Twenty Years and Counting!

The columnist reflects on writing 240 consecutive columns.

By Ed Butts, PE, CPI

The first Engineering Your Business debuted in the October 2001 issue.

Please allow me to slightly deviate from the columns you usually read in this space each month to celebrate a little and fondly recognize an anniversary of sorts. After doing the math, I realized this is the 240th consecutive edition of
Engineering Your Business, or EYB as I call it, which, at 12 columns per year, translates to 20 complete and uninterrupted years or 240 columns!

Although I sporadically wrote for the Water Well Journal during the early 1980s, for all intents and purposes, I regard the period beginning in and after 2001 as my main contribution. Throughout the years it has been my privilege to write this column, along with The Water Works, which, since it started several years after the start of EYB, and is published only four times per year, is well behind this column at only 47 published columns. Both columns are written for what I regard as the premier publication of the water well profession: the Water Well Journal.

This column began and has continued in the hope I could convey some of my opinions, experiences, and knowledge as well as learn in return from you—the readers. On balance, I wish to state that whatever you think you may have learned from me through my writing has been returned several times over by what I have learned from you.

When this column was initially published in October 2001, the month after the infamous September 11 event, I had no idea or concept I would still be writing it 20 full years later to this month’s No. 240 column. For me, as time has passed, it was an opportunity to maintain and continue my involvement and participation in the water well industry, even as I knew I would eventually slow down actually participating in many of the other activities I enjoy, such as basketball.

The column has changed its appearance on occasion through the years.

This column will be a fond look back on a few of the topics I have written about, the many changes that have occurred over the years, and my future plans.

First, a Few Statistics

Computers, aren’t they wonderful?

Since the beginning, I have written and stored every single edition of Engineering Your Business and The Water Works on a computer and hard drive. Most of these have been written from the computer I work with at home while a few were penned at my former office. Now that my home doubles for my office, they are all written at home. Although the hardware has changed and been upgraded a few times over the years, the folders of every single year and article have passed between the computers. This provides an easy and rapid way to determine the number of words and topics that have been written.

As of last month’s installment, the total number of words totals 644,758. That’s an average of 2698 words per column, considerably more than the original target of 1500 words per column! When I originally proposed this column to Jill Ross, editor of WWJ at the time, I stated my intent was to mix in and try to balance columns about engineering and technical-related topics with business-related themes. Thus, the title of Engineering Your Business was created.

As of this month, out of 240, I have penned 143 engineering and technical-related columns with 97 business-related topics. Although that might seem to be a little short of my original plan, it tends to match my actual level of engineering and technical knowledge and experience versus my strict business-related experience.

Looking Back

When I began writing EYB in 2001, I was 43 years old, working as president and chief engineer of a mid-sized water well, pump installation, and construction firm called Stettler Co., where, except for a brief six-month work venture to Alaska, I had worked since 1976.

Our firm was involved in numerous and diverse design-build and contract public and private water and wastewater projects, which included wells, pump stations, water storage reservoirs, pipelines, and treatment plants. We had a staff of 26 which included engineers, field technicians, pump installers, well drillers, shop and delivery personnel, and bookkeeping and secretarial staff. The columns during the initial years between 2001 to 2004 were largely oriented around the projects we were involved with and my experiences as a former well driller, field technician, and pump installer between 1974-1982.

By 2004, however, the daily grind of running the firm started to catch up with me and, with my wife’s prodding, I realized that design, engineering, and project management was my true passion and selected vocation. Thus, I sold Stettler, and with my daughter, Brooke, son in college, Adam, and wife, JoAnne, began 4B Engineering. After 17 years, we are still in business, I am now a 63-year-old fossil who has gone through a broken leg, heart and gall bladder surgery, and endless back problems, but still looking forward to retirement. My daughter has reached middle age and is going to college to become an engineer, my son became an electrical engineer and moved to Denver, Colorado, with his family, but I am still married to the same woman from 1978! All in all, about the same, wouldn’t you agree?

When I look back on the past 20 years, the one thing that strikes me the most is the revolution and evolution in technically related products in our daily personal and professional lives, not to mention the ability we now possess to find anyone throughout the world, which impacts everything in our lives. In 2001, the Internet was mainly in its infancy and had to be accessed using a home or business computer with most of its use relegated to email, word processing, plus a few websites. Look at the changes in just 20 years. We now have unfettered access to not just the Internet, but unlimited email, TV, face-to-face Zoom meetings, podcasts, and uncountable websites—from anywhere in the world—all just from our phones!

Many individuals, myself included, have largely abandoned our landlines and exclusively use our iPhones for both business and personal use. Although they are extremely convenient, allow us to contact and converse verbally and visually with practically anyone in the world, and have become an almost indispensable item in our pockets or purses, I often wonder if we unwittingly traded this convenience for the sacrifice of intimacy and interaction we once enjoyed with personal contact. What do you think? Certainly, this technical revolution hasn’t bypassed the water well industry. This can be expressed in the many advances in electronics used for motor control, water system operation, and even well drilling itself.

Since I practice in electrical and control system engineering, in addition to civil and environmental engineering, I must endeavor to keep track of the advancements in electronics and electrical controls. To me, the primary changes affecting those of us in the water well and pump industry involve the increased use of variable frequency drives (VFDs), permanent magnet motors, microprocessors and programmable logic controllers, and sonic drilling techniques.

Today, VFDs are now seemingly used everywhere, but in 2001 their use, due to their at the time complexity and expense, was primarily limited to larger municipal and industrial motor applications. Now they are even available, economical, and commonly used for residential and smaller commercial water system applications to provide constant pressure water service.

As VFD technology improves, this trend will undoubtedly continue and memristors will most likely become the component of choice for future VFDs. Memristors are the fourth generation of passive circuit elements, linking the electrical charge and magnetic flux together. They have been hypothesized to ultimately replace silicon controlled rectifiers (SCRs) that are currently used in most VFDs. Memristors will likely be able to operate for more than 30 years, but they were not fabricated until 2008 by Hewlett-Packard and are presently not commercially available in large quantities.

Although many in our business are cognizant of their energy-saving characteristics and now regularly use VFDs for many water system applications, the recognition and accelerated use of permanent magnet motors is just beginning. A permanent magnet motor (PMM) is an AC motor that uses magnets imbedded into or attached to the surface of the motor’s rotor. The magnets are used to generate a constant motor flux instead of requiring the stator field to generate one by linking to the rotor, as is the case with an induction motor. PMMs are designed for and must operate with a VFD. A permanent magnet motor is more energy efficient than a conventional AC inductive motor. Therefore, it will deliver more power from the same physical size.

When a PMM is used, the increase gained in combined VFD and motor efficiency can result in an additional 7% to 10% decrease in HP to HP energy consumption over comparable NEMA Premium Efficiency motors equipped with conventional VFDs. This makes them an excellent choice when rising electrical costs must be factored into a motor decision. With a higher power concentration per foot of length, it is also shorter and lighter than conventional submersible motors while still delivering the same level of power.

This makes the PMM ideal for many water well applications as they provide higher rated horsepower in smaller motor diameters than conventional induction submersible motors, allowing their use in wells that could not have previously accommodated the larger HP. This, plus their ability to maintain full torque at low speeds, is an additional feature,  important for many low-speed pumping applications.

They are currently very popular, available from several U.S. and international manufacturers, and are widely used with many types of vertical pump applications. PMMs can handle loads up to 4000 HP at rotational speeds up to 3600 RPM. Franklin Electric, Grundfos, Sun, and Flowserve (Pleuger) are a few of the submersible motor manufacturers that now offer permanent magnet motors. They are available in various HP sizes and ranges, including 4-inch through 8-inch diameter in NEMA and non-NEMA rated submersible motor fits for oil well, water well, and solar water pumping service as well as an additional use in circulating and general-purpose pumping equipment. Thus, their use in water well applications is expected to increase.

Microprocessors and programmable logic controllers (PLCs) are being used in ever increasing numbers for motor and water system control than in 2001. Not only has the cost for a comparable PLC drastically declined over the past 20 years, the reduction in physical size, the ease and flexibility in programming by using onboard keypad entries, and versatility and range of inputs and outputs has allowed the use of PLCs where conventional hardwired relay logic would have been the preferred method in 2001.

In 2001, most available PLCs were largely limited to digital or discrete input and output (I/O) with AC voltage inputs. This meant the designer would have to use either a specialized module or an interface device to provide an analog, high speed counter, thermal, or in some cases, a DC input or output. In addition, many earlier PLCs used a proprietary or unusual programming language that was difficult to grasp and understand by many electricians and non-programming individuals.

Most PLCs can now be programmed to operate using ladder logic, a common and conventional programming language that is easy to use, and most electricians understand. The PLC ladder logic style of programming is geared toward highspeed simple decision making and this is where it shines. PLC control systems have come a long way from simply operating on discrete AC powered I/Os. As the cost continues to drop and more people incorporate their use into water system control, the popularity of PLCs will continue to grow.

Sonic drilling is the final major technical advancement I am citing. Sonic is an advanced form of drilling which employs the use of high-frequency, resonant energy generated inside the sonic head to advance a core barrel or casing into subsurface formations.

During drilling, the resonant energy is transferred down the drill string to the bit face at various frequencies. Simultaneously rotating the drill string evenly distributes the energy and impact at the bit face. Sonic drilling has found widespread use in soil sampling and core drilling, plus is being used in increasing frequency for water well drilling. I have used this method extensively for test and production wells during the past decade and I expect it will continue in popularity and use considerably during the next 20 years.

Looking Forward

After writing 240 columns you would think I might be out of ideas. Although I admit it occasionally becomes tough to find a timely topic I haven’t written about before (FYI, I have repeated a few topics, but I used the excuse of calling them updates), there are still many topics and themes left to explore, so I am not done yet! I intend to continue to write this column and The Water Works as long as you and Thad Plumley will let me.

In fact, while mulling over this column, I thought about the many times readers have reached out to me for advice, seek my opinion, to offer their opinion, and, even, hired me to conduct engineering work for them. I wish to sincerely state that I appreciate your input, suggestions, and yes, even criticism. The interactions I have had with readers across the country and throughout the world makes this an enjoyable experience that I would truly miss if I stopped. That said, I am going to introduce a new theme for future columns.

As most of you know, I have 47 years of experience in the water well industry, having started at the tender age of 16. My first eight years were dedicated to water well drilling and the installation of pumping systems, with the last 39 years involved in water system design and project management. Without trying to be arrogant or self-serving, I honestly believe there are many of my past experiences in both engineering and field work I can share. There may even be topics I can relate that will either help you out or prevent you from making the same mistake I made. This was one of my reasons for writing columns on horror war stories.

Thus, I am planning on occasionally writing a column highlighting (or lowlighting) my experience with one of my past projects, installations, jobs, or wells with a direct relationship to the water well industry. This will make you safe from hearing about my few conquests in wastewater and sewage!

Although I have shared some of my experiences in past EYBs, this will be tailored to outlining the more unusual or detailed aspects of an experience or project. I hope they will be of interest and you will enjoy them. As always, if you have a suggestion for a column or simply wish to send me an email with an idea, complaint, request, or anything else, please feel free to do so.

Until next month, work safe and smart.

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 epbpe@juno.com.