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    Making sense of HDD drilling fluids


    Why drilling fluid is essential to HDD and the mixing process

    Drilling fluids are the secret sauce on horizontal directional drilling (HDD) jobs. Drilling fluids can also be one of the most misunderstood aspects of drilling operations. Every member of your crew working around drilling operations should understand what drilling fluid is, how to mix it, the type of additives they should use for various soil conditions, how to determine pumping and pullback rates, as well as how to make adjustments on the job.

    This series of short articles will help take some of the mystery out of drilling fluids, beginning with why it is essential to HDD operations and ways to mix it.

    Why drilling fluid is important
    Here are a few of the reasons drilling fluids are used on HDD projects:

    ·  Helps extract cuttings: Failure to remove cuttings from the bore path can result in inadvertent returns (frac-out), limit distance length the drill can pilot bore, heave ground surfaces above the drill head and lead to product pullback failures.

    ·  Creates downhole stability: Drilling fluid helps the drill path keep its shape during the drilling process. Using the right type of fluid additive is also important to help a drilled hole maintain its shape when working in different soil types (drilling in sand for example).

    ·  Cools and lubricates tooling: Downhole tooling temperatures can rise quickly without the use of drilling fluids. Drill head temperatures rising above 220° Fahrenheit will permanently damage the transmitter that gives critical depth and pitch data. Drilling fluids also help keep tooling clean and reduce pullback/rotational torque pressures required to pilot out and pull product back through. 

    Drilling fluid viscosity
    You’ve now learned why using drilling fluid is essential, but it's also necessary to understand having the right viscosity (thickness) of drilling fluid.

    Drilling fluid that is too thin or light can limit the amount of cutting returns. You may still get the majority of returns, but heavier cuttings can sink to the bottom of the bore (creating a cuttings bed) and not be flushed out. After a while, this cuttings bed can create return flow issues during the rest of the drilling process (which can result in excessive product stress and inadvertent returns).

    Drilling fluid that is too thick can result in additional downhole pressure to get fluid to flow and eventually lead to inadvertent returns. Fluids follow the path of least resistance, and if the fluid is too thick — that direction is typically towards the surface.

    To check that you have the right viscosity, it’s important to measure it every time you mix up a batch of drilling fluid. You will need a Marsh funnel and cup, following these steps.

    1.  Start by filling your cup up to the fill line with drilling fluid.

    2.  Next, plug the hole in the bottom of your funnel with your finger and pour the fluid through the funnel’s screen (ensure you are wearing proper safety gloves).

    3.   There shouldn’t be any clumps of material left behind on the screen. If there is, your drilling fluid is likely not mixed correctly or fully hydrated (more on that next). Repeat until drilling fluid crests the top fill line (just under the screen) of your Marsh funnel.

    4.  Now, place the empty cup below the funnel and start a stopwatch as you remove your finger from the bottom of the funnel. You want to stop counting when the drilling fluid crests the top fill line (32 oz [.9 kg]) of your cup. This number is your drilling fluid viscosity measurement.

    You should aim for a viscosity rate of between 45 and 60 seconds for most drilling applications.

    Mixing processAlways make sure the person assigned to drilling fluid mixing is fully trained on the proper steps.

    On every new job, you should check pH levels from your water source. Drilling fluid additives (bentonite and polymers) mix better with a pH level range between 8 to 9. Municipal water will typically measure around that range. However, if you’re using water from a pond or well, the pH level will likely fall below that range. Adding soda ash will help raise the pH levels and help you use less drilling fluid products.

    When you’re ready to mix your additives with the water, powders like bentonite must be added to the hopper and liquids should be poured directly into the tank.

    Every Vermeer fluid mixing system is equipped with a bag cutter next to the hopper. Use it to split and empty the whole bag into the hopper at once. Doing it this way, instead of cutting it with a knife and slowly sifting material into the hopper, will help reduce dust levels and help prevent air from getting into the system.

    When adding bentonite, make sure it’s sent through the venturi and hopper at full throttle. You want to get the maximum implosion through the venturi to mix the product well. After enough bags of bentonite are added, keep product mixing through the venturi for approximately 10 minutes until it’s thoroughly broken up and hydrated.

    If you plan to add a polymer, you’ll need to wait until the bentonite is completely mixed (10 minutes). Adding a polymer too soon or out of sequence can cause the bentonite to ball up in the tank rendering it ineffective.

    The final step is to check the drilling fluid viscosity. If it's too thick, add additional water or thinners; if it is too thin, add more drilling fluid additives.

    A few housekeeping notes
    Mixing drilling fluid doesn’t have to be a messy job. Make sure you’re cleaning your mixing system’s hopper and venturi regularly to help prevent clogs. Also, make sure you’re washing your tank often. If there is polymer residue left in the tank when you go to mix up your next batch of drilling fluid, you could end up with small balled-up clumps of bentonite in your tank.

    Future articles of “Making sense of HDD drilling fluids” will cover the steps to calculate reamer pullback drill rates and explain the different types of drilling fluid additives available. For more information about drilling fluid mixing or the MUD hub, reach out to your local dealer, or visit Vermeer.com. 

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    How to plan and mix your best HDD drilling fluid


    Operating a horizontal directional drill (HDD) is a bit of an art, but it takes science to be successful. Science is at the heart of the drilling fluid that runs through the drill string, helping to ensure downhole stability while cooling and lubricating tooling, as well as helping extract cuttings.

    Do you and your drilling crews understand the science involved with mixing drilling fluids?

    Why drilling fluid matters
    Whether you specialize in fiberoptics, gas, electrical, water or larger pipeline installations, using the right type and the right amount of drilling fluid needs to be part of the planning process. Drilling fluid additives provide critical filtration and suspension characteristics allowing for today’s longer and larger bores to be completed. Without these very important characteristics, you risk inadvertent returns (frac-outs), heaving ground surfaces and pullback failures.

    Drilling fluid additives The first step in your planning process is to understand the soil conditions you will be working in. The conditions tell you what type of additives you need. For example, in non-reactive clay, you will likely only need a mixture of bentonite, which produces needed cutting carrying capacity to flush the bore hole, and a lubricant to keep soil from sticking and bit balling to your tooling. However, when you’re working in reactive clay, sand or cobble, you will need a polymer additive.

    There are several types of polymer additives to choose from, each engineered to help you deal with specific soil conditions. PAC polymers are typically added to a bentonite mixture to help provide secondary filtration control (sands and cobbles). In formations with high concentrations of reactive clays, PHPA polymers are used in place of bentonite. PHPA polymers prevent clay from swelling by wrapping itself around the clay. A larger molecular weighted polymer is a good match for cobble and rocky conditions because it acts as a suspension aid and helps create a stable bore path and assists with extracting larger cuttings from the bore path.

    If you’re not sure about the soil conditions you’re going to be working in or if you have questions about which mixing additives you should be using, talk to your local HDD equipment dealer. They will be able to tell you what other contractors are using in the area. Also, be sure to follow the directions on the side of the additive bag or container to determine the correct amounts.

    Determining fluid amount needed
    Using the correct amount of drilling fluids on a bore is another critical consideration. The volume of fluid you should use depends on hole diameter and soil conditions. Vermeer recommends the following for HDD rigs up to 100,000 lb (444.8 kN). (Remember, the reamer is 1.5 times the size of your product up to 9” (22.9 cm). For product 10” (25.4 cm) and larger, the reamer is 1.3 times larger.)

    Next, you will need to calculate the soil safety factor by determining the ratio of fluid pumped to soil conditions.

    Armed with the information from these charts, as well as your drill rod length and your drill rig's pump output, you can now calculate the reamer pullback drill rate.

    For example, if you were going to use a Vermeer D20x22 S3 Navigator® horizontal directional drill to do a 300’ (91.4 m) bore in sandy clay and pull back a 4” (10.2 cm) gas line (pulling a 6” [15.2 cm] reamer), you should be using around 44 gal (166.6 L) of fluid per rod (1.47 gal/ft [18.26 L/min] x 10’ [3 m] x 3 divided by 25 gpm [94.6 L/min] = 1.76 min/rod x 25 gpm [94.6 L/min] = 44 gal [166.6 L]). Each rod is 10’ (3 m) long, so you will use 30 rods for the job, which means you’ll need approximately 1320 gal (4996.7 L) of fluid for the project.

    Performing this calculation before a project begins will help with the estimating and planning process.

    It’s common for crews to try to get by with less fluid than what is truly needed. This practice will cause drillers to outrun their mud. This means your fluid-to-soil ratio is too great and becomes too thick to pump out of the exit/entrance pit. The result of the pudding effect is an inadvertent return due to lack of flow underground. The ground will heave, product being installed will stretch, tooling can be damaged, and your tooling could potentially get stuck underground.

    Using too much fluid or product is wasteful and can create excess cost. However, don’t assume that inadvertent returns are always the result of using too little fluid. Inadvertent returns can also be caused by using the wrong type or amount of fluid additives.

    Mixing process
    Now it’s time to evaluate how your crew is mixing drilling fluids. This job is often assigned to a new person and they usually receive training from the person who did it before they were hired. If that’s your company’s process, you need to make sure both the teacher and student know what they are doing.

    First, start by checking the pH levels from your water source. Drilling fluid additives (bentonite and polymers) mix better with a pH level range between 8 and 9. Municipality water will typically measure around that range, but other water sources like ponds or wells usually fall below. Adding soda ash will help raise the pH levels and make your drilling fluid products go further.

    When you’re ready to mix your additives to the water, powders like bentonite must be added to the hopper and liquids are poured directly into the tank.

    Vermeer fluid mixing systems are equipped with a bag cutter next to the hopper. Use it to split the bag and then empty the whole bag into the hopper at once. Doing it this way, instead of cutting it with a knife and slowly sifting material into the hopper, will help prevent air from getting into the system, which can cause the tank to overflow and create a mess.

    When adding bentonite, make sure you’re sending it through the venturi and hopper at full throttle. You want to get the maximum implosion through the venturi the first time to mix the product as well as you can. After enough bags of bentonite are mixed through the venturi, keep the product mixing through the venturi for approximately 10 more minutes until it’s thoroughly broken up and hydrated.

    If you plan to add a polymer, you need to wait until the bentonite is entirely mixed, usually about 10 minutes. Adding a polymer too soon or out of sequence could cause the bentonite to ball up in the tank, rendering it ineffective. Always add a PAC polymer before a PHPA and dry polymers before liquid polymers.

    The final step is to check your viscosity using a marsh funnel and cup. You want a viscosity rate of 45-60 seconds for most drilling applications. If it's too thick, add additional water or thinners; if it is too thin, add more drilling additives.

    Understanding the science of mixing drilling fluids will help you take the art of drilling to the next level and help make your whole crew more productive. Learn more about this process by contacting your local Vermeer dealer or visiting Vermeer.com.


    Vermeer, the Vermeer logo and Navigator are trademarks of Vermeer Manufacturing Company in the U.S. and/or other countries.

    © 2018 Vermeer Corporation. All Rights Reserved. 

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    Drilling in the city


    Harsh ground conditions and busy city traffic is no match for experienced horizontal directional drilling contractor

    Rocky ground conditions, crowded underground utility right-of-ways and busy city sidewalks and streets. Those are the everyday working conditions for regionally based Latin American horizontal drilling contractor Lusalco S.A., whose crews work in Uruguay and Argentina. Currently Lusalco’s five crews are working in Montevideo and Durazno in Uruguay, as well as Buenos Aires and Córdoba in Argentina. For many contractors, any one of those jobsite obstacles would be challenging, but after working in these urban environments for more than 10 years, it's just business as usual for Lusalco owner, Jorge Bunge, and his crews.

    Experience and the desire to continuously improve and grow are the two things that Bunge attributes to his company’s success. "Every day, we face rock, sand, clay and drastic changes in ground elevation in two of the most populated cities in the region — that environment has made us experts,” he says. "Making the investment in the latest advances in horizontal directional drilling equipment and tooling is what keeps us productive."

    Lusalco's crews are split between Uruguay and Argentina. Bunge spends his time going between operations to ensure his crews have what they need and lending a hand on the really challenging projects. The summer has kept him going back and forth as crews in both countries wrap up major projects.

    Working in Montevideo

    To keep the Montevideo crew busy, Lusalco is willing to take on about any type of boring job. Currently, they have been installing a lot of fiberoptic and water lines. Using the company’s new Vermeer® D23X30 S3 Navigator® horizontal directional drill, the Montevideo crew just installed 140 meters (460') of HDPE pipe in the heart of the city.

    Montevideo has more than 1.3 million residents living in just 201 square kilometers (78 sq mi). The city is situated on the North shore of the Río de la Plata river basin, and its southern coastline border is interspersed with rocky protrusions and sandy beaches. On this job, Lusalco S.A.’s crew had to drill through rock while contending with narrow streets and sidewalks.

    The crew used the Vermeer Armor® drilling system to conquer the rocky soil conditions on this bore. “We started using the Armor drilling system on our Vermeer D24x40 Series II Navigator horizontal directional drill a few years ago,” explains Bunge. “The interchangeable bits included with the system made it easy to swap bits out depending on the soil conditions, which has saved us a lot of time and reduced the amount of tooling we have to bring to the job.”

    On this job, the D23x30 S3 drill used the Lance™ bit to bore through the hard-packed and rocky ground.

    Bunge says the D23x30 S3 drill was the perfect drill for the job. It's compact but still has all the power they needed to bore through the rocky soil conditions. “Also, it’s the quietest machine we’ve ever owned,” he adds. “That’s a big deal to the drill operator, and I’m sure the people living in that neighborhood appreciated us being able to keep noise levels down.”

    The compact footprint of the Vermeer D23x30 S3 drill has also reduced the amount of time it takes for the crew to set up a bore. Bunge says the crew used to operate a larger drill within the city; it required a large truck to transport the mud mixer while towing an additional trailer with the drill on it. “The city’s narrow streets and tight turns made even getting to the job a challenge,” he explains, “Also, there were a lot of jobs where the extra weight of the machine prevented us simply walking the machine to the next drill shot out of concerns for damaging the surface.”

    Lusalco can transport their new D23x30 S3 on the same trailer as their mud mixing system. Also, the drill’s compact size and lighter weight have helped reduce the risk of damaging surfaces while maneuvering it between bores. Bunge says even these simple logistical changes have helped with overall productivity.

    Working in Córdoba

    The company’s D24x40 Series II primarily operates in Córdoba since adding the new drill. Bunge says the crew there needs the extra power it delivers. “We’ve been busy this summer installing 10 inch (25.4 cm), 12 inch (30.48 cm) and 18 inch (45.72 cm) gas pipes,” he says. “In a normal week, we will drill and pullback around 250 meters (492'). We will often use a Vermeer 20 inch (50.8 cm) fluted reamer to open the hole a bit more before pulling back. We’ve found it helps reduce the amount of bentonite we need to use.”

    The crew in Córdoba also finds itself working both residential and downtown parts of the city. The company also has two Vermeer D16x20 Series II Navigator horizontal directional drills for jobsites that are too confined for the bigger drill. “The D16x20 Series II has been a great machine for us,” says Bunge. “The work we’ve done with that machine has propelled our growth. After running that machine for around a year, we added our first Armor drilling system. That drilling combination has gotten a lot of bores done for us.”

    Avoiding buried utilities

    Working in two of the largest cities in Latin America, crowded underground right-of-ways is a common challenge for Lusalco crews. To steer around all those obstacles, Lusalco uses the DigiTrack® Falcon® F5 locating system because of its accuracy and its large number of channel frequencies, making the challenge one they can overcome. “Sidewalk, buildings, other utilities - there’s usually a lot of things that can produce interference. The Falcon F5 gives us so many options; I can’t imagine using anything else,” says Bunge. 

    To help locate existing utility lines, Lusalco added a Vermeer Verifier™ G2 utility locator by McLaughlin. “There are steel water lines and electrical lines that are poorly marked in Montevideo and utility strikes are a major concern of mine,” Bunge explains. “We purchased the Verifier utility locator because it can locate anything with electrical connectivity. Now, we have more assurance about what’s buried underground.”

    Extended team

    Lusalco crews are spread out across several cities in two countries, and Bunge says the only way they have been able to do that is with the support of Vermeer Latin America and its dealer network. “From keeping us supplied with the tooling we need, consulting with us on challenging jobs to providing parts and service when and where we need it, they have been an extension of our team,” he adds.

    Looking ahead

    Experience and investing in the right equipment and tools has helped Bunge and Lusalco get where it is today. With all their experience working in busy cities while facing challenging ground conditions, the company always has plenty of work to do in both countries. That doesn’t stop Bunge from looking ahead though; he says he plans to add another drill soon and has his sights set on expanding the company’s base of operations to other parts of the region. “I’m excited about the future and can’t wait to see what challenges are waiting for us.”


    Vermeer, Navigator, Armor and Lance are trademarks of Vermeer Manufacturing Company in the U.S. and/or other countries. DigiTrak and Falcon are trademarks of Digital Control Incorporated. McLaughlin and Verifier trademarks of McLaughlin Group, Inc.

    © 2017 Vermeer Corporation. All Rights Reserved. 

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    Benefits of Becoming a Certified HDD Operator


    Since September of 2015, more than 75 operators have completed the Vermeer HDD CircuitSM training program. This two-week certificate course accredited by Des Moines Area Community College pairs Vermeer experts with a small group of operators looking to expand their skillset. 

    Vermeer HDD Circuit program attendees come from all over the world, with different levels of experience and goals. To make sure everyone gets what they want from the program, Vermeer keeps class sizes to eight students at a time, with three full-time instructors. 

    Today, we highlight a pair of operators that attended the Vermeer HDD Circuit program in September 2016. 

    Certified Operator Profile: Caleb Thompson, Mauler Contracting, LLC in Miles City, Montana

    Caleb Thompson attended the HDD Circuit training program in September 2016 and has gone on to start his own company, Mauler Contracting in Miles City, Montana.

    After spending more than seven years working in the oil industry – doing everything from drilling, production work and reclamation, to building facilities and project management – Thompson decided it was time for a change. When a friend approached him about running a horizontal directional drill of his, Thompson knew it was a good fit. Since he already had so much experience working on drilling rigs and mixing mud, he picked up on horizontal directional drilling very quickly.

    Thompson says that, while working in the oil fields almost every machine operator was required to be certified, which is why obtaining an HDD certification was important to him. “I did a Google search for a certification program, and the Vermeer HDD Circuit program was the first thing that showed up,” said Thompson. “I registered for the course immediately.” 

    Looking for additional seat time behind the controls and a better understanding of locating best practices, Thompson says he got so much more from his two weeks in Pella, Iowa. “The instructors were very accommodating to what we wanted to get from our experience,” he explained. “They taught us on-the-job best practices that I used to develop my company’s standard operating procedures (SOP). However, I think the biggest benefit of taking the course is that the instructors have stayed in contact with me to see how I’m doing and answer questions I have.”

    After completing the course, Thompson spent the next several months getting his business off the ground, which included developing a business plan, writing a SOP manual, securing funding and insurance.

    “I would say the most challenging part of the process was finding a bank that would finance my business,” said Thompson. “Even though I’ve operated equipment all my life, I didn’t have a lot of experience as an HDD operator, so I wasn’t sure what was going to happen. My HDD operator certification made a huge difference. Making that investment showed my lenders I was serious about the business, and taking the necessary steps to be successful.” 

    The HDD operator certification also benefited Thompson while shopping for insurance. “I could prove I'm certified and the SOP manual I developed helped me secure a better rate,” he explained. 

    Thompson now has Mauler Contracting up and running. The company is based in Miles City, but Thompson says they spend most of their time traveling around the surrounding states. “Being willing to travel is an approach that I think will help build our reputation and customer base,” he said.

    Certified Operator Profile: Jason Gable, Jackson Energy Authority in Jackson, Tennessee

    Jason Gable got his first chance to run a directional drill at the age of 18 for an uncle that owns a small drilling company. After eight years, he moved on to work with other contractors in Tennessee, before he accepted a position with the Jackson Energy Authority. 

    “I started working in the Jackson Energy Authority's gas department,” said Gable. “At the time, I didn’t know we would eventually get a drilling rig of our own.” 

    After four years on the job, Jackson Energy Authority purchased a new horizontal directional drill of its own and asked Gable to run it. “The company also budgeted for training,” said Gable. “I was pretty excited about that – it had been years since I was on a drill and there can sometimes be little room for ‘on-the-job training’ mistakes when you’re operating a drill.” 

    Jackson Energy Authority sent two people through the Vermeer HDD Circuit program in September 2016. “Going through together helped us develop good communication habits and a good workflow,” said Gable. “We both learned the right way to do the job at the same time. I think that has been a huge benefit.” 

    Gable said learning all about mixing drilling fluids, what type of mixture should be used based on the soil conditions and the product being pulled back was interesting. “I was aware of a lot of the different kinds of mud, but the instructors spent time explaining all of the different options and what ratios we should be mixing them,” he added. 

    Gable was also impressed by the advancements made in locating equipment. “It’s pretty cool to see how that technology has changed in four years,” he said. “Paying a little extra for good equipment can save a lot of time and increase productivity.” 

    Gable said the Vermeer HDD Circuit program has given him a lot more confidence on the job and helped with training other people. “I learned a lot during my two weeks in Pella, and now I’m trying to share that learning with others,” he concluded.

    What It Takes to Become an HDD-Certified Operator

    Every Vermeer HDD Circuit program attendee is evaluated in the field and is required to pass an exam before finishing the course. Vermeer recently partnered with Des Moines Area Community College (DMACC) to certify the HDD Circuit program, making it the first accredited program of its kind in the United States. 

    To learn more about the HDD Circuit training program, contact Vermeer at [email protected]