Avoiding a Deep Freeze: Tips for Horizontal Directional Drilling in Winter

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Sitting at my desk and looking at the beautiful fall colors out my window, I can only think of one thing: “When will the first snow fly?” Being a permanent resident of the great white north, this is inevitable. For the horizontal directional drilling (HDD) industry, it signals higher labor costs, lower production rates, frozen fingers, toes, hoses, pumps and a boon to the -40C windshield washer fluid industry.

Knowing that you will be sending drilling crews out in this weather, being prepared is key to keeping the drill turning. Keeping a careful eye on the temperatures at this time of year is a priority. As soon as the mercury starts to flirt with the 0 C mark, the call goes out to winterize your equipment and until further notice this will be done diligently every day and every night. Care must be taken to ensure that equipment is not freezing up during breaks, lunches, tool changes and maintenance, as well. The time and cost required to keep gear from freezing and the investment of antifreeze fluids is a drop in the bucket in comparison to a frozen mud pump and the resultant downtime.

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I’ve learned a lot having spent a winter working for a contractor in these conditions. A further nine years selling pump casings, tooling and drilling fluids in the winter has taught me that common sense coupled with standard operating procedures designed for winter drilling goes a long way. Now that I am focused on the drilling fluids industry, I can tell you that there is not a fresh water-based drilling fluid that will not freeze. Therefore, I have compiled a few tips and tricks I’ve learned along the way.

  • Drill rigs must be equipped with block heaters, this is a no brainer, at -15 C most rig engines won’t even turn over, and the days of putting a charcoal hibachi under the oil pan are long gone.
  • Mud pumps and systems must be purged with antifreeze fluids at breaks, lunches, tool changes and at the end of day diligently. At -15 to -20 C it takes 10 to 15 minutes to freeze a mud pump. A new frame for a power pump or a complete pump replacement for a small rig can cost a contractor $10,000 to $20,000 based on the speed to get running again.
  • In extreme winter temperatures and on longer shots contractors will build temporary shelters over the drill rig and mud systems (recyclers, mix tanks) and heat them with electric or diesel-powered heaters.
    In-line tank and submersible heaters can be an option in extreme cold temperatures as well as heat tracer wires on hoses but can be costly.
  • If the drill truck will not be used for a few days or you don’t trust your heating system it’s best to dump all fluids out, and winterize your mix pump with antifreeze.
  • Drill support trucks should be insulated and have a diesel-powered or electric heater. If using diesel powered heaters ensure you have enough fuel supply to last 72 hours or have it connected directly to the truck fuel tanks and make sure operators fill up before parking for the weekend.
  • In an ideal world all of our equipment sleeps indoors, but we don’t all have that luxury.
    Extra tooling to have on hand include – tiger torches and spare propane tanks, small plumbers type propane torches and Gensets to power back up electric heaters and the drill rig’s block heater.
  • Mud supply hoses — my preference is lay flat style hoses. If the hose slushes up it can be rolled up and purged easy enough. I’ve found once rigid hoses freeze up the only way to purge the hose is with a hot water pressure washer or to thaw out in the drill support truck. Ensure you have at least two or three back up hoses on hand with a few fittings and collars for repairs.
  • The telltale sign your hoses are freezing up is the crunching noises coming from your mud pump.
    Keeping your support truck tidy and clean is key, slipping on iced-up mud or other detritus and tools happens too often, even getting out of the truck can be precarious so watch your step.
  • A few notes on the drill rigs, in the small to medium class, cabins are either non-existent or an option that is too costly. Some manufacturers offer a soft cab (tarps) foldable option, some contractors make their own to at least keep the operator from wind, rain or snow. Also, some manufacturers offer after-market slip on seat and control handle heaters.
  • Operators, locators and laborers should have proper winter personal protective equipment, boots, coveralls, gloves/mitts, face shields and suitable clothing. All employees should know the signs of frostbite.
    Arctic grade tool joint grease is a must, this grade is a little thinned out and won’t clog up your auto greasers.
  • Keep all liquid drilling fluids in a heated area to prevent them from freezing. The effectiveness of some additives, such as 30 per cent PHPA polymers are reduced once frozen and thawed.
mud pump

Mud pumps and systems must be purged with antifreeze fluids at breaks, lunches, tool changes and at the end of day diligently. This picture of the cracked pump clearly shows the damage that freezing can do.

Keep in mind that when drilling in urban areas, you are only able to drill as long as your locate lines are visible. Once they are buried in a major snowstorm, drilling may be delayed or cancelled. At times some contractors will keep on drilling, but labor costs rise dramatically if you have to dig out your locates in 3- to 4-ft snowbanks.

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Mobilizing drill rigs during large snowfall events is also a challenge especially for short shots where frequent mobilization is required. In other areas, winter freeze up actually triggers the start of the drilling season. This is true for areas that are not accessible during warm weather months.

As the winter season can be long in Canada and the northern United States, winter drilling is a regular occurrence like “Hockey Night in Canada.” The adherence to a standard operating procedure for winter drilling and maintenance goes a long way. These extra steps will prevent equipment from freezing and ensure successful and injury free drill shots.

Mario Brunet, technical sales manager, Drilling Products Division of CETCO

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