Friday, July 18, 2008

Going Green: The Drilling of the Wells

Yesterday was the start of the first phase of the Geothermal Installation Project at my house. The guys from G & R Westbrook Drilling had stopped by on Tuesday to look things over one more time, figuring about where things might work, getting ready to drill the two 250'-deep wells at “the lower end” of the house (what we always called the side where the basement opens out and the otherwise one-storey ranch house becomes a two-storey house: that’s how steep the grade is from the front door to the east-side property line). They confirmed they could start the process on Thursday: Groff’s would be here on the 31st, then, to do the internal installation. Westbrook’s job was to dig the wells and get the piping into ground, dig a trench from the wells to the house and then get them inside, ready to be hooked up to the heat-transfer pump (the new “furnace”).

They arrived Thursday morning to begin the job, three vehicles pulling up across the front of the yard: a pick-up truck with bales of hay and other “incidentals,” a long flat-bed with piles of drill-pipes, an odd-looking red cement-mixer kind of thing on the back, and “the driller,” the mega-truck with its tower laid horizontal over it that, when raised, would dig (as my mother would’ve said) “half-way to China” (my back-yard pass to the Summer Olympics, perhaps).

We reconnoitered on the lawn: I pointed out where the sewer connection and the septic tank are, where in relation to all this my neighbor’s well is. New concerns were needing to get closer to the house (under the shade of an old Norway Maple) which would place the second well closer to the property line and my neighbor’s well. They said it shouldn’t cause any disturbance: my concern was the vibrations rattling not just the house but the underground aquifers. With the kind of drill they use and the kind of shale this is, Ryan and his dad assured my neighbor and me this should not be a concern.

The younger brother, Wes, was walking around with a bent metal rod in his hand that looked like nothing more than a straightened-out old-fashioned wire coat hanger. Pacing along slowly, he’d come to a spot where the wire would turn in his hand to face a different angle. He would mark the grass, then, with a can of orange spray paint: this was an underground pipe. That way, they could locate the connection to the old septic tank as well.

When he tried bringing the truck up over the lawn at the lower end, the bank (which had toppled a few of us off our riding mowers over the past 48 years) proved to be just a tad too steep: the back of the driller kept digging into the grass. So the decision was made to bring it up over the front of the yard from the other, more level end at the driveway. And given the limits around the lower end, what about drilling right in the middle of the yard? Was it too steep?

I pointed out where my well was, they found a spot further down from that and another spot the requisite 12-15 feet away toward the road, moving off to an angle, for the second well. They could dig the connecting trench up to the front of the basement wall, though I was hoping to avoid drilling through this double-thick cinder block foundation wall. He assured me this would not be an issue. I was calculating how much junk was being stored on the other side of that wall, though... Well, a project for the weekend, then.

The major inconvenience, however, was going to be to the groundhog. The holes there have been in his family for generations, however long a groundhog generation may last. I rarely saw him but there he was, popping his head out the hole looking at us as if he were saying “you talkin’ about me?!” He probably was wondering what the rumbling truck was all about... Well, so he may be evicted. There is, however, another sizeable hole in the back yard, whether he’s using that one or not, I don’t know: we had joked, years ago, that there’s a whole city of groundhogs burrowing under the basement, connecting the front and back yards with a series of dens and tunnels.

So now they were ready to go. They got the truck in place, set a bunch of blocks and boards up to level the truck on the sloping lawn – and then up went the tower.

I have no idea how tall that tower actually is – it just looked freakin’ tall standing out there in the middle of my yard, next to the “Crimson King Maple” we’d planted in the fall of 1959. And 250 feet down was freakin’ deep. I remember when my folks were having their water well drilled then, it seemed like they were never going to reach water. How long would it take them to reach water now, I wondered?

They had set up a silt fence to contain any mud that would come up, backed up with a dam made by bales of hay. (For another view of this, taken afterward from the road, see below.) Any excess water would run off down to the slope and along the road, eventually just soaking into the ground.

And so it began.

With my sensitive hearing, I was prepared for one hellacious day, but considering several of my cats were spooked during recent thunderstorms and the fireworks display from one of my neighbors across the street this past 4th of July, I was more concerned how they’d react to this constant assault that could last five or six hours. Would the house vibrate so much things inside would rattle? Would my grandmother’s delicate glassware in the one curio cabinet dance off the shelves and break? Would the cats run around and bounce off the walls until everything else would break?
It was amazing that it wasn’t that annoying after all: no shaking, no rattling. Yes, it was loud, but it wasn’t as annoying as the White Noise “Noise Masking System” many office spaces use to cut down on ambience from a room full of cubicles. Some days at work, I would have a headache in 10-15 minutes, even though it wasn’t the decibel level of the “white [sic] noise” but its frequency that irritated my hearing. And yet I didn’t need to sit in my house wearing my big blue “ear protector” headset (in fact, I was able to sit in my study and even get some composing done!) - more amazingly, the cats seemed genuinely unfazed by the noise. Several of them took turns watching out the dining room window.

In 2½ hours, the guys had finished drilling the first well. They had reached water, but nothing serious: while there was a good bit of mud, there wasn’t the stream of water I’d expected to see flowing off down the hill.

Meanwhile, the guys were getting the “pipe” ready to be inserted into the well. This would be the flexible tubing the water would be flowing through, a closed system that would circulate back and forth between these holes in the ground and the heat transfer pump in the basement. It doesn’t use water from the well: these wells are just meant to keep the tubing in the ground. These tubes, then, will be connected to more tubing that will be dug into a trench, taking it up to the side of the house (by way of the groundhog hole) and into the basement.

It was in the low-90s that afternoon. I was glad to discover I could take most of these pictures from my dining room window without having to go outside and deal with the heat and noise myself. Ryan and Wes were glad to have a little bit of shade from the two trees, something they don’t always have on their jobs. By the time they were doing the second well, moving the truck further down toward the road, the sun had shifted enough that Ryan could stand in the maple’s shade while maneuvering the drill.

These are the “pipes” coming out of the first well: Wes continued unwinding them and stretching them across the yard. The excess tubing will be cut back before being joined to the lines that will be trenched in, later.

After having taken only a 20 minute break, eating their lunch under the maple tree while talking to me about how much of this they do these days. Not many people really know about geothermal yet even though his grandfather had been digging wells for systems as far back as 1985. One of their jobs is working with a developer out along Jonestown Road who’s putting in town houses, each one having its own geothermal well connected to a heat-transfer pump rather than relying on non-renewable fossil fuels to provide both winter heating and summer cooling.

Another 20 minutes to reposition the truck, and then another 2½ hours to drill the second well and soon they were inserting the tubing down into the second well. For some reason, even though this one was only about 12-15 feet away and just a little lower than the first well, they ran into water a lot sooner than they had with the first one. There was more mud but still not the flow of water I was anticipating. Like watching a cartoon, I was half-hoping they’d strike oil – then I wouldn’t have to worry about my next job, would I?

The last phase of this part of the project was something I hadn’t been expecting. They moved the flat-bed around, Wes got up and connected a water hose to the red concrete-mixer-like thing then started opening what appeared to be 50-pound sacks of... concrete, maybe? I had no idea. Schlogging through the mud, Ryan connected a larger hose from the flat-bed – looking like something a fireman would drag up from a hydrant – and stuffed it down into the first well.

This wasn’t concrete after all, Ryan explained as he held out a glob of stuff that could only be described as badly cooked oatmeal. This was Bentonite Clay, a special kind of clay that was only mined in places like Wyoming.

When mixed with water, it actually works better as an agent to transfer the heat from the ground into the tubing, making it a more efficient way to heat or cool the water in the tubes than concrete. This stuff will not solidify but keeps this yucky-looking glompy texture, giving it a greater conductability as well as flexibility if the ground should for any reason shift around a little.

After both wells were then filled with this heavy oatmeal... I mean, gel-like clay, it was a matter of sorting out the hoses and tubes, mounding some of the excess mud up around the well-tops (since this will sink down a bit as it settles), and doing what clean-up is possible after such a messy job. I kept wondering what it is about something like this that makes guys want to say “oh yeah, I wanna be a well-driller when I grow up.” But they did a great job with it and I feel much more reassured about the decision to “go green” with the geothermal technology.

The next phase is the trench-digging which Westbrook Drilling will do sometime next week and then, the following week, Groff’s comes in to take out the old dinosaur-devouring furnace and replace it with a smaller, more efficient and earth-friendly heat transfer pump.

People have told me how much they hated heat-transfer pumps, but this one works differently. Rather than taking it from the air outside – which is not an efficient source of heat in the winter time – it takes it from the water circulating in these tubes, kept at a fairly steady temperature of 55° winter or summer by the ground temperature. From there, it should heat my house in the winter and keep it cool in the summer with a minimum drain on the electricity. I can reduce my “carbon footprint” considerably not to mention my out-going utility bills.

I’ll report back here during the coming weeks as the process continues and let you know how August works out in terms of cool-air comfort and how my electric bill will compare with last year’s when I was trying to run the a/c as little as possible and not feeling terribly comfortable.

Meanwhile, if you have any questions about the geothermal technology, do some googling and find some contractors in your area. You can check a few of these links - here and here (a good one) - there is even a video on YouTube (I have to admit, since I have no audio on this computer, not yet having replaced the two sets of speakers the cats disabled in their quest for really tasty wires, I'm not sure about the Chinese subtitles, but pictures can still be worth a few thousand words...).

If the spectre of Global Warming and swimming polar bears doesn't impress you to do anything about it, think about your pocket book and the price of oil. If you're in the market to build a new home, consider including geothermal technology in the process now; if you're looking at the idea of replacing an existing furnace system, consider the options but don't discount geothermal without really looking into it. If the cost can equal a replacement oil furnace and a couple of years' oil, it sounds like a pretty good investment. Something to think about...

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