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Horizontal Directional Drilling: Cost of Downtime and How to Avoid It

Blog written by and credited to Melfred Borzall. Link to original article here


There are a lot of factors that impact the complexity and difficulty of modern horizontal directional drilling. Cost can be affected by local requirements, government regulations and other widely-varying factors that every contractor needs to consider before accepting a job. Some of the factors that could impact the profitability of a project include:


  • Transportation costs

  • Crew availability

  • Environmental issues

  • Equipment prices


However, there is one thing that has consistently improved during the rise of HDD as the premier technology for trenchless underground construction: the actual time it takes to complete a pilot bore and pullback. In fact, many experts estimate that the bore itself accounts for less than half of the time it takes to do a job, in large part because HDD technology and tooling has gotten better and more accurate. Instead, a lot of time is used in the planning process — locating existing utilities, surveying ground conditions, coordinating with local authorities and more. As such, the time it takes for the actual drilling is one of the few things in contractors' control, meaning downtime could be detrimental to the job's profitability.


WHY DOES DOWNTIME MATTER FOR HDD?

Downtime is something that affects all industries, not just construction. One study found that around 82 percent of companies in different sectors experienced at least one instance of unplanned downtime within three years, costing an average of about $2 million and harming their customers' trust. If you've ever worked a tough job — and we all have — you know that downtime isn't uncommon for horizontal directional drilling. Cost of this downtime is hard to estimate, too. There are numerous reasons for that, but mostly it's because the impact of downtime isn't quantifiable enough to account for in your equipment costs. While contractors don't typically ignore it, many consider it part of a discussion on other intangible costs, like productivity and quality. There is no exact method for estimating the cost of downtime. However, the indisputable fact is that it is expensive. It's lost productivity and time spent fixing things that shouldn't go wrong. But, if you can't factor it into the cost of your job, what do you do? Work to eliminate downtime and the factors that cause it — and the key to this is proper preparation.


MAKE SURE YOU HAVE THE RIGHT TOOLS FOR THE JOB

We might sound like a broken record here because we talk a lot about choosing the right tooling. But, whether we're discussing the cost of drilling rock or avoiding downtime, it is vital to have the correct tools. You have to make sure you're using a tool the way it was intended to be used, and that it is the proper size; otherwise, it could break on you. This will lead to downtime for sure, as well as costly repairs and replacement parts. And, if your equipment fails, you could miss your project's deadline, which could even result in your team being replaced. It's not just about your drilling rig or bits and blades, though. Using durable and accurate HDD locating systems can eliminate a lot of guesswork on the job, reducing the risk of downtime. With all of the features available on modern locating systems, it's easier and faster than ever to complete a bore and install product pipe underground. Additionally, while you can't control the ground conditions you'll face, you can make sure that you use the proper drilling fluid for those conditions, which will make the job go smoother and avoid the downtime involved with correcting a mud-related mistake. However, even the right tools don't mean a whole lot without preventive maintenance.


PREVENTIVE MAINTENANCE IS KEY TO AVOIDING DOWNTIME

Once you have the correct tooling, preventive maintenance is the best thing you can do to keep downtime from impacting your cost. Horizontal directional drilling tooling maintenance before, during and after a job is critical to your bottom line. As mentioned, the cost of downtime is hard to estimate, but having a preventive maintenance plan is something contractors can control. Not only is maintenance an HDD best practice for efficiency and productivity, but it's also one of the simplest and most affordable ways to lower the risk of downtime. Therefore, it should be a top priority for any contractor — even if you think your tooling is capable of handling anything. The number one thing to keep in mind for any particular piece of HDD equipment is to follow the maintenance schedule outlined in the product manual. Doing this will ensure that you're getting the most out of your tooling, along with reducing downtime. The following are some other general guidelines for preventive maintenance:


  • Check all fluids and do general visual walk-around checks daily to monitor all components of the drilling rig — assign the task to a specific crew member to ensure it gets done.

  • Make sure that your entire crew is aware of your maintenance procedures — consider the importance of HDD training courses to keep them up on best practices.

  • Use thread lubricant as outlined by the parts manufacturer to lubricate your threads — this will prevent damage and make them last longer, even more so than regular grease.

  • Change your drilling fluid as necessary to accommodate changes in the ground conditions.

  • Remove debris and blockages from fluid ports as soon as possible, preferably by flushing them after each use.

  • Replace your tooling at the correct intervals, and know when a tool is at the end of its lifespan.

  • Never risk using a compromised tool downhole — swap it out with a replacement to save on the downtime you'd face waiting for and implementing the new tooling (while still paying a crew).

  • Have replacement parts on-hand as much as possible.

  • Know all of your options for parts maintenance and replacements — consider non-OEM HDD parts that are often easier to order and get when you need them.

  • Stay diligent on your preventive maintenance plan — it's easy to fall behind, and you will eventually see the consequences.


Following these suggestions for preventive maintenance will help your crew avoid as much downtime as possible in the long run.

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