The Undeniable Importance of Schoolin’

Learning involves gaining knowledge in a variety of methods.

By Ed Butts, PE, CPI

What is schoolin’? To me, schoolin’ is an informal term describing anything and everything that improves or enhances a person’s ability to do a task, a job, or function.

It can be formal education, seminars, factory-training sessions, apprenticeships, correspondence courses, online webinars, or extension courses at the local community college. Schoolin’ also includes self-study, attending short courses, reading trade journals, visiting trade shows, and the knowledge gained from simple basic experience.

As you can see, schoolin’ to me isn’t simply sitting in a classroom and listening to a professor espouse on how to do something he may have never done himself. It’s everything I listed and much more. This month, I want to discuss the various forms of schoolin’ available to those in the water well industry and the best way to take advantage of it.

The Art of Learning

I know the term schoolin’ is a crude way of saying “schooling,” but that is for a reason. I think the implication of schooling, or worse yet, the word “education” is too limiting and does not fully reflect the many avenues open to all of us. In fact, I think the most accurate term we should be using is “learning.”

Learning includes the various methods and ways we assimilate and apply the other important term: “knowledge.” After all, knowledge is gained daily, whether through formal study or the mistakes and successes we have in our daily lives.

A few years ago, I wrote a column in Water Well Journal’s December 2018 issue titled “Book Smarts vs. Street Smarts.” In it, I wrote:

The stereotype of a book-smart person is someone who deals with ordinary but challenging situations (especially bad or difficult ones) only from an intellectual point of view by basing their decisions strictly on available facts, accumulated knowledge, or personal insights primarily obtained from an educational environment.

The stereotype of a street-smart person is someone who knows how to handle practical situations in everyday life necessary to “get things done” but is not as inherently educated or gifted academically.

However, in today’s world of microcomputers and iPhones, the truly schooled individual must combine the aspects of street smarts and book smarts to succeed. I have been fortunate in my career to have had the opportunity to benefit from formal education while expanding my knowledge and ability through practical experience.

I had instruction from intelligent professors and teacher assistants who could cite theory and equations all day long in calculus, physics, and material science, helping provide me the knowledge I had to attain to become a professional engineer. But my most meaningful and life-long training was obtained from several well drillers and pump installers who taught me the ins and outs of drilling a successful well or installing a long-lasting water system.

These individuals such as Marion West, Gene Byce, and Mike Waldroop taught me the basics and shaped my earliest years while also allowing me to expand upon those basics by constructing wells and water systems “my way.”

This first decade of my career working on wells and installing water systems ultimately led into the formal education element of my life that subsequently led to becoming a professional engineer. Several individuals including Jim Grimm, Bill Light, and Bill Tebeau were instrumental in instructing and mentoring me in engineering.

The next four decades of my career have been filled with the design and construction management of numerous water wells, pumping systems, and other civil works. But whenever I designed a wellhead or a pressure tank installation in my design career, I still recalled the times—perhaps 30 years earlier—when I faced challenges such as an installation without a union at the well, no isolation valve under a pressure switch, or lack of an isolation valve and drain at a failed tank on a multiple-tank installation and the frustration I felt having to cut the pipe or shut down and drain the entire system to simply replace a pressure switch or tank.

These experiences helped me become a better engineer by making sure these elements were included on my water system design. Did this knowledge come from my formal education? Not whatsoever! None of my civil engineering professors could possibly have known of these important, but miniscule, steps towards building a successful water system installation.

This knowledge is the direct result of my personal training that allows me to apply my past experiences towards a better design, which in turn led to a better final product. This is another way of expressing the “means and methods” principle involved when education is combined with functional experience.

Obtaining the Educational Aspect

It is almost impossible to succeed in today’s world without some level of a basic education in your chosen profession.

There are two primary elements of formal education that cannot be easily supplanted by experience alone: theory and governmental regulations.

Theory goes beyond the simplistic understanding that a cable tool drill bit travels up and down while a rotary drill bit rotates in a circle. Actually, theory as it relates to the daily tasks we perform can provide you with the basic knowledge of geology, feasible aquifers, proper sanitary sealing techniques, pump and pressure tank sizing, electrical theory, and the other universal aspects of water well drilling and pump installation needed to advance your knowledge in the profession.

These fundamental aspects of the business uniformly apply throughout the world, with minor variations to fit specific local geology or practices. In 1974, my first year in the water well industry, I was fortunate to be able to learn many of these basic tenets from one of the first correspondence courses offered by what was then the National Water Well Association (NWWA, and now the National Ground Water Association).

The course was simply titled “Introduction to Water Well Drilling” and introduced me to aspects of the water well industry I had previously no knowledge of, even though I had been exposed to the business my entire life.

It was a simple and easy way to indoctrinate myself to the fundamentals of water well drilling and the industry. Later, I enthusiastically took other courses offered by the NWWA, including “Domestic Water Supply Planning” and “Water Systems Technology.”

When combined with my ever-increasing experience, I was able to apply much of what I had learned from these courses in both the construction and the design of water wells and water system installation.

I am not ashamed to say there was nothing I gained from my subsequent engineering education or seminars that ever rivaled the knowledge of wells and water systems I obtained from those first correspondence courses. In my opinion, this type of semi-formal education—whether from NGWA, a
recognized community college, or a state-sponsored agency—should be the introductory training for all who decide to enter the water well profession.

The other aspect of the business I believe must come from education is the regulatory aspect. Although much of the impact from regulatory rules and codes can be inherently learned from unfavorable outcomes, including the use of improper casing or sealing techniques, it is generally better to understand the limitations associated with well construction and pump installation codes first than to pick them up the hard way, which can come with real costs and losses involved.

The regulatory element of water well and water system construction cannot be generalized into a one-size-fits-all mentality or learned from osmosis. There are as many versions of these codes as there are states with many local jurisdictions offering their own unique set of rules as supplementally enforced rules. In whatever method necessary, each contractor should read and understand the statutes, rules, and codes as they apply to their work and region and understand the reasons for the rules and the implications of not adhering to them.

Obtaining the Intangible Education

Now that I’ve outlined the educational aspect of water well and pump work, there is still one remaining facet of learning the water well and pump installation trades that cannot be ignored—the intangible but practical aspect.

All the seminars, training sessions, and factory schools cannot invalidate or replace the training and experience involved and gained in actually doing the work.

Learning the ins and outs of pump and motor theory is undoubtedly needed in today’s rapidly expanding technological world, but those who don’t take advantage of the institutional memory and experience of their mentors are ignoring a prime and crucial element of their overall education.

There are three unique tasks that immediately come to mind as practical examples: drilling the well, welding, pump or drilling tool fishing.


As with many of my generation, my introduction into the water well industry came at the foot of my father. When he began, he was strictly a cable tool driller, although he later migrated to mud and air rotary. I was fortunate to observe him using all these methods.

I was able to watch his reaction to a change of formation simply by the “feel” of the drilling line with cable tool drilling or from the change of the formation color or penetration rate with mud or air rotary. These are critical, but often ignored, parts of everyone’s education in water well drilling that cannot be simply expressed in a book.


The second practical element is welding. Pipe welding, whether well casing or pressurized pipe, is a learned art and science—one that often takes years to perfect, if that ever happens.

I was taught the basics of arc welding using conventional stick methods using a 225-amp, Lincoln buzz box in my high school shop class. Do you remember the good old 6013 and 6011 rods? This was the class where we all stood in separate booths and welded the edges of two flat plates together. Even though I could lay down some good-looking beads that enabled me to garner an “A” in the class, I quickly learned just how inferior my early welds were to those necessary to withstand the constant shock and stress from driving well casing through a stubborn formation.

Although we were taught the strict fundamentals of arc welding, my shop teacher never mentioned the importance of proper gapping of joints, the right amperage to use for the rod size and material and need for full penetration, or to properly preheat a surface before welding.

This is a prime example where the knowledge gained from formal instruction was inadequate for real-world applications. This realization required many more hours of practice before I was ever allowed to perform a weld on an actual well.

Many of the newer members of our profession now work with wire feed as well as stick methods. Even though this presumably speeds up the process, I have my doubts as to if this results in a superior final product.


The final element of practical experience that cannot be replaced by any measure of formal education is fishing of drilling tools or lost pumps.

I can definitely speak from direct experience with this topic. During my career, I have either been involved with or in direct control of 18 fishing projects. Five or six involved fishing for cable tool or rotary drilling tools or rods, while the balance involved broken or lost pumps or bowl assemblies, column or drop pipe, and line shaft or drop cable.

Every fishing expedition I was involved with required a different approach, fishing tools, or size of pulling equipment that necessitated careful thought and consideration.

During my earliest years—that is, before the advent and availability of downhole video cameras—we had to take a more forensic but unseen approach by using impression blocks and downhole well reconnaissance to determine if the upper part of the fishing target’s threads were stripped or if the target was leaning against or below the well casing or pointed upwards in the center of the borehole.

This usually required the fervent use of our imagination as well as the results of target testing. The fishing process itself usually included some fabricated trial-and-error tools and methods such as taper or spiral taps, spears, latch traps, wall hooks, or overshots to engage onto the exposed attachment point, and various powered methods of extraction including pump hoists, cranes, or hydraulic jacks that would depend on the degree of impingement. We also had to decide if the tool engagement was to be permanent, or if we needed to add a means to disengage from the target to attempt a different approach.

None of these considerations were cited in any reference manual or textbook I ever found. Each of us developed the means and methods necessary to retrieve the equipment by fitting the conditions we faced in the well and then using the most practical and expeditious manner possible.

Because of this, I am now concerned that most of the accumulated institutional memory and past experience that went into fishing out these various pieces of equipment from wells may be permanently lost when those of us who can remember how to do it—and most importantly, how not to do it—are no longer here.

In fact, one of my greatest fears is younger members of our profession may not get to experience the teamwork building in deciding how to fish out and create the tool for retrieving a lost pump or drilling tool, the apprehension of latching onto and fishing out the stuck pump, or the exhilaration that occurs when that lost pump finally clears the wellhead.

This means we old-timers need to show the young bucks how to perform these rapidly diminishing arts for events we all know will eventually happen in their future just as they did to us.

Gain Knowledge Through Reading

Lastly, I want to add not to underestimate the importance of knowledge gained through reading trade journals, such as WWJ. Those who say they’re simply too busy to seek out education in a formal setting would most likely still have the time to peruse and gain something from any edition of WWJ.

Many can learn from the many individuals who are willing to share their experiences and knowledge base to improve your working environment. Look upon these journals as opportunities to advance your personal base of learning and knowledge and not just as another magazine you flip through.

In my opinion, this is the best way to combine the necessary technical book knowledge with the same degree and importance of practical experience. It’s the surest way to obtain just the right amount of schoolin’ for any water well professional.

Until next month, work safe and smart.

NGWA University Provides the Education You Need
Go to the new online learning platform of the National Ground Water Association to learn the groundwater industry from the comfort of your home or office. The site features hundreds of hours of online and on-demand educational classes, production demonstrations, videos, and state-certification training. Click here to learn more about NGWA University.
Learn How to Engineer Success for Your Business
 Engineering Your Business: A series of articles serving as a guide to the groundwater business is a compilation of works from long-time Water Well Journal columnist Ed Butts, PE, CPI. Click here for more information.

Ed Butts, PE, CPI, is the chief engineer at 4B Engineering & Consulting, Salem, Oregon. He has more than 40 years of experience in the water well business, specializing in engineering and business management. He can be reached at