Massive Shale Formations Fuel Infrastructure Work

Many northeast Ohio communities that are located in the Marcellus and Utica shale plays are taking proactive steps to address an aging, inadequate utilities infrastructure.

One such community is Wooster, OH, located approximately 50 miles south/southwest of Cleveland and 35 miles southwest of Akron. Because of this, northeastern Ohio pipeline installers are benefiting from the increased attention to outdated pipelines, including family-owned Whitt Welding, a utility installation contractor located near Wooster in Barberton, OH. Last spring, the company recently installed more than 17,000 feet of new pipeline for the municipality of Wooster – and there’s more pipeline work ahead, especially for their horizontal directional drilling operations.

“We’re averaging one to two bores a day right now,” says Steve Whitt, a third-generation family member who joined the business six years ago. “I’d estimate we’ve completed 50 to 60 pipeline bores just in the past month alone. There’s a lot of natural gas drilling going on in our area so pipeline work has been steady. It’s been very good for our business.”

Centuries’ supply

Geologists and energy experts suggest the volume of natural gas contained in combined Marcellus and Utica plays is enough to fuel the needs of North America for more than two centuries. The full economic impact of these immense underground energy reservoirs is still evolving, especially in Ohio since natural gas production in the Buckeye state is just beginning.

According to a recent report compiled by Bentek Energy, a Colorado-based energy market analytics firm, continued development of Utica and Marcellus and a rapidly growing infrastructure to transport the gas represents significant opportunities for the entire Northeast U.S. And that’s good news for scores of pipeline installers like Whitt Welding.

Natural gas drilling activity in the Marcellus and Utica shale plays can also be linked to a notable increase in municipality work. After the Great Recession forced towns like Wooster to postpone plans for upgrading aging infrastructures, many municipalities are now moving forward with underground projects delayed previously due to funding shortfalls. Yet the notable increase in infrastructure work is more than just coincidental.

“What we’re doing for the city of Wooster – updating their natural gas infrastructure in mass quantity all at one time – is fairly common within our trade territory right now,” says Whitt. “We’re installing anywhere from two- to 12-inch gathering lines, replacing outdated service lines and making much-needed repairs to older existing lines to improve delivery for customers using HDD. Jobs that were previously on hold are now being completed.”

According to Whitt, the majority of the projects are being installed by HDD because it’s an efficient method when working among a network of existing underground utilities, and also helps minimize disruption for residents and businesses. He uses the company’s Vermeer D24x40 Series II Navigator drill because of the versatility and small footprint provided by directional drilling.

“A lot of the work we’re doing now is in congested residential neighborhoods with several other utility lines present,” Whitt says. “Most of the bores have been along main road intersections, so consideration for minimizing disruption is important. We’ve encountered a lot of other utilities and had to plan a route around them and the D24x40 drill helps us do that more efficiently. We’re usually running from around three to 4-feet deep.”

The sandy clay soil conditions presented few drilling challenges for the drill although the clay-based soil composition did have a tendency to want to stick to the drill stem. To minimize the gumminess and sticky attributes, Whitt paired a soil lubricant (Baroid’s Poly-Bore) with the bentonite/water drilling fluid recipe.

“We like to keep reamer size at least a couple of sizes larger than the diameter of pipe being installed for each bore,” Whitt says. “If we’re pulling back a four-inch pipe, I’ll likely use a six-inch reamer; an eight-inch pipe, we’ll use a 10-inch reamer, and so on. Depending on the pipe we’re installing, usually on smaller bores, generally under six-inch, I only ream once. But on bores to accommodate larger-diameter product, above eight-inch, I usually pre-ream once, and then ream again while pulling the product through the second time. Seems to work pretty well.”

A winning combination

Since venturing into the world of trenchless technology nearly three years ago, HDD has become Whitt’s preferred method for completing most utility and pipeline installations – especially in congested, high traffic areas and residential neighborhoods – because it’s less intrusive and allows him to navigate existing underground utilities more effectively.

“We started out with a used Vermeer D16x20 Series II about three years ago,” Whitt says. “We started drilling almost immediately and it didn’t take long for us to realize how much more productive and efficient we could be using HDD. It really improved how fast we could get a job done.”

Since many of the jobs Whitt Welding completes are in highly congested parts of cities and towns and in established residential areas where a network of other utilities is usually present, Whitt emphasizes the importance of formulating a sound drill plan up front is just as important is locating.

“Completing a project successfully hinges on solid planning, being organized and most of all, accurate locating,” Whitt says. “We keep well ahead of the drill, so knowing what’s ahead in terms of existing utilities and other pipelines and having alternative approaches prepared when the original plan takes an unexpected turn is helpful. We study blueprints for each job thoroughly in advance to get the implementation perspective.

“Then we compare the plan to the actual physical jobsite to make sure everything connects,” he says. “The combination of good planning, accurate locating, reliable equipment and skilled drill operators make for a winning combination. Horizontal directional drilling has helped improve our company’s overall efficiency. In a normal eight-hour day before HDD, using open-cut and trenching, we would install on average about 200 to 300-feet of pipe a day. But using HDD, we’re able to do about 500 feet in the same amount of time with less disturbance and a lot cleaner job in general.”

Baroid Industrial Drilling Products, (877) 379-7412,
Vermeer Corp., (888) 837-6337,

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