Back when we lived in southeastern Arizona, a well driller showed up one day in a vacant lot near a trail where I used to go for walks. Always fascinated by things mechanical, I watched the operation for a while, and chatted with the driller. The equipment consisted of a large truck with a rotary drill rig mounted on the back. As I recall, the driller was only there for a couple of days — that’s all it takes for one of these rigs to knock out a two or three hundred foot hole.
We’re now in the process of building a house on Samal Island — a long, very slow process, it seems — in a location where city water isn’t available. Catching rainwater is one option, but the rain doesn’t always cooperate, so we figured that a well would be a good investment. I mean, how hard can it be to drill for water in a place where it rains all the time?
So, we asked around, and hired a well driller. One with a good reputation and lots of experience drilling on Samal.
That was in December.
In due course, the driller came out to the site to look around and suggest where to drill. His recommended location turned out to be at the extreme rear of the property, 500 feet or so from the shore. It was necessary, we were told, to get as far from the shoreline as possible, in the hope of getting water that is not salty.
That advice seemed reasonable. One of our neighbors drilled next to his house, near the shore. This turned out to be basically an expensive way of filling a tank with sea water.
Coincidentally, our recommended drilling site happened to be at the top of a steep hill. I was trying to figure out how they were going to get a drilling rig up that hill through fairly dense native vegetation, with no road.
Answer: they carried it up in pieces. The driller showed up with a crew of several laborers, who proceeded to lug everything up the hill a piece at a time and assemble it in place.
Needless to say, the rig in question was not anything like the truck mounted rig I saw back in Arizona. This one consisted of a tripod made of three pieces of pipe, used to suspend a pulley over the chosen spot. A thick rope runs over the pulley and is clamped to a steel cable, and the other end of the cable is attached to a heavy metal rod, which acts as a ram. The drilling — really more a case of pounding — consists of pulling the ram up ten feet or so with the rope, and then dropping it. Over and over.
There is a small gasoline engine, used to turn a drum at a constant slow speed. The loose end of the rope is wrapped several times around the drum. The drum is smooth, so it doesn’t pull on the rope as long as the rope is held loosely. To raise the ram, the operator pulls the end of the rope tight, and the friction on the drum is sufficient to pull the rope. Once the ram has risen sufficiently, the operator quickly releases the rope, and the ram drops, hitting the bottom of the hole with considerable force.
Most of the drilling is through solid limestone. After the ram has been raised and dropped a few hundred times, if everything has worked right, a few inches of limestone in the bottom of the hole have been pounded into powder. To get the powder out of the hole, the ram has to be pulled out, and a pipe with a spring-loaded door on the bottom end is attached to the cable and dropped into the hole repeatedly. This pushes the powder up into the pipe. The pipe is then pulled up and emptied, the ram is reattached, and the endless raising and dropping resumes.
You have to admire the stamina of these guys. Even though the engine is doing most of the heavy lifting, it’s still physically demanding to raise that heavy ram over and over, a few hundred times an hour. You also have to respect the ingenuity — it’s kind of amazing, when you think about it, that a few guys with a rig cobbled together from simple parts can manage to drill a 200 foot hole at the top of a hill in a place that you can barely get to on foot.
It’s a slow operation. A few feet per day at best. Of course, it’s even slower when the crew doesn’t show up, or the equipment breaks down, or the rope breaks, or the gasoline runs out, all of which seem to happen with some frequency. We had one hiatus of several weeks when the cable broke, leaving the ram in the bottom of the hole with no way to pull it out. Each of these mishaps seems to involve an additional advance payment to get things moving again.
Not exactly a model of efficiency. But maybe that isn’t such a bad thing. As Nassim Taleb (author of the recent best-selling book on risk management, The Black Swan) points out, the more efficient you make a system, the more fragile it becomes. A $200,000 truck-mounted rotary rig is very efficient, but when it breaks down you need specialized parts and highly trained technicians to repair it, and if a recession hits and business slows down, the payments on that $200,000 will bankrupt you in short order. With the rig our guys are using, pretty much any conceivable breakdown can be fixed on the spot by local mechanics using whatever parts are available. The entire world supply chain could grind to a standstill, and the well drilling industry on Samal would continue without a hiccup.
My wife has handled all the negotiations with the drillers. The cost of this well is supposed to be 600 pesos per foot — perhaps about a quarter of what a similar well would cost in Arizona. My wife is very adamant that this price includes actually finding water, but since there is, as far as I know, no written contract, I assume that this will become a matter of further negotiation if the well turns out to be dry.
The drilling has been underway now for four months. At last report, the hole was slightly more than 100 feet deep. No sign of any water yet, but it’s early days. With luck, we might have a working well by the end of the year.
And if not – well, it does rain a lot here.
(Any suggestions / advice from those who have done this would be welcome in the comments.)