The Most Important Drilling Advancement You’ve Seen

A Facebook poll reveals a snapshot from industry professionals.

By Stuart A. Smith, CGWP

I’m a qualified hydrogeologist involved with drilling for some decades, and even helped to write the 1992 Australian Drilling Manual, its successor Drilling, the NGWA’s updated Manual of Water Well Construction Practices, and some other contributions.

Since 2018, I’ve been a water well contractor in Tanzania, but that is not the same as being a driller by a long shot.

So, when I was asked in September’s WWJ Closeup, “What is the most important drilling advancement you’ve seen in your professional career?” I thought I’d ask the men and women on the Water Well Guys Facebook Group for their views on what was most important over the last 40 years.

For younger readers, Baroid’s EZ-Mud and other bentonitepolymer mixes were new when I started. There were no polycrystalline diamond compact (PDC) drill bits, and shale shakers/Mud Slayers were rare except on big holes.

Here are the responses summarized:

  • Before I get to the others in the group, I’ll give you mine. I thought of technology first, with air rotary casing advancement with our Tanzania crew. In Tanzania, we deal with big voids in basalt and metamorphics. Also (and this won’t be popular here in the United States) the availability of great drilling rig and tool packages worldwide (some really good rigs from India, for example, much to my surprise).
  • Casing advancement for air rotary drilling. Note that cable tool is casing advancement for that last 200-plus years. (Craig Williams, Hunter Snelling)
  • Better mud chemistry and polymers “have completely changed the way we drill.” (Wayne Nash, Rannie Williamson, Lyle Sharp)
  • PDC bits. (Wayne Nash, Lyle Sharp)
  • Advancements in large air compressors. They have much higher volume and pressure screw compressors. (Rannie Williamson, Jay Gallagher, Phillip Paul)
  • Larger drill rod and better bit technology. (Rannie Williamson)
  • Sonic drilling. (Clint Wilson)
    Me: We love sonic test drilling, but municipal clients and engineers are reluctant to pay for information and would rather take their chances. They then wonder why it’s a 200 gpm well instead of 1000. Cable tool and auger with drive coring give us good test borehole
    samples in sand and gravel. In rock, proper air drilling technique is a reliable substitute.
  • Dual rotary. (Clint Wilson, Dan O’Keefe)
  • Plastic casing. (Brian Kemp, Phillip Paul)
    Me: PVC casing has really made installing borehole wells in remote areas much easier and eliminates biocorrosion everywhere. Yes, we know the limits of PVC application. A real issue in the developing world is the availability and supply of good, quality PVC casing, and
    an over-reliance on slotted screen.
  • Hydrofracturing. “Without it we would drill dry or marginal wells every day just like we used to prior to 1985. While it’s not for every type of formation, hydrofracturing has become a great tool for drillers in consolidated formations.” (Roger D. Lang, Jim McDonald)
    Me: I co-wrote An Introduction to Water Well Hydrofracturing (NGWA Press).
  • Safety technology. Break out systems, rod loading, safety documentation, and expectations. (Brock Yordy)
  • Information technology. “The greatest advance is right in front of you—it’s 21st century technology. Cellphones, GPS, internet at the palm of your hands, video conferencing in hand, social media forums, and text messages—the fact that you don’t have to go at it alone.” (Brock Yordy)
    Me: We certainly have numerous great reference texts, websites, the ability to search for technical information, and even YouTube how-to’s. While in Ohio, I chat and swap information, photos, and videos with my partner in Tanzania, so I’m directly involved in our operation there even when I’m home. I can collaborate with people in Ireland or Australia. Now online training is about to explode to supplement face-to-face education. Everyone with a mobile device knows it is both a blessing and a curse.
    The cellphone. (Jay Gallagher, Phillip Paul)
    Me: I have to chuckle a little. When Nextel was first a thing (remember that?) it seemed like our big company drillers were on that vs. focusing on the task at hand, or the sales engineer was pressuring them to get done with that hole. In Tanzania, we have good cell service where there is no water or toilets. At a drill site, there would be a spot on the hill where this cell service worked, and another for that cell service, but most of Tanzania is 4G now. I interface with my partner and project manager by WhatsApp. It’s really been different in just the last 10 years.
  • Access to nearby logs on a map online. “It’s a lot easier to know what to expect now than it was 20 years ago. We also use our own well database in Google Earth almost daily.” (Kenny Kemp)
    Me: It is so much better to use interactive maps online than driving to the state well log repository and hunting through that.

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Add these to many other advances in the industry, such as the radically improved state of well rehabilitation and acknowledgment of the need to well maintenance in the last 20-30 years, and a variety of instrumentation. Some techniques and practices that are tried and true and should be preserved and brought forward to new generations. That might be a story for another day.


Stuart A. Smith

Stuart A. Smith, CGWP, hydrogeologist, is a partner in Smith-Comeskey Ground Water Science LLC in Poland, Ohio, and Ground+Water Tanzania Ltd. in Dodoma, Tanzania. He has more than 40 years of experience in the application of research, analysis, training, and consulting related to groundwater and wells, with a focus on efficient and cost-effective analysis and rehabilitation of well problems, and well and wellfield asset management. Smith can be reached at stuart@groundwaterscience.com.