By Jeri Lamerton, Principal and Consultant, Lamerton Strategic Communications
In the 1970’s, horizontal directional drilling (HDD) was a lot of trial and error. It was new territory, successful only because of the grit and determination of a few early pioneers. Today, the industry has had more than 40 years to perfect the process. Technological innovations have improved performance while decades of experience has led to best practices universally accepted by underground professionals. Why then, is drilling fluid still getting short-changed?
“I’m surprised at the number of operators who take chances with their jobs by ignoring best practices when it comes to mud,” says Joseph “Jody” Parrish, HDD Division Manager for ARB Underground in Lake Forest, California. “They’re taking big risks with their equipment and jobs.”
Parrish has 37 years of industry experience to back up his statement. He’s worked internationally, through some of the toughest conditions imaginable including an earthquake and the Artic in the winter. In 2009, he even headed up the longest underground bore project in Ecuador at the time.
“We don’t cut corners when it comes to drilling fluid,” he says. “It’s an easy way to manage risk.”
Like other HDD professionals, Parrish points out that drilling fluids help stabilize the borehole, suspend cuttings and carry them out of the hole much better than water alone. Without it, equipment can be damaged, boring efficiency is compromised, and the risk of frac-outs and other damage to the site is greatly increased. Unfortunately, the expense and perceived hassle of “doing it right” keeps some from following best practices. They routinely break four drilling fluid rules, perhaps not realizing the risks they are taking.
Designate a Mud Man
One common mistake HDD operators can make is not having a trained crewmember in charge of drilling fluid. It seems harmless to send a laborer to “top it off” when mud is running low, but this can actually sabotage your drilling progress.
In a typical bore, fluid returns are about 20 percent solids at any given point. Incorrectly mixed mud – that “topped off” by someone who doesn’t know what they are doing – runs a high risk of actually putting solids back into the hole, undoing any progress you’ve made. These additional solids can clog the annulus, wear out pump parts, cause a loss of torque, and causes an increase in torque and pullback pressures. This results in drill pipe getting stuck down hole and even lead to inadvertent returns.
Have a Mud Engineer on Site
A mud engineer works hand-in-hand with a trained mud man. Often hired from a drilling fluid manufacturer, the mud engineer checks the fluid every hour or so, making sure the recycler is working correctly and the mud mix is still maximized for current conditions.
“A mud engineer knows the fluid,” says Wyo-Ben’s Tyson Smith, who has worked as a mud engineer on many of Parrish’s jobs. “We monitor the mud’s efficiency and make adjustments on-site so you can get the most performance out of your drill. For example, if an operator is experiencing a high amount of fluid loss, a mud engineer will know the correct polymer to add to the mix to solve the problem and keep the job running smoothly.”
Don’t Skimp on Your Mix
Some operators will “save money” by not using the proper fluid mix. For example, they skip adding soda ash to their make-up water. Soda ash lowers water’s hardness and increases its pH value to the levels needed for effective drilling fluid performance. Unfortunately, not adding soda ash to your water means you might need to use up to 50 percent more bentonite in your mix. With the cost of soda ash versus bentonite, this “money-saving” move actually costs more.
Costs can really add up when you “save money” by skipping other additives as well. Geotechnical conditions, not budgetary concerns, should always mandate what mix of drilling fluid to use. Without the proper mix, your equipment is working harder than it has to. This not only slows drilling, it increases the wear and tear on your tools and equipment, decreasing service life and causing breakdowns.
“The maintenance costs, replacement costs, and job shut-down costs should be enough to get people to use the proper mix,” Parrish says. “You pay to add something like Uni-Drill to your mud, but you always get your money’s worth when you consider the costs of not using it.”
Parrish’s example – Uni-Drill – is a Wyo-Ben product that conditions drilling fluids to control fluid loss, prevent formation clays from swelling, and keep tools clean by preventing bit balling. The additive helps build viscosity and reduces drag and torque, helping your down-hole tools do their job more efficiently and effectively.
“Think of it as insurance,” Smith says, who cautions against using bentonite without the proper additives. “There are many great additives on the market for every condition you will encounter. Using the right product will increase the effectiveness of your fluid and save you money and heartache down the line.”
Don’t Overuse Your Mud
Some operators use mud far beyond its effectiveness. Reasons include the cost of disposal, the cost and hassle of mixing new mud and – to be honest – laziness. The problem is that when mud gets too heavy, it loses flow properties. This means you’re not getting cuttings back out of the hole like you should, which can lead to a variety of problems and delays including inadvertent returns.
According to Parrish, 10 pounds is the rule at ARB Underground. Once the mud reaches this weight, they dispose of the mud and the on-site mud engineer determines the proper mix for a new batch.
In the end, cutting corners simply doesn’t pay. With all that can go wrong on a jobsite, from equipment failure to hole collapses and more, “saving” on your mud can end up costing you instead.
“I’ve heard that doing mud right is just too messy and expensive,” says Parrish. “But what’s really messy and expensive is having to tell the DOT you’ve buckled their highway because you didn’t have the right mix of drilling fluid. Think about it.”