Hard On Equipment: Going Back After Fort McMurray’s Wildfire

On the highway in front of the car: a never-ending stream of vehicles slowly inching forward. In the rearview mirror: a wall of fire from the scorched Albertan earth reaching up to mix with black clouds of swirling ash.

A couple weeks ago, the northern Alberta oil-town of Fort McMurray was ravaged by a wildfire that forced over 90,000 people to evacuate their homes.

Fort McMurray has been growing steadily since the 1990’s – it includes a sizeable permanent population as well as temporary residents. Some estimates measure the city’s shadow population at around 20% of the town’s total inhabitants, although it’s a number that’s constantly in flux given the ebb and flow of itinerant workers..

No matter how many people live and work in Fort McMurray, it’s a town that, for a week at least in May of 2016, only had one direction.


Leaving It All Behind

It’s human nature to take our possessions for granted. It’s alright, we all do it – but it’s situations like the Fort McMurray wildfire that help us re-achieve perspective. Our homes are where we plant our roots. Our vehicles transport us and our most prized possessions (our families) to and fro.

With the mass exodus out of Fort McMurray, people left behind much more than toys, appliances, and TV’s – they were forced to abandon the memories they’d spent years building in a town that welcomed them from all over the world.

People left behind their jobs. Their life’s work. Their offices. Their homes away from home.

Certainly, the loss of one’s home cuts deepest, but it’s the tiny cuts from a million other losses that stings as well.

I imagine heavy machines left to the mercy of the flames on abandoned job-sites. The outskirts of Fort McMurray are home to work camps that house thousands of men and women. Fortunately the people got out, but the work, the equipment – that’s all gone.

For now.

The Nature of Hard Work

There are plenty of publications that will deliver the stories of people affected by the Fort McMurray wildfire in the years to come. It’s not our job here on the Viking blog to pretend we’re something we’re not: a newspaper or magazine.

But when a blue collar town goes up in flames, it hurts, even here on the sidelines. The nature of our work reminds us of the difficulty these men and women are going to have when it comes to rebuilding not only their homes, but their livelihoods. Fort Mac is the centre of petroleum production in Canada. Veins of black gold flow from this boomtown all over the world. It takes a lot of planning and hard work to extract and refine oil so it’s useful for the rest of the world – we’ve all been fortunate that the people working in northern Alberta possess these qualities in spades.

Home For Some, Heartland For Many

As Fort McMurray’s oilsands developed and attracted people from all over the world, it started to become clear that this was a place where you could leave behind your past and look forward to a lucrative future. Fort McMurray offered opportunity for anyone unafraid of using their hands to provide for themselves or their families. The oil industry, and the drilling sector in particular, is not elitist. The values of hard work, determination, and motivation are welcomed here, and not even a devastating brush with an apocalyptic fire can burn those qualities away.

Fort McMurray is home to oil rig workers. Skilled tradespeople. Small business owners. Grocery store clerks. Bankers. Wait staff. Farmers. Forestry specialists. Original equipment manufacturers.

Fort Mac is home to families and people who’ve come to put their skill to good use and subcontractors who started with nothing and built a life for themselves.

For now, that life is on hold and it’s tough to say what will be waiting when everyone goes back.

And if we have to start over again, so be it. Bring it on.

Kevin Goes to England: Dando Drilling & the Other Side of the Pond

“It’s true, I feel like I’ve been all over the world lately, but there’s still so much to explore. That’s the beauty of this business, there’s hard working, smart people everywhere.”

That’s Kevin Reimer, one of Viking West’s vice presidents and an explorer at heart.

“Here at home we’re constantly looking for new ways to get better, whether it’s in the office or in the factory, so it makes sense that we’d seek those answers elsewhere, too.” Last month, Kevin had the opportunity to tour the facilities of Dando Drilling, our partners from the UK. I caught up with Kevin to hear about the trip.

Dando Drilling Head Office
Dando Drilling Head Office

Kelvin: Dando’s home base is in a town called Littlehampton in the West Sussex area. Here’s a softball question: what was it like?

Kevin: It was so cool, that’s my first thought. We were close to the ocean on the southern tip of England, about an hour and a half west of Dover. Dando put me up in this cool little town called Arundel which was a ten minute drive from their factory. It was in a really quaint, old village with a castle overlooking the entire village area, which was adjacent to the River Arun. I stayed in the Swan Hotel which was built in the 1600’s. Cobblestone streets. It’s like time had been standing still for centuries.


What were the Dando facilities like?

Their head office is actually in an old customs house on the edge of the river. When shipments came in via the river ages ago this was where they were processed. Their factory is about five minutes away on an old World War II runway called Ford Airfield which has been converted into an industrial park.

We had meetings at the head office and meetings at the factory. I got to see the new Terrier Mark 2. The Terrier has been re-designed and it’s even better now, it worked really well before but the improvements have really touched on a lot of important details. I love watching the progression of these machines.

I also got to see the Multitec 4000 series machine and the Multitec 9000 series machine in production at the factory, so it was neat to see the real meat and potatoes of the operation as the equipment takes shape.

That being said, and not to discredit the experience of the machines, but the really great part was spending time with the team over there. The sales team, engineering team, production; our industry is still about people, and it will always be about people making new things and sharing new solutions.


Viking is a manufacturer of attachments, Dando is an original equipment and machine manufacturer. When it comes to values and goals, what do Viking and Dando have in common?

Both companies definitely want to provide innovative and cost effective products for the North American market., which as we all know throws new challenges at us constantly. We’re both focused on providing solutions. Viking works closely with customers and listens intently to find areas where were can assist them and be more competitive and reduce cost and Dando does the same thing. This is really why this partnership began. We think the same. Dando has always been great at thinking outside the box and coming up with clever drilling solutions. That’s why I contacted Rupert Coler, the sales engineer at Dando, four years ago and challenged him to create a new sonic rig that didn’t exist. Back then we worked together to develop this new machine and it was a great experience. So much so that here we are today with Viking and we’re taking our partnership to the next level. 

Having a pint at the pub beneath the shadow of an old castle?

(Laughs) Yes, exactly. We’re excited about the future with Dando and the new projects we have planned, but it’s great to get along so well and share a few laughs. That always makes the work a little more rewarding, right?


Part 2: Thoroughbred Engineering’s Custom Drilling Rig & the SPT Auto Hammer

“This isn’t going to work. It’s too high.”

We’ve all encountered moments on the job where something that should work perfectly simply won’t. It’s easy to get frustrated, because you’re probably about to lose time or energy.

However, you won’t get far working in the drilling industry if you’re incapable of approaching a problem with logic and a cool head. That’s the choice Darrin Croucher of Georgetown, Kentucky’s Thoroughbred Engineering took when their brand new custom drilling rig encountered a significant problem. Actually, a couple significant problems.

But for Darrin, a problem only exists until a solution wins the day.

Here’s part 2 of our case study with Thoroughbred Engineering’s Darrin Croucher as we tag along for the process of creating a custom drill with several unique components, including Viking’s SPT Auto Hammer.

Kelvin: What work has the rig done so far? Have you come across any unforeseen challenges?

We’ve used the drill on three projects which have required varying depths, but in total we’ve drilled over 100 feet.

And yes, in this industry you have to prepared for anything. We were slowed down last week. Initially we found the 19 horsepower engine was not enough power to achieve our depths with the efficiency we wanted. We’ve been talking to a hydraulic designer at Link Belt, which has a factory here in Lexington, they told us the design was under-powered by half and suggested a Kohler 37 horsepower engine, so that’s ordered and on the way. This should allow us to drill pretty easily in fat clays to depths of 30 or 40 feet.

Learn more about Thoroughbred Engineering

But in the meantime, the work has all but slowed and we’re patiently waiting for the next step. Well, as patiently as possible I suppose. A lot people in this business got into it because they’re impatient, and there’s some value to that.

But we have to get it right.

It’s always tough when progress gets stalled. What’s happening in the meantime?

You know, we get excited during the process. It’s like getting a new car. Despite the lack of power, we took the rig out Monday to use the Viking Auto Hammer for the first time. However, our excitement was dashed again as we discovered our modification which attached the hammer on the mast was a bit too high to allow us to use the wench to raise it and remove it from the attachment. So we simply couldn’t detach and swing it in position.

Oh boy. Sounds like a lot of hurdles.

There are some challenges to overcome, sure, but part of why we’re in this business is to solve problems. We’re building a brand new custom rig and we want it to work perfectly to our specifications, so the modifications are necessary. I mean, no one likes to sit by while there’s work to be done, but it’s more important to get it done right than to get it done fast.

So we’re taking the rig back to the fab shop tomorrow to lower the attachment three and a half feet. This will make it easier and safer to unlock it from the mast and swing it into its operating position. 

All in all, the rig looks great and it will work once we get it where I want it to be. Taking a water drill and making it a geotechnical rig while working with several different vendors has its challenges. For instance, the rig is all standard sizes and other parts are metric. The new engine drive shaft is larger than the old 19 horsepower which will require a new housing unit to the hydro pump.

Has the process been worth it? It sounds like a lot work  and you’re not quite finished yet with the machine itself, and then the actual work begins.

We’re on the down slope now, that’s what I’ve promised my crew anyways (laughs). Once we get the new engine and lower the hammer attachment, we’ll have something at a cost almost no one can match.  

Additionally, I’ve learned a tremendous amount about drills that will benefit us as time goes on. I doubt many people can tell you how many foot-pounds of torque are needed to drill 30 feet deep in fat clays, or what RPM’s are required to drill in limestone or how much horsepower is needed to drive a 3000 PSI hydraulic system pumping 22 gallons a minute.

Needless to say, I have enjoyed myself throughout the process, as funny as that might sound.

Darrin, for us, that’s not funny at all. That’s how we operate, concentrating on the process and taking our time to get the best possible product.

You bet. And like you said, that’s before the actual project even begins. Before we get further into talking about our rig, I want to ensure it’s performing as needed. Give us another week or two and I have confidence I’ll have more to report.

No problem Darrin. Thanks so much for taking the time and allowing us to come along for the ride. Talk to you soon.

How Thoroughbred Engineering Built a Custom Drilling Rig for a Fraction of Market Cost

Thoroughbred Engineering knows a thing or two about getting the job done right. From civil design to geotechnical engineering to drilling exploration, the Georgetown, Kentucky based company is used to tackling multiple challenges all at once.

Facing an important project that required a strict budget, Thoroughbred recently purchased an SPT Auto Hammer from Viking West with the intention of modifying a custom drilling rig they purchased at a reduced cost. We were keen to “listen in” on the process of out-fitting the rig, and project coordinator Darrin Croucher was generous enough with his time to fill us in on the details.

Even when those details represented delays and frustration.

This is part one of a multi-part series examining one company’s pursuit of a custom machine built at a fraction of standard market cost.

Kelvin: We talk a lot at Viking about the conditions operators are required to work in, typically locations such as jungles to deserts to right here in the BC forest region. What are the conditions Thoroughbred is currently working in?

Darrin: 90% of our geotechnical services involve exploring beneath the surface of the Earth, typically to depths of 15 to 25 feet. We generally drill four to ten holes. Right now we’re drilling through karst, which is landscape with a layer of limestone underneath. This limestone erodes and the result is inconsistent earth that we have to manage. As a result, drilling rock cores is generally required.

Learn more about Thoroughbred.

It’s crucial to get the job done safely and we don’t want to worry about the machinery, we just want to rely on our people. Using an auto hammer lets us focus on the job, the safety and reliability is taken care of. Because we are often asked to drill in factories, we wanted the maximum height of the rig to be less than 15 feet as well.

So for your particular conditions, safety is obviously important, but the equipment simply has to fit, too. What about cost?

Our goal was to have a drill that met these requirements and we also needed to spend less than $50,000 after it was outfitted. Well, we learned this was impossible, but it’s important to stick to your budget, obviously, right? Especially in these times. No drill on the market could meet our goals and as a result, we decided to go the custom route instead.

So at this point, we’ve spent $25,000. We purchased a small rig and modified it with two motors. One that’s high-speed, low-torque for coring and another that’s low-speed, high-torque for augering. The rig comes in at 14 feet so we’re well within parameters.

Are you limited by your budget or is it simply a reality of the current market and the economy?

I don’t think we’re limited, we just need to be comfortable with the projects we commit to. If something doesn’t suit us then we’re not going to waste our time or a customer. People in this industry need to help each other out, and part of that is being honest and upfront about your capabilities. So, saying that, we’ve been around a long time and we’re refined in our approach. These days it’s about paying close attention to all your details.

We won’t be drilling into the ground inside a commercial building or an existing mine or anything any time soon, so we were satisfied with the height of this rig.

So, now that we had the rig in place, we bought the Viking Auto Hammer and outfitted the machine. We used a local fab shop to attach the hammer to the mast. We also made other modifications to the water drill that we noticed were important as we were going through this process.

So at this point we were excited to take the rig out for a test drive, except we discovered one small problem that could, potentially, have an enormous impact.

Next up in Part 2 in our Case Study with Thoroughbred:

“There are some challenges to overcome, sure, but part of why we’re in this business is to solve problems. We’re building a brand new custom rig and we want it to work perfectly to our specifications.”