Navigating the CDL Challenge

Water well contractors weigh in on the subject with ways to maximize jobsite efficiency.

By Mike Price

Jeff Williams, MGWC, CVCLD, vice president of Spafford & Sons Water Wells in Jericho, Vermont, is viewing his mobile equipment and personnel through a different lens. Photo courtesy Williams.

Dating back decades, the water well industry has grappled with paying a proper wage to recruit, train, and retain employees who hold a commercial driver’s license (CDL).

The multi-faceted challenge has forced drill rig manufacturers in recent years to develop options for lighter and compact rigs. These manufacturers have taken the time to research, test, build, and finally offer a rig for sale that doesn’t require a CDL to operate it.

“If that doesn’t tell you that a CDL is a challenge in our industry, I don’t know what will,” says Nic Sprowls of Beinhower Bros. Drilling Co. in Johnstown, Ohio, who has a Class A CDL with endorsements in both tank vehicles that contain liquids or gases and air brakes.

“We as an industry typically will have to invest quite a bit of time in an employee to obtain their CDL, and then time to maintain that classification. It challenges us as an industry to find employees who have the willingness to get their CDL and be able to do the physical work required for the job. Those people are not easy to find—at least in my experience.”

Sprowls, president of the Ohio Water Well Association, says in 2016 Beinhower Bros. added Flatwater Fleet Inc.’s Rig Buddy RBT-600 (smaller version of its rig tender), which holds 600 gallons of water and doesn’t require a CDL. This allowed Sprowls to drill without another CDL driver.

“The drawback is there’s a lot less water on board,” he shares. “That said, I’ve pulled a trailer with extra tanks on it to get a complete well done. I just have to manage my water a lot better while drilling, and I’m limited to how much I can do on that amount of water.

“Other than that, when we’re close to home, I can mobilize the drill in an afternoon, then start the next morning. That allows me to drive the rig, get set up, and have a non-CDL driver help me. Then follow up with the big tanker the next day with minimal time lost.”

The CDL challenge has become such a burden for some of today’s water well contractors that they’ve streamlined their operations. For example, some have combined the ability of their support trucks to accomplish multiple tasks to meet the CDL-mandated weight limit. Thus, just a Class B CDL with no endorsements is needed to operate it.

Some of the different class CDL requirements pertaining to water well contractors include:

  • Class A CDL is required to operate any combination of vehicles with a gross combination weight rating (GVWR) of 26,001 or more pounds, provided the towed vehicle is heavier than 10,000 pounds.
  • Class B CDL is required to operate a single vehicle with a gross combination weight rating of 26,001 or more pounds or tow a vehicle not heavier than 10,000 pounds.

Common endorsements in the water well industry include H (hazardous materials), N (tank vehicles that contain liquids or gases), T (double or triple trailer truck), and X (combination of H and N). With the proper endorsements, a Class A CDL may also allow the driver to drive some Class B vehicles. See the shaded box for tips and considerations when taking the driving part of the CDL test.

Taking a Different Approach

Beinhower Bros. Drilling Co.’s Flatwater Fleet Inc. Rig Buddy RBT-600 (smaller version of its rig tender) out with the drill rig. The well was finished with the RBT-600, which holds 600 gallons of water and doesn’t require a commercial driver’s license (CDL). Photo courtesy Nic Sprowls, Beinhower Bros. in Johnstown, Ohio.

The daunting challenge of finding, hiring, training, and retaining CDL drivers in the industry spurred one contractor to view his mobile equipment and personnel through a completely different lens.

In Jericho, Vermont, Jeff Williams, MGWC, CVCLD, has struggled with the CDL issue ever since it went into law on April 1, 1992. He has grown tired of losing two weeks of revenue for an employee he pays to get the Class B CDL (plus lodging and food), only to have them leave for another employment opportunity before their two-year contract expires.

Consequently, Williams recently decided to reduce the number of CDL drivers needed while retaining the amount of equipment and materials to start and complete a job.

The 2016 president of the National Ground Water Association determined the retrofit strategy for a drill rig (2014 GEFCO 30K) and support truck (2021 Freightliner M2 106 with two new trailers) so that only one CDL driver is required to transport the drill rig and truck with supplies to and from the jobsite. Williams’ new setup was fully operational in early July and cost him more than $600,000.

“We’re really being challenged out here,” says Williams, vice president of Spafford & Sons Water Wells and The Groundwater Foundation’s 2020 McEllhiney Lecturer. “I’m doing everything in my power to sort of smooth this out.

“If it means spending a half-million dollars on a rig and retrofitting it, then so be it too. I’m willing to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to make this work.”

Considering business expansion, Williams purchased the Freightliner and two trailers in the Fall 2020. But Williams didn’t think of reducing the need for a second CDL driver until he began looking at the GEFCO 30K mounted on the 2014 Peterbilt Tridem. The wheels quickly began to turn in his mind.

“Because of the robust truck that’s underneath it and having no deck engine, you get into equipment that’s a lot lighter,” he explains, “so you net out some weight savings on a truck-driven drill, and I really got to thinking, ‘I can make this happen.’”

Before purchasing the 30K, Williams visited GEFCO/BAUER Equipment America’s new facility in January in Conroe, Texas, to ensure he was comfortable with the parts department and personnel. He then flew to Salt Lake City, Utah, to purchase the 30K, which had only 3300 hours on its PTO engine (2100 drilling hours and 1200 hours on the road). The air compressor had less than 1000 hours on it.

“I intend to be able to pull in, do whatever I gotta do,” Williams shared earlier this year, “and have the rig loaded right up and have a small support truck and be able to work all day and make my footage, make my production, meet my revenue marks, and be able to do it without a second CDL driver.”

Achieving Non-CDL Driver Flexibility

Scheduled to carry 850 gallons of water and 110 gallons of fuel on it with very few tools, Williams’ support truck is non-CDL with a GVWR of 25,885. This gives Williams the non-CDL driver flexibility to stage the jobsites.

But daily planning is critical to maximize the capacity of the drill rig while keeping the support truck and loads under the CDL-mandated weight limit.

“It’s going to take some additional strategy on my part in order to stage material in front of the drilling rig—like on the next job. Or have it staged in areas where I can get to it quickly and reload with water, reload with casing, and go back out to the next job without costing me a lot of downtime,” Williams says.

“There’s so many variables in our industry, but in my little part of the world, I believe that I can make this work. But there’s some strategy here that’s going to have to be employed.”

Once one of Williams’ new trailers (10,000 GVWR) is hooked up to the service truck to carry drill mats, additional water, and casing, it requires a Class B CDL to operate it. Including himself, Williams (with endorsements in tank vehicles that contain liquids or gases and air brakes) has four CDL drivers. His nephew, Bret Williams, is the only CDL driver who has stayed with the company out of the last three employees who have gotten a CDL.

Once the other new trailer (14,000 GVWR) is hooked up to the support truck to carry drill pipe and possibly casing, a Class A CDL is required to operate it. Williams and another driller plan to pursue the Class A in 2022.

However, beyond the service truck, Williams has additional non-CDL driver flexibility by employing a pull vehicle like the company’s 12,000-pound pickup truck to tow either the 10,000 or 14,000 GVWR trailer and meet the CDL-mandated weight limit.

“It’s going to take maybe Friday to stage for the next week,” Williams says, “or a Saturday to stage for the next week. So, I’m going to have to be thoughtful and my jobs are going to have to be ready.”

Tooling Up the Drill Rig

Williams’ GEFCO 30K was retrofitted by Patriot Rigs & Services Inc. in Oxford, Pennsylvania.

Patriot Rigs remodeled the air inlet and air cleaner to make its custom-built 6 × 4 rod box fit on the deck. The rod box carries 480 feet of drill rod (24 pieces at 4½-inch OD). It also installed a six-rod carousel and loader, making it 30 total for 600 feet of drill rod.

The 30K is mounted on an 89,000 GVWR Peterbilt Tridem, but Williams estimates it won’t weigh more than 70,000 to 72,000 pounds after being outfitted for the water well/geothermal industries. Williams will carry nine more pieces of drill rod than what the company usually carries on a standard GEFCO 30K (which typically drills to 425 feet).

To offset the 4000 pounds from the additional nine pieces of drill rod on the passenger side, Patriot Rigs installed a 300-gallon water tank and toolbox on top of it on the driver side. Because the deck is longer, there is space between the receiver tank and hydraulic oil tank to put both a water tank and toolbox.

“Mike Volpe has done a great job of making sure this all fits on the deck,” Williams says.

Williams estimates 8000-9000 total pounds were added to the rig, with the ability to add a couple pieces of casing on top of the drill rod (if the coupling and drive shoe are tight) before he leaves the shop.

“I’ll be able to take this rig and go to a jobsite and drill 150 feet without anybody,” he says, “set 40 feet of casing and drill 150 feet before I even need a water truck.”

More CDL Information
Click here for more information on the CDL classes, endorsements, and restrictions from the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration.
Groundwater Week 2021 Workshop Will Dive Deeper Into Topic
Learn more about how Jeff Williams, MGWC, CVCLD, reduced the number of CDL drivers needed while retaining the amount of equipment and materials to start and complete the job in the Groundwater Week 2021 workshop, “Using a Different Perspective to Lessen the Impact of Our Industry’s CDL Driver Shortage.” Look for more information about the workshop to be posted in the coming months at www.GroundwaterWeek.com.

Efficiency Is the Name of the Game

For efficiency, Beinhower Bros. had Rose-Wall Mfg. Inc. in 2017 install a Bowie style grouter that runs directly from the truck hydraulics on its Flatwater Fleet Rig Buddy RBT-600.

According to Beinhower’s Sprowls, the most efficient way to drill is with two CDL drivers and a big tanker. In its area, the geology varies from shallow to deep depths and there are areas where Beinhower Bros. can do multiple shallow wells a day, which wouldn’t be possible without the big tanker.

“It allows you to attack all situations full-go rather than having to manage water usage the entire hole,” he says.

Like many in the industry during the busy summer months, Williams typically works six days a week. This work schedule allows him to stage jobsites like he’s detailed earlier.

“This Freightliner will always be with the rig all the time,” Williams says. “She’ll never be parked at the job ahead; she’ll always be with the rig going back and forth supporting the drilling rig. And the trailers will have additional materials.

“I’m going to have to make sure that it’s on the next job ready for me when I get there. I’m going to have to do it in smaller components. But we have plumbing trucks that go everywhere, and if they need to grab a trailer and get it within five miles of the jobsite so that then I can run and pick it up to get it to the next job, so be it. I’ll need to be thoughtful about it.”

Williams will have 1150 gallons of water with him between the drill rig and service truck for the day. His company typically uses up to a half-gallon of water per foot while drilling, which equates to a 550-foot drilling day.

“You put in 40 feet of casing and 550 feet, I should be able to almost sneak out all the rod I got on the rig in one day,” he says, “if I have a day that good.

“Most days you hope for a 300- to 450-foot day. Anything over 400 feet starts to be a pretty good day; and over 500 feet is a really good day in my world.

“If you’re drilling between 70, 80 feet an hour a day on average through the day—six hours out there, you got an hour and a half, two hours of setting up and setting your casing—so out of an eight-hour day, you only have six hours left. And somehow you gotta get there and get home. If you physically have five or six hours of actual air drilling during the day, 400 to 500 feet is a pretty good day.”

As backup all the time, the service truck will return home every night to be reloaded with materials and refilled with fuel and water. The drill rig’s water tank will be refilled as backup too.

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While easier said than done, many in the industry look for someone who has a CDL with a background in mechanical maintenance that includes welding, cutting, and troubleshooting. Then the company trains the person to meet its needs.

On the other hand, some in the industry think finding CDL drivers to work is only going to get worse in the coming years.

“The CDL license is a major issue not only in our industry but for anyone needing to move product,” says NGWA Past President Richard Thron, MGWC, of Mantyla Well Drilling Inc. in Lakeland, Minnesota.

However, even if one has a CDL with today’s various certified standards (automatic or manual transmission; electric brakes or air brakes; pintle hook or fifth wheel connection, etc.), the company may need the person to go test for the appropriate endorsements so they can legally drive its vehicles.

“You’ve got so many combinations and you need to meet the requirements with how and what you have or want to purchase in the future,” says Thron, who has a Class A CDL with endorsements in both tank vehicles that contain liquids or gases and air brakes.

“I hate to say it, but in some ways your employees are steering you which way to purchase the equipment based on their licensure. It’s mind-boggling at times.”

Tips and Considerations for Taking Driving Part of CDL Test
John Fowler, CSP, CMSP, writes how each truck is different and that it takes some practice before you master a new transmission in the article, “Learning How to Shift Manual Transmissions,” which was published in the December 2019 issue of Water Well Journal.

“Some people are taught to float the gears, which means changing gears without using the clutch. While this is common, no matter how smooth you think you are at floating the gears, it is easier on the transmission to double clutch. And you will need to know how to double clutch if you decide to get a CDL (many states require it during the driving part of the test).

“Keep in mind, if you take your CDL test using a truck with an automatic transmission, your license will restrict you to automatic transmission trucks. For this reason, I recommend testing in a manual transmission truck because you will then be able to drive manual and automatic transmission trucks on public roads.

“And remember, a commercial vehicle is a vehicle with a registered or physical weight in excess of 10,000 pounds. This can be a one-ton pickup or even a three-quarter-ton pickup pulling a trailer. If you exceed 10,000 pounds, you may not need a Class A or B CDL, but you will need a CDL physical and a DOT vehicle inspection.”

Fowler, safety manager at National Exploration, Wells & Pumps Inc. in Elko, Nevada, also recommends practicing the pre-trip inspection.

Lastly, Fowler notes that for the driver’s hazardous materials (H) endorsement, most don’t realize the company must also work with its insurance company to be set up for it. The company must have a 24-hour phone number so it can be reached in the event of an emergency.

Click here for more information about shifting basics and how double clutching works.

DOT Physical Requirements for Sleep Apnea
The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) doesn’t have requirements in place that mandate a commercial truck driver to complete a sleep apnea test during a U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) physical.

However, the FMCSA does have a regulation called the Pulmonary Standard that grants a medical examiner the discretion to determine whether testing for a respiratory disorder like sleep apnea is necessary for a driver to be medically certified to operate a commercial motor vehicle.

During a DOT physical, medical examiners look for deformities that might interfere with breathing or swallowing. These abnormalities and certain risk factors are predictors of sleep apnea and could prompt an examiner to order a sleep test. Risk factors include (but are not limited to):

  • BMI (body mass index)
  • Hypertension
  • Age
  • Neck circumference
  • Receding chin
  • Diabetes
  • Smoking habits
  • Sex.

Click here for more information about the DOT medical exam and commercial motor vehicle certification.


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 (800) 551-7379, ext. 1541.