Don't Overlook HDD Tooling

Contractors should consider the cost of tooling as well as cost of operation when buying and operating a drill rig

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Don't Overlook HDD Tooling

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Downhole tooling matters … a lot. 

Nearly every horizontal directional drilling contractor would agree with that. Yet their actions don’t always match their words. Because tooling is a wear item and so much of its usage occurs underground, where operators may not be sure what they’re engaged in, there’s a tendency for tooling to be underappreciated.

“Oftentimes, we will ask contractors, ‘How long do you expect your bit to last, or your reamer to last?’ And they’ll say, ‘It depends on the ground conditions,’” says Chris Fontana, BORESTORE/Cutting Edge sales manager for Vermeer, a position that includes HDD tooling. “They just kind of chalk it up as: it’s a wear item, it’s going to vary.”

A more strategic approach can serve directional boring companies well, especially at a time when they are facing tighter project deadlines and margins. One way to do this is to consider the cost of operation when buying and using tooling.

Cost of operation frequently comes up when buying a drill rig as the potential owner seeks to understand costs like fuel usage, wear parts and maintenance. More contractors could benefit by considering the cost of operation of tooling, as well. “Downhole tooling can have a substantial impact on the overall productivity of a machine,” Fontana says.

Calculate cost of operation

Calculating the cost of operation for tooling does not need to be complicated. Having a solid bore plan is an important first step, according to Fontana. You also should understand the bore path, know as much as possible about ground conditions, have the correct tools in stock and bring them to the job site so the crew isn’t waiting around. Also consider whether the estimated life and productivity of a piece of tooling justifies its price. 

“Estimating the cost of operation can be done by considering, ‘Here are the different tools that I will need and here is the amount of life that we expect we will see before we’ll need to replace that wear item,’” Fontana says.

He also recommends a contractor work with a partner, such as a dealer or the manufacturer, to find the best fit for their drilling operation.

Select tooling

The tooling selection process begins with understanding the productivity goals of your given job and known challenges, such as job site footprint, ground conditions and obstacles in the bore path. Overlooking any one of these variables can lead to a poor tooling decision. Here are some things to consider:

  • Selecting drill bits — Choosing a drill bit that is not designed to perform in, say, cobble or hard pan can affect the speed and accuracy of the pilot bore in those conditions. Or, the inverse, selecting a bit that is designed to perform in rock when you are working in loam could unnecessarily increase your tooling costs.
  • Selecting the housing — Sonde housing features that promote strong signal strength, consistent steering and ease of operation that match the demands of your planned bore path are critical.
  • Selecting backreaming accessories — Having the right nozzle placement for the ground conditions can also affect cost of operation. A reamer selection that does not have the geometry to maintain both speed and hole size can lead to production loss.

Tooling and drilling fluid management

Drilling fluid management has become a major pain point for many HDD contractors. Tooling selection can make a difference here, too.

“One of the biggest variables in cost of operation is the amount of fluid that a contractor needs to use on the job site,” Fontana says. “So any features or nuances of tooling that can help contractors control and have just the right amount of fluid, whether that's increasing fluid in rocky conditions or reducing it in dirt boring, which can have a significant impact on their cost of operation.”

The sonde housing a contractor selects can affect fluid management. Vermeer, for example, designs its sonde housings in a way that gives a contractor the ability to choose how much fluid runs through the housing while still protecting the electronics within it. When selecting sonde housings, Fontana recommends a contractor look at its fluid capacity and whether it has the ability to manage the volume and direction of fluid coming out of it. The electronics within the housing can be expensive, so contractors should make sure the housing they use allows enough fluid to pass through to cool them properly.

Reamers are much the same. A contractor should consider how many nozzles are on a reamer as well as their size and orientation. The direction the nozzles are facing and whether they will allow an operator to strategically place the fluid where needed can help the tool cut more efficiently.

Don’t cut corners

Trying to get the best value out of your tooling is smart business. Trying to reduce costs by ignoring best practices is not. Many times, tooling connections are considered for cost reductions.

There are different connection pieces in a drill string, and there are best practices regarding connections. Some contractors may be tempted to skip these best practices by leaving important components out of the drill string in an attempt to reduce the total cost of operation or to reduce the time spent connecting that piece.

Using tooling and a drill in ways not intended by the manufacturer can be a safety hazard and result in lost productivity. Some manufacturers are now creating tooling that won’t allow someone to leave out required connections.

Shift in attitude

As HDD contractors encounter tighter margins, Fontana is seeing more of them pay attention to tooling cost of operation. It’s also important in hot markets like fiber installations.

“Many times in the current fiber market, the cost per foot that contractors are being paid is much lower than what they’ve become accustomed to over the past few years,” Fontana says. “They are expected to produce a large volume of feet per day. So, again, having the appropriate tooling that can help increase the speed of the bore potentially has a huge impact on their overall cost of operation.” 

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