felt pretty sure what I had learned would be passed on to the next generation.

Slowly I was able to develop a set of “Standard Operating Procedures” or SOPs, a term I borrowed from the military. When I had typed out a procedure, I asked someone within the company who had some knowledge of the procedure to review it and see if they could follow it and understand it. This really helped me learn how people understand what you put in writing.

Most of the SOPs over time eventually had to be edited or changed for various reasons. SOPs were also written for drilling procedures, grouting procedures, test pumping, as well as many more.

Given most all my employees over the years knew nothing about the drilling business when they started, writing SOPs helped me get those people up to speed much quicker than I could have ever gotten them otherwise. Over time, other employees used these SOPs to assist new employees in given areas.

There are many ways to write these SOPs today—it’s so much easier than when I was sitting in front of a typewriter!

So, if you are wanting to grow your business with people who may not have the skills or background you possess, creating standard operating procedures for important tasks is a great place to start. Write them, share them, and see how the new people do.


Gary Shawver, MGWC, is president of Shawver Well Co. Inc. in Fredericksburg, Iowa. He has been in the water well industry for 40 years and is a Master Groundwater Contractor. He has served as president of the Iowa Water Well Association, the Iowa Groundwater Association, and most recently served on the NGWA Board of Directors. Shawver is semi-retired, having sold his business to his employees. He contributes to NGWA’s member e-publication and can be reached at grs@shawverwell.com.

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