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Horizontal Technology News

Accuracy – HDD’s Lifeline

Author: John English

JOHN ENGLISH, PRESIDENT, HORIZONTAL TECHNOLOGY INC

The history and growth of the HDD industry has always been directly related to its steering capabilities. Early on, HDD was forced to focus on steering and guidance with a large percentage of a project’s budget consumed by the time and effort to place the drill in an acceptable location. The development of an artificial magnetic field to accurately locate the steering tool resulted in tremendous growth for the HDD industry.

Since that time, the experience level has been diluted. Many in decision-making positions have come to believe the accuracy of steering is related to the specifications of the steering tool itself. Misconceptions about ‘new technology’ and poorly designed bores have resulted in a drastic regression of drilling accuracy and documentation, not to mention contractor’s profits.

For some reason the HDD industry has somehow moved away from directional drills that are designed for successful completion. This trend – for bores designed with a minimal radius and at minimum distance, with little focus on documented accuracy – is taking money directly out of contractor’s pockets.

The early years of HDD steering had a single common denominator, no matter what system was used there was no way to know where you were until the bit exited the ground. To expand, HDD had to find a way to move from remote locations to more congested areas where the majority of construction was taking place.

In about 1988 Tensor developed a solution. By creating an artificial magnetic field, the steering tool position could be determined in relation to the source. Many methods were tested including DC currents, AC currents, single wires, parallel wires and electro-magnets (sometimes called beacons). All worked to varying degrees.

It was determined the most accurate method of establishing the position of a steering tool was a rectangular shaped coil, energized with a direct current and then to reverse the current. This method made use of the DC welders already on most HDD sites. When properly set up “the degree of accuracy exceeded expectations.” Tensor produced an operation manual with guidelines to operate the system with maximum accuracy and charged a footage fee for every foot drilled. For the first time a contractor could verify the location of his drill, below the ground, with complete confidence.

The result of this drilling accuracy was unprecedented growth for the HDD industry. The experience level diluted very quickly. Everyone was looking for their niche and an advantage over the competition. New technology became the buzz word although fewer and fewer understood the technology that already existed. Anything advertised as new was assumed better and very few had the experience to determine the difference. The extreme accuracy and the physics of how surface tracking worked were quickly lost in this expansion. Footage fees worked for Tensor and others wanted a similar method to reap the same benefits.

By creating different steering software and marketing it as the newest technology, the industry’s thirst for advancement was being filled with a placebo. The “new technology” wasn’t new and had a host of flawed promised backed by misleading case studies. The new system used the same techniques; replacing the proven instructions, suggested to obtain maximum accuracy, with promises of a quicker, simpler set up. Although the same capability had always been available, the technical aspects of setting up an accurate drill were quickly replaced with a lazy, less accurate set up. Technical questions about the “new system” were seldom imposed and ignored when they were asked.

The case studies led unsuspecting contractors and engineering firms to believe that these “new” methods had been tested and proven. They had been tested, quit diligently and many years before by Tensor, and discarded; not because they couldn’t be used – almost all the methods tested worked to some extent – but because they were less accurate than the final guidelines Tensor established.

Why would anyone purchase and use a less accurate tool and software, replacing a proven system with dead-on accuracy? Many who understood the physics of how the surface tracking worked asked questions and discounted the claims when they could not be answered. Others took the path of least resistance, believing the sales pitch of those who had a vested financial interest in the footage fees of this “new” steering software.

To be fair, the new software depends on the use of a similar magnetic field but in a less accurate method. Inferior in many ways, it does work and has been utilized by many contractors successfully. It has also resulted in numerous re-drills at tremendous costs to the user.

As steering and the documented locations become more important, the trend will swing towards more accurate drilling methods and the people designing the projects will be required to understand the differences. The freedom to throw away tracking data and replace it with adjusted calculations after the bit exits the ground will soon end. Tracking should be dead-on and the location of the bit precisely known. This ability – or, in the case of the new system, lack of ability – effects the design of the bore, as well as future construction in the same area.

Sometimes a general knowledge of where a line is located is sufficient; sometimes better accuracy is needed. There is only one method that can offer the improved accuracy when it is needed. It is important that contractors, engineering firms and pipeline owners understand the difference. Steering and tracking are essential to the design and success of any HDD project.

What was once common knowledge has been largely ignored and at the same time contractors are asked to drill in more congested areas, taking on more liability for less money.

Industry growth has stabilized and the knowledge level and professionalism will continue to rise. Contractors will be required to document the drill’s location with accurate tracking as well as post bore gyros. Contractors must use the steering systems to match the accuracy needed.

Horizontal Technology, Inc. has been the leading source for advanced steering accuracy for more than a decade and will be there in the future. The company continues to work with engineering firms, designers, consultants and inspectors, helping them to become more educated about the physics and capabilities of steering tool tracking systems.

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