Spokane Journal of Business

If there’s a well, there’s a way

Northwest Hydro-Fracturing

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Lynn Bartholomew deals routinely with the kind of pressures most of us can only imagine. And while the resulting stress isnt likely to lead anyone into early retirement, it does pack enough of a wallop to fracture hundreds of feet of granite bedrock.

Doing business as Northwest Hydro-Fracturing, Bartholomew travels throughout the Pacific Northwest from his office and warehouse at 13812 W. Lincoln in the Seven-Mile area, to create fissures in subterranean rock and free up water to fill dry holes or to increase flows from under-producing wells.

You can affect most of the rock beneath a five-acre tract with hydro-fracturing, says Bartholomew, who in the early 1980s began researching and experimenting with the technique of fracturing rock with water pressure. Its usually just what a low-producing well needs.

Although he began drilling water wells for his fathers business before he reached his teens, he turned to hydro-fracturing in 1991, when his family quit the drilling business.

We sold the drill rigs 10 years ago, and I got heavy into it, he says of his work in hydro-fracturing. Were the only ones this side of Wisconsin who do it for a living. Thats why we cover a ton of country in four states.

Bartholomew says the hydro-fracturing technique was developed by the petroleum industry for use in oil fields in the 1940s, but little was done to adapt the technique to water drilling until almost 40 years later. He began researching oil-field fracturing techniques in the early 1980s along with his father, Daryl, who has since retired, and his brother, Gary, who now runs a well-pump business.

There was a lot of information on hydro-fracturing available through the Society of Petroleum Engineers, he says. The problem was mostly one of sizing down the technology. Oil drilling involves drilling to depths of between 5,000 and maybe 30,000 feet. Youre not nearly at that depth with water drilling. Typically, youre at less than 1,000 feet, usually between 200 and 500 feet.

Bartholomew says that wells situated in bedrock draw water from underground fissures where groundwater tends to collect. Wells drilled into underground rock formations in the Northwest typically perform poorly, not because of a lack of available groundwater, but because they fail to intersect with such fissures, he says.

A well shaft that doesnt intersect a major fissure or a number of fissures either will be a dry hole or produce water in such small quantities that the well wont fill a reservoir or holding tank efficiently, he says.

Hydro-fracturing involves stressing bedrock so that it fractures into fissures that stretch more than 300 feet from a well shaft, Bartholomew says. These newly fractured fissures then intersect with neighboring water-bearing fissures, linking a well shaft with new sources of groundwater.

To cause the rock to fracture, Bar-tholomew, inserts two 5-foot-long, pressure-inflatable heavy rubber packers, or plugs, into a well shaft to isolate a section of the shaft. He then pumps water at pressures that sometimes exceed 2,000 to 3,000 pounds per square inch into the isolated shaft section until the surrounding rock stresses and fractures.

While he says hydro-fracturing will work in any rock hard enough that the (well) hole can stand open by itself, Bartholomew says the process isnt appropriate for wells situated in sand, gravel, or clay.

The prices he charges vary by the size and depth of the well, whether he must pull and set a pump and liner, and according to the distance he must transport his equipment. Bartholomew says, however, that the average cost for hydro-fracturing a private well runs around $3,000 to $4,000. Thats about 50 percent of the typical cost to drill a well, he says.

Drilling costs typically begin at over $20 per foot. But your alternatives are drilling deeper, which usually takes you into formations with fewer water-bearing fractures and adds to your cost for pumps, and drilling a second well in the same low-yield rock formation, he says. You can spend close to the same amount of money or even much more without having much of anything to show for it.

Bartholomew claims he can document an average increase in water production in excess of 500 percent from the wells he has fractured. His company will prorate its charges for wells that dont have improved production of at least 100 percent. As an example, Bartholomew says, a customer would be charged only 90 percent of the fracturing cost for a well that had only a 90 percent improvement in flow.

He says most of his hydro-fracturing customers are private well owners who have recently drilled on a property theyre developing or who need to increase well production to meet requirements for a refinancing or to sell their property to a buyer who will be financing the purchase.

During the early stages of his experimentation with hydro-fracturing, Bartholomew often needed two trucks and three days to hydro-fracture a well. A typical job now takes just one day and a single, two-man crew. He uses a single tractor-trailer rig with a mounted crane and high-pressure pumps, and pulls a smaller trailer mounting a 2,600-gallon water tank.

He says one of the advancements that helped refine the hydro-fracturing process is his use of a small submersible video camera that he lowers into a well to inspect the shaft and establish the best locations for setting the inflatable packers.

Although he was the only one who practiced hydro-fracturing in the region until about two years ago, there are about four drilling companies in the Spokane area and three in Western Washington now offer the service along with their drilling services, each using a single packer, Bartholomew says.

My competitors arent set up for double packers, he says.

Bartholomew claims the significance of his use of the double-packer technique is that experience has shown that only a little more than half of the wells hydro-fractured with a single packer will show any improvement in water flow. The double-packer technique, however, will achieve some improvement in flow more than 90 percent of the time, he says.

Licensed to do water and environmental drilling in Washington, Idaho, Montana, and Oregon, Bartholomew also performs hydro-fracturing to assist in the clean-up of contaminated groundwater underneath municipal landfills and industrially contaminated sites. He says hydro-fracturing bedrock beneath such sites often is the most effective way to give pumping systems used in cleanups access to isolated fissures of contaminated water.

With no formal education in geology or engineering, Bartholomew draws from his lifetime of experience in drilling and developing water wells and his research. Seven years ago he expanded his business to include the cleaning and rehabilitation of wells, pumps, and pump screens. Using a combination of chemical, manual, water-pressure processes, he treats wells for a variety of problems ranging from mineral scaling to sand, silt, and bacterial buildup.

Although he holds occasional seminars on his techniques and says he lists his business in 25 different phone books and lots of local papers this time of year, Bartholomew says a large number of clients learn about his services through word of mouth. While hydro-fracturing and most well rehabilitation work can be performed year-round, summer is usually his busiest time of year.

He says hell do hydro-fracturing work as long as the temperature stays above 20 degrees Fahrenheit.

I suppose theres no real reason why I couldnt work when it gets much colder than that, but adds laughing, Id just rather not.

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