Refurbishing the Drill Rig

With thousands of hours on the rig, a refurb is an option to consider in extending its life.

By Mike Price

Mark Ortman (fifth from right), co-owner of Ortman Drilling & Water Services in Kokomo, Indiana, picks up the company’s refurbished 2005 Schramm T450M mud rotary rig in late January from Patriot Rigs & Services Inc. Photo courtesy Patriot Rigs in Oxford, Pennsylvania.

Deciding when to refurbish the drill rig rather than invest in a new or used one comes down to how a water well contractor operates.

Generally, they operate in one of two camps: The rig is replaced or refurbished every five years (or roughly every 9000 hours). Or the rig amasses 15,000-18,000 hours on it and needs attention.

Beyond when to make the decision, Dillon Sickler of Patriot Rigs & Services Inc. sees contractors mainly choose a refurb because:

  • The price is on average half that of a new air rotary rig
  • Continue familiarity running their rig
  • Accessibility of spare parts for one’s rig is on their shelves
  • Avoid learning how to run electronic controls that are now common on newer rigs
  • Continue running their current engine to avoid complying with their state’s respective emission standards.

“They have their 3406 or C15 engine, want to keep that engine, and don’t want to have to worry about having a truck engine with overheating issues or deal with Tier 4 Final emissions and fuel consumption rates going up,” says Sickler, vice president of Patriot Rigs in Oxford, Pennsylvania. “We’ve got a lot of guys looking for older rigs to be refurbished.”

Sickler, who is a regular presenter on preventative maintenance at state association workshops, shares that monitoring one’s rig is the biggest indicator of when to opt for a refurb.

“If you run a good preventative maintenance program—doing scheduled oil analysis, logging parts and when they’re going wrong, and graph month over month, year over year—you’ll see,” he explains.

“For example, you’ll see the spending on hydraulic hoses has tripled or quadrupled over last year. Or over last year the compressor and engine oils are starting to show metal contaminants more and more because of the oil analysis. You know it’ll be on its way out pretty soon, and if you spend a little extra that a program like that costs to develop, you’re going to know.”

Patriot Rigs, which was founded in 2018, handles all types of rigs and any request—from a full refurb that takes three to four months to just new hoses and a paint job to everything in between. The company has never lacked a rig to refurb and completes four a year. But in 2021, the company is pushing for at least six while also developing its own mud rotary rig.

“We saw a marketspace that was open there and decided to go after it,” says Sickler, a former test engineer at a drill rig manufacturer. “We saw that the refurbs were going to kind of become a way of the future.

“We wanted to focus on the water well industry, so we started Patriot Rigs to focus on the water well and geothermal industries. As a core, everyone here enjoys working with the water well industry. We enjoy the people and we wanted to focus on that.”

‘Outdid Our Expectations’

Mark Ortman had lengthy discussions with Sickler about what to do with his company’s 2005 Schramm T450M mud rotary rig. It had just under 15,000 hours on it.

Ortman’s team weighed the other price quote they received for a full refurb and ultimately chose Patriot Rigs, which began the refurb in mid-September 2020.

“They did a phenomenal job. They outdid our expectations,” says Ortman, co-owner of Ortman Drilling & Water Services in Kokomo, Indiana, who picked up the finished rig in January 2021.

“And they have great customer support. That’s really what it’s all about anymore—whether it’s your supplier, your truck, or your rig manufacturer. I don’t care who it is. All anybody has to sell is customer support in my mind and most people’s mind because everyone makes a good product now. It just comes down to who’s going to support you, and if you find someone who supports you, you better stick with them.”

Due to winter weather delays, Patriot Rigs didn’t arrive until late February to see Ortman’s company drill with the overhauled rig. It’s standard practice by Patriot Rigs to visit with the customer for a week once the refurb has been completed to ensure the rig is operating smoothly in the field.

“It’s just like a new rig from an OEM and doing a startup,” Sickler says. “With 400 to 600 hoses on a rig, there’s going to be a leak somewhere. We just want to make sure everything goes smooth and be with the customer for the first two wells for a week depending on the amount of work they have. It’s also a good way to get input back to engineering here.

“If the customer wants to do something a little bit different, they can work with our engineers to work on different solutions to problems they have. If you’re not out there with them, you don’t really see that. They might be fighting a battle on something that you could help with.”

With the rig back to factory specification, Ortman’s team quickly noticed how the rig felt tighter. Patriot Rigs stiffened the rig frame where the cylinders that raise the mast arm attach because it was beginning to crack.

“That’s a known frame cracking point on the rigs, so we always beef them up,” Sickler says.

In addition, Patriot Rigs made it so that the rotary table hydraulicly opens to remove and install slips rather than having to manually open the table.

“You get a 15-year-old rig with 15,000 hours on it, and everything starts to get sloppy on you—even when you stay up on your maintenance, which we definitely do,” Ortman says. “There were some weak areas on that rig that they’ve seen through the years and those guys knew where to stiffen up here and guss it up there.

“They knew exactly where some issues had been problems the last 10 to 15 years on those rigs; they resolved a lot of those issues too during the refurb. While they had stuff torn apart, they stiffened it up where it needed to be.”

As Sickler mentioned, Ortman’s team noticed a couple of minor hydraulic leaks while drilling the first well with the refurbished rig. The air compressor overtemperature sensor needed replaced, so Sickler and his team brought a new one on their visit in February and tested it to ensure it worked.

Attention to Detail

For a full refurb, Patriot Rigs systematically disassembles the rig, repairs or replaces its components, and then reassembles before giving it a new paint job.

“We go through that entire rig,” Sickler says. “It’s actually quicker to build a new rig than it is to refurb a rig because you’re doing the work twice. When you’re building a new rig, you’re just painting and putting it together. With the refurb, we’re tearing it apart, cleaning it, painting it, repairing it, and then putting it back together.”

Features of the full refurb include:

  • The engine gets remanufactured by the original equipment manufacturer (OEM) and backed with a warranty.
  • The compressor also gets remanufactured by the OEM and backed with a warranty.
  • The heat exchangers get disassembled, repaired, cleaned, and reassembled before being tested.
  • All hydraulic valves get replaced with new ones; all electrical wiring gets replaced; and switches, sensors, etc. get replaced with new ones.
  • All pins, bushings, seals, O-rings are replaced with new ones; chains, cables, lazy susan carousels, holding forks, tables (any wear items) get either rebuilt or replaced.
  • All hydraulic and compressor hoses get replaced; any hydraulic tubing on the mast gets repaired or replaced.
  • The tophead gets rebuilt with a new full gear, new shaft, new pinion gears, and new bearings.
  • Everything gets sandblasted and checked for cracks; cracks get repaired, and then painted and reassembled.
  • All other assembles—air, oil, or hydraulic tanks—get torn down to the bare tank and built back up; any nut or bolt taken out gets replaced with new ones and any fitting taken out gets replaced with new ones.

“Our philosophy is we know what we’re good at, and we know what places locally are good at,” Sickler says. “CAT is good at rebuilding CAT engines, for example. We always use OEMs on engines and compressors so the customer can call up their local CAT or Cummins dealer for any warranty work, if it needs it, because it’ll be better service.

“If anything needs rebuilt other than metal work, we do that in-house. If anything is related to hydraulics, or the compressor engine or heat exchanger, they go to specialty shops to get done the right way.”

Ortman, who believes Schramm builds one of the toughest rig frames in the industry, says the refurbished rig is essentially a new rig. “We got 15 years out of it the first time,” he says. “You might not get 15 more years, but you should probably get 10 to 12 years anyway.”

Determining Next Steps

Another reason Ortman’s team opted to go with Patriot Rigs for the refurb is that the company is considering purchasing Patriot Rigs’ new T300-MDR mud rotary rig.

In addition to the 450M, Ortman’s company runs two or three other rigs in the rotation most weeks. They have another Schramm, a 2005 450WS, and two Versa-Drills: 2008 V100NG and 2016 V140X. Their two Schramms and Versa-Drills drill 80%-90% of their wells. They also have an older SpeedStar and Gus Pech rig.

The 2016 V140X still has low hours, but Ortman’s team will need to do something soon with the 2008 V100NG with its 17,800 hours and the Schramm 450WS with its nearly 8000 hours.

“We try and operate debt-free because it gives guys peace of mind when they know you’re not making a payment on a rig, a crane, a pickup, or anything else,” Ortman says, “so as long as you can cover overhead, you’re going to be around.”

But with equipment costs continuing to rise, Ortman admits it’s getting tougher to operate debt-free.

“Drillers as a whole are finally getting their prices up, but it’s still not where we need to be really for what our industry is and how much it takes to operate it,” he says. “Equipment is just going to keep getting more expensive, especially with emissions.

“You need to try and keep in the rates somehow. It’s a big difference even 10 years ago to today.”

Business has been strong with 2020 being mostly residential and geothermal wells. Interestingly, in the first month of 2021, Ortman’s company has bid on more municipal wells than all of 2020.

“I think we’ll see a fair amount of residential wells for new homes but don’t know if it’s going to be as good as it was in 2020,” says Ortman whose company carries 36-40 employees on staff. “We’re also bidding a lot of bigger geothermal projects.”

Irrigation wells, which make up 10%-15% of Ortman’s company workload, appear to be on the upswing like it was in 2020.

“More farmers are seeing a value in how much yield they can get by irrigation,” he says. “I think that more farmers are seeing what they get, and they talk to other farmers, and the bigger farms are always expanding and buying little farms and need new wells to irrigate here and there.”

A Customizable Drill Rig

Patriot Rigs is also entering the market with its new T300-MDR mud rotary rig, which has been in the works for two years and is scheduled to debut at Groundwater Week 2021 in Nashville, Tennessee.

“We have been through a couple of iterations on the design as we gathered more information from the drilling community,” says David Sim, president. “We made a couple of tweaks and option sets. We’re very excited to release our product and we believe it will provide value to our customers.

“For our new rig we have engaged with many customers with phone calls, field visits, and surveys to help us develop their needs into a purpose-built rig that reflects their voice. At the end of the day, if we can bring them value through our rigs and services and make their job less stressful or easier, we feel as if we have met our goals.”

Among other features the T300-MDR has 25,000 pounds of pullback, 300 rpm rotation speed, and optional onboard development air, piston, or centrifugal mud pump.

“One thing that we pride ourselves on is we don’t tell the customer what they need,” Sickler says. “We let the customer tell us what they need and have a team of engineers figure out how it’ll work best for the customer. It’ll have a carousel, whatever drill pipe the customer wants.

“It’s completely customizable. That’s how we’re attacking that market. We’ll work with customers for what’s best for day-to-day life.”

Through his work doing refurbs and past work experience, Sickler is tuned in to contractors needing to upgrade and might not have options like they did in the past.

“We need to make sure we’re open to anything they need to have done,” he says, “mainly due to guys saying ‘Well, my rig had this and I really liked it’—well, okay, we’ll figure out how to make that happen on this one type of thing.”

The core group at Patriot Rigs is relatively young, but as a group they have more than 50 years of combined experience designing, manufacturing, and servicing drill rigs and equipment for the water well industry.

“Our inspiration comes from the water well community,” Sim shares. “From meeting their families at trade shows, learning about their challenges in their business and their equipment, and wanting to use our skill set to build a company that they can partner with to economically provide high-quality drilling rigs, rig refurbishments, parts, and services.”

Adds Sickler: “We’ve always known how hardworking, smart, welcoming, and willing to help the water well industry is, but each day you become more and more surprised as to how true that is. It really is a great industry.”


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.