There is a direct correlation between a horizontal directional drilling (HDD) project’s bottom line and the use of a mud recycling system – especially on larger projects.

These large – and oftentimes costly – pieces of equipment keep drilling fluid clean and circulating to the cutterhead. Without it, the contractor is spending more money on bentonite and water to send downhole to keep things flowing and the borehole stable. What was once the realm of the largest HDD setups, the systems have matriculated down to operators running smaller HDD rig setups.

To gauge how the mud systems sector sits in 2019, we contacted Elgin Separation Solutions – which manufacturers the KEMTRON line of mud systems – and Tulsa Rig Iron for their input. The companies manufacture systems capable of pumping 100 gallons per minute (GPM) to 3,000 GPM and 100 GPM to 1,500 GPM, respectively.

Answering the questions for this mud system market Q&A are Terry Flynn, vice president of sales and marketing, Tulsa Rig Iron, and Raymond Pietramale, administrative sales and marketing manager, Elgin Separation Solutions.

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How would you describe the state of the mud system market and why?

FLYNN: Cautious and in-time purchasing. Most are buying just in time to start the particular job they need it for. In recent years, contractors were purchasing equipment gearing up for upcoming jobs to ensure they had it when needed. Now they’re trying to balance that fine line of waiting as close as possible, without missing out on the equipment.

PIETRAMALE: The current market is in flux as it is trying to balance the use of existing assets with the new technologies that are slowly coming to the market. These newer technologies provide a host of system automation and controls that are under-utilized and misunderstood.

How are mud systems sales in 2019? Are the customers new or returning?

PIETRAMALE: Mud system sales have been relatively flat since 2017. There appears to be some hesitation for system investment in various parts of the market as the industry waits to understand the ever-pending infrastructure spending bills to be passed in Washington, D.C. However, this has not stopped the need for infrastructure rehabilitation, fiber-optic expansion, housing sprawl and support of various shale markets throughout the country. As such, we have seen a lot of interest in systems, but are not seeing companies pulling the trigger with orders.

FLYNN: Similar to 2018 pace although the third quarter has definitely picked up. We have a good mix of both [new and returning customers]. Since we are factory direct and do not utilize a big dealer network, our best marketing is word of mouth recommendations from satisfied clients. There are many companies moving up from the small drills to mid-size drills which is where mud cleaning system needs come into play. These guys may only know that they need a mud system but not much else, and require a little guidance in best practices of mud recycling.

HDD mud systems

Is the use of mud systems, on jobs of all sizes, increasing or staying flat?

FLYNN: We feel it’s always increasing, but on various degrees of growth. Anywhere a contractor can improve efficiency is beneficial, mud costs are no different. We’ve been focusing our R&D into some other vertical markets with our products. That said, we will not veer from our core business of pumps and cleaning systems. That’s what we do best. An advantage we have is that we manufacture our own triplex mud pumps in house. Our pumps and pump packages have a compact footprint, lightweight, and are cost effective. Although we sell to the water transfer, oilfield, and water well sectors- our core client base is the HDD market.

PIETRAMALE: The use has been relatively consistent over the last few years. Much of this has to do with a laxer regulatory environment (even if simply a perception) under the current administration. Combined with the fact that disposal costs and drilling fluid make-up costs have not dramatically shifted in the last two years, there has been little reason to shift operational philosophies relative to the use and deployment of mud systems. The areas that we do see growth are associated with waste management and system automation. In addition, we have seen a higher deployment of polishing decanter centrifuge systems due to their abundance and drop in deployment costs. Dozens of oil-field service companies were forced to find new outlets for their assets and were able to bring those assets to the HDD market. Given the natural supply and demand economics, day rates fell to a level that was more digestible within the market and therefore the application of such technologies has grown over the last few years.

What are contractors looking for in a mud system?

PIETRAMALE: Reliability. Though this seems like a flippant response, it is truer now than it ever has been. Contractors want and deserve to have systems to what they need to do, when they need them to do it. They must reliably clean their drilling fluid and help reduce drilling fluid make-up costs. After reliability, Contractors are looking for ease of use. The system must be manageable, regardless of the Operators skills sets. This can be a tough challenge in the face of all that such systems must achieve. This is part of the reason Elgin has invested so much in automation and remote operation systems.

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How are mud systems different today vs. five years ago?

FLYNN: The basic design has not changed in decades. Our biggest challenge has been the integration of Tier 4 emissions on our drive engines and generators-specifically in regards to costs, available real estate on the machines, and reliability.

A mud system purchase is an investment. What options are available for contractors (rent, lease, financing, etc.)?

FLYNN: We have a broad offering of mud pumps in our rental fleet, and some smaller GPM mud systems for rent. We’re considering adding mid and maxi sized systems in the very near future. Although we don’t offer in-house financing, we have several financing partners that we’ve worked with over the years that have been able to get very creative on lease and purchase packages for our clients. If you will be renting a pump or cleaning system for more than 60 to 90 days, you really should consider purchasing.

PIETRAMALE: Today, contractors have a host of commercial options. Depending on the nature of the project and the contractor’s outlook, different commercial options present different financial considerations. Rental tends to be the most expensive and tends to be a good option for short term projects in which there is little potential opportunity for similar future work. Lease-to-own programs provide a lot of the same benefits as renting a system, but provide an opportunity to create equity in the leased equipment. Lease-to-own programs tend to be more affordable, in comparison to rental programs, and are a good fit when contractors have a relatively good feeling that similar future work is on the horizon. Buying a system is the most affordable option, but only when the unit can be consistently deployed over its expected life-span.

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What is your overall view of the HDD market?

PIETRAMALE: There are still a lot of opportunities for advancement of mud systems in the HDD market. Not only are there more opportunities to improve system automation and reliability, but there are new technologies just making their way into the industry. Remote access and system oversight, extended wear components and through-put enhancements will find their way into mud systems over the next year. This will especially be the case with respect to Elgin’s new X-Series Mud Reclamation Systems coming in Q1 2020.

FLYNN: As it’s always been, this industry has its ups and downs. We’re fortunate in that we’re financially positioned to be able to ride out the soft times. Our employee base is seasoned and long-tenured- ready and able to take on a flood of business or ride out the slow times. We’re here for our customers today, and we’ll be here for them tomorrow and beyond. [In] politics, there have been some alarming remarks recently made by 2020 presidential candidates that would drastically affect our industry. We can only hope that common sense heads prevail in the upcoming election.

Mike Kezdi is associate editor of Trenchless Technology.

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