Both deserve full attention to safely operate a productive and efficient jobsite.
By Mike Price
It’s often stated the art of setting up a drilling rig and the proper site preparation that precedes it are site dependent. No two sites are the same.
As the industry offers safety resources that outline basic guidelines for mobilizing, setting up, and demobilizing (see shaded box below), these skills are most learned on site. It’s been this way for generations and will undoubtedly continue for future water well system professionals.
Joe Curry, CWD, owner of Joe Curry Well Drilling Inc. in Holly, Michigan, learned these safety essentials more than 30 years ago while operating a Cyclone No. 5 trailer-mounted drilling rig. Curry hasn’t forgotten those days.
“The guy who taught me how to drill said it’s an art itself setting up your rig and you have to treat it like that,” Curry says.
Surveying the jobsite—commonly overlooked or not given sufficient attention—is critical for safety but also productivity and efficiency. This information helps dictate the setup of equipment.
“Spending more time on your site inspection and setup process can save you time on the overall job,” sums up Merritt Partridge, vice president of Partridge Well Drilling Co. Inc. in Jacksonville, Florida. “We take photos of every site before mobilizing equipment.”
Partridge, the 2020 president of the National Ground Water Association, has his crews visit all drilling and well abandonment sites prior to mobilizing their equipment. If they get word something has changed since the first visit, they will visit the site again.
“Site prep helps everyone—from upper management to the driller helper. When a job is poorly planned or setup problems arise, that can create issues for all who are involved,” Partridge says.
This article looks at thinking through site prep and properly setting up the drilling rig, otherwise known as blocking and cribbing.
‘Good Site Prep Starts Well Before You Mobilize Your Equipment’
Partridge says site prep is one of the most discussed topics in the company’s safety meetings. Discussed are:
- Utility locates
- Overhead power
- Underground power
- Site access issues
- Towing equipment on and off jobs
- Traffic (cars or people)
- Leaving and securing equipment that is unattended
- Good housekeeping.
“Good site prep starts well before you mobilize your equipment,” he says.
Like many in the industry, Partridge has encountered sites that were too tight, which forced his company to set up their equipment differently. This creates scenarios that are “out of the norm.”
“That’s typically when problems arise. Not having room to work is a safety issue,” he says.
Even when visiting a site before mobilizing equipment, Partridge says sometimes it’s hard to fully understand all the setup issues until the rig is on site.
“Most of these sites we have very little choice on the well location, but in retrospect, we could have spent more time in the setup phase once the rig was on site,” Partridge says.
Looking back, Partridge says at the sites that caused issues they could have improved on:
- Proper housekeeping
- Securing a platform for the crew to walk around the jobsite
- Extra jack boards
- Better maintenance of traffic plans.
No matter the size of the job, the photos taken prior to mobilization of drilling equipment gives his entire crew a chance to see the site prior to arrival. They can then ask questions and address any concerns they have prior to setup and enables them to load the proper equipment.
Partridge Well Drilling usually spends about 30 minutes on site with its surveyor to stake out most wells. The company has the surveyor complete a form of several pages that lays out the job and the associated hazards. A driller reviews that form and then mobilizes with the proper equipment and materials.
“The well we drill most often is a 4-inch Floridan Aquifer well, plus or minus 600 feet,” Partridge says. “We typically take about a half a day to set up the drilling rig. These wells typically take about four days to drill if everything goes well. Proper setup helps the job go smoothly. Improper setup can create safety hazards and inefficiencies.”
‘Make It a Good, Workable, Efficient Site’
In a perfect world, Dave Potts and his crew would do any site prep work necessary, and not the general contractor/excavator.
“We would show up with excavation equipment and do the site work to make it a workable site because we know what we need to make it a good, workable, efficient site,” says Potts, president and co-owner of Potts Drilling Inc. in Bozeman, Montana, “but at the same time, we can’t always get that.”
Potts specifies in all proposals that the site must be conducive to drilling safely and efficiently. He also charges a fee for any additional site visits following the initial one.
If the stake for the well that has been placed by the general contractor is tough to spot (see photo) and more excavation work is needed, Potts charges a fee for clearing debris, snow, or anything else.
If the site cannot get to his liking, Potts has a conversation with the customer.
“I tell them our efficiency is going to be reduced and we adjust our footage cost, or if the job exceeds the expected timeframe, we’ll charge an hourly rate for that additional time,” Potts says. “That way it puts the burden of responsibility on the customer or general contractor.”
Potts, the 2017-2018 president of the Montana Water Well Drillers Association, says one of the most frustrating aspects of site prep is homeowners refusing to allow their trees to be cut down, making his job that much harder. “If we have to work around it, can we? Sometimes. But it’s unbelievable what a hassle that is.”
Another part of Potts’ perfect world would be to play a part in the engineering firm’s plotting of a new residential well. The plotting of the well and septic system in a computer model assumes they will be on flat land, Potts says, but working in a mountainous region is rarely flat.
“One of the first things I ever discuss with someone on the jobsite is what the serviceability of this well will be a year from now, 10 years, 20 years, 40 years from now?” Potts says. “Are you going to be able to get a service rig here to pull the pump out of this well? And it’s not a matter of if it’s going to happen, but when it’s going to happen.”
To finish a job right, it’s essential to take the proper time needed to safely and thoroughly demobilize from the site. Potts recalls hearing of another company’s service rig, following the pulling of a pump, getting back on the road but something was amiss—the derrick was still raised.
“I don’t know how many power lines he took down,” Potts says. “It’s like, really? How can you miss something like that? The minute I say it’ll never happen to me it’ll happen to me.”
Setting Up the Drilling Rig
Like building a home on a good foundation, Richard Layman, MGWC, CVCLD, says the same concept can be applied when setting up a drilling rig.
“It only takes one time when you get in a hurry or to please a builder or homeowner that catastrophe can happen, and at that point, all fingers will point to you as it being your fault,” says Layman, owner of Pure Water Well Drilling Inc. in Lachine, Michigan. “Hopefully, no one will get hurt except your pocketbook.”
Blocking and cribbing is intended to provide a secure base to level the rig under the leveling jacks and/or outriggers with wood blocks. The size of blocks can vary, but wood blocks should be used—never brick or cinder block.
Layman recommends using good wood and leveling the area before beginning cribbing. He then instructs to:
- Make the first layer wide
- Keep working up, making the crib a little smaller until you reach the jacks
- Keep wood over wood in a crisscross pattern
- When the rig is up to drill height, block under the tires and put a little weight on them.
“This way, if the crib should fail, it will not fall far, possibly saving a tip-over situation,” he says. “This is why a load of good fill and diverting the water helps and is much easier than handling all the blocking.”
The blocks should last for years. Hydraulic oil, if it gets on the blocks, can extend their life, says Curry who keeps 15 blocks in his truck and uses two to four blocks on each jack of his 760 Buck Rogers portable drilling rig.
“The longer and wider the blocks, the less likely they are to be pushed into the ground when putting the rig’s weight on them,” Curry says.
The area around the rig is dry when drilling begins. But as the process gets near completion, the area can become saturated with water loosening the soil. This can cause settlement, even collapse in the ground.
This can also affect stability and cause a rig tip-over, says Layman, who serves on the NGWA Contractors Section Board of Directors.
“The absolute best-case scenario is the rig and support truck side by side with the slope of grade running away from the equipment (recommended no more than 5% grade),” he says. “Front-elevated equipment leads to all liquids running under the rig destabilizing the ground. Sometimes this cannot be avoided, and unless you divert the fluids around the site and you have properly blocked the rig in place, you are playing a dangerous game.
“Also, remember that at some point this well will need to be excavated and installed into the home, so bringing your equipment to the site first and doing the proper preparation will save time and money later.
“Leveling the site prior to drilling can save time and money in the long run. What does a load of fill cost? Nothing compared to the cost of a rig tip-over.”
‘Get in a Habit of Safety First’
It’s important to re-check the status of blocking and cribbing at the beginning of each shift as well as following a period of difficult drilling to evaluate stability.
Monitor all rig jacks during setup and operation (front center and/or rear). Jacks should be inspected throughout drilling operations to detect changing ground conditions, according to Environmental Remediation Drilling Safety Guideline.
Using a level across the rotary table helps confirm the levelness of the rig front to front and side to side. Bubble levels on jacks are used too. This plays a part in the likelihood of drilling a straight well.
Layman’s friends have sent him photos of rig setups and failures, washouts, blowouts, and sinkholes. “The thing is you will never know when this will happen. Although some cannot be avoided, many could have with proper site preparation.”
Air drillers can go from a dry site to a washout in only a few minutes when they hit water.
The combination of uphole velocity and erosion can destabilize the area immediately around the back of the rig, Layman says, causing rapid hole enlargement undermining the jack supports. This can lead to a tip-over.
“This can also happen when mud drilling as you can develop a hog belly just below grade undermining the jacks and causing collapse,” Layman says. “Both of these can happen with little warning and could be prevented with surface casing.
“Setting surface casing is an increase in time and labor, adding cost to a job, when the bottom-line price is what we all are forced to compete with. If you explain the advantages of the extra cost versus the safety of everyone, including the property, it’s a win-win situation.”
Layman recalls having 6 × 6 blocking break when the rods hung up in the hole, even though it was cribbed properly.
“Remember, a 50,000-pound rig with a 40,000-pound pullback becomes 90,000 pounds in an instant,” he says. “The only reason the rig didn’t go over that time was because of the rods I still had down in the hole. After a pickup load of timbers and careful teardown of the rig, I was able to pull the rig off and then level the site properly. I then backed over the hole and retrieved the drill rods.
“This was brought on by the homeowner insisting I put the well back further to make room for a future garage before the fill was brought in. This left the rig elevated up 4 feet high in the back with the front tires dug down. Not balanced at all.”
All drillers find their norm when setting up their rig. If a new or used rig is purchased, understanding the weight and handling of it helps when setting it up.
“You know if you’re top-heavy, if the left side where the rod box is heavy, things like that,” Curry says. “Knowing your rig and understanding the weight of distribution helps you get through a yard and back it into position and know whether you should have mats or not. Knowing helps you make that judgement call.”
Curry also notes to make sure to retrieve the blocks with a backhoe or other equipment and clean them before putting back on the truck. Properly secure them to ensure they don’t fall off the truck.
Once the job is completed, the jacks of the rig are to be let down evenly in a coordinated fashion.
“People get in a hurry there, next thing you know you’re lurching your rig forward or sideways or it has come off the blocks,” Curry says.
Layman has seen drillers get accustomed to speed up when setting up their rig. He has seen others focus on preparation. For some, it’s a mixture of both.
“There is always a first time (of a rig tip-over), and believe me, you will have a first and it won’t be good,” Layman warns. “It’s time to get in a habit of safety first.”
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 email@example.com, or at (800) 551-7379,