Project Profile: For West Virginia Contractor, Machine Control Is a Gas

Feb. 23, 2012

The Marcellus formation in the northeast US holds one of the country’s largest shale gas deposits. Estimates of its content range from 260 trillion cubic feet (TCF) to 490 TCF-the equivalent of as much as 87 trillion barrels of oil. While only a fraction of that volume will ultimately be recoverable, the push to establish wells throughout New York, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia (as well as parts of Ohio, Virginia, and Maryland) has been moving forward at a blinding pace. Installing drilling pads, one of the first steps in the gas recovery process, has been an increasing source of income for many regional and national construction firms-and the competition for more such work gets fiercer all the time. To gain a competitive edge, one West Virginia construction company has turned to GPS-based machine control, and, in doing so, has found that the technology affords better control not just of the machine but also of the entire scope of the project.

Founded nearly 40 years ago, Huffman Construction is based in the northern West Virginia town of West Milford. In that four decades, the company has established itself as the go-to firm for oil-and-gas construction throughout the area, a move that has paid nice dividends of late, according to Jeff Golden, Huffman’s estimator and GPS setup specialist.

Fixing the Slips
“Eddie and Betty Huffman, the company’s founders, have built up a nice clientele for new gas and oil drilling pad construction, but we’ve also done a great deal of work in slip repair,” he says.  “While the boom in new drilling throughout the Marcellus Shale has been great from an economic standpoint, the influx of companies who are not familiar with the pad construction process has resulted in many such sites being poorly constructed. That’s where we come in.”

Golden says these firms don’t understand the amount of prep work that has to take place before the site itself can be built. This can include digging down to establish what he calls “a foot” for the earth to settle on. Instead, he says, a lot of firms from out of town come in and simply start pushing dirt. “The material here is topsoil, clay and water and that’s a recipe for slippage,” he says. “If you don’t deal with that first, it simply will not hold. Unfortunately, that’s been the case far too often and, while it’s bad for a drilling firm’s production schedule, it’s great for our business. We go in, correct those mistakes and get the well pad set for equipment.”

Pushed in the Right Direction
A common misconception in the construction business says that GPS and machine control are technologies only suited for large operations; Huffman Construction is proof that such is not the case. The company is small- to medium-sized by most standards, yet is enjoying the benefits the newer technology has brought to its job sites. As to how the company came to be a proponent of GPS, Golden says it was, in a sense, pushed into that realm, but has since come to recognize it as being a real turning point.

“About a year or so ago, we were doing work for a company in this area that required a GPS capability from all of its subcontractors. We valued their business, so we contacted the local Topcon dealer, who in turn put us in touch with Dave Krautz, the GPS sales specialist. Now working with Productivity Products & Services (PPS), he set us up with a Topcon HiPer GA base and rover, as well as machine control for one of our John Deere excavators and one of our dozers. The impact on our operation was immediate.”

Golden says the overriding benefit GPS and machine control brings to the operation is the knowledge and satisfaction in knowing that the company can minimize the risk-and costs-of unnecessarily moving material.

“When we start a job like this, we are always working with a limits of disturbance line (LOD). That’s the point, past which we cannot disturb the site. On this project, they initially wanted us to remove all the topsoil out to the LOD. But we knew, from looking at our model, precisely where we needed material, where the toes of the slopes were going to be, and so on. So, using Topcon’s 3D-MC2 on our John Deere 850 dozer, we cut a bench all around the site, indicating where the toes were going to be, and moved all the topsoil inside of that, leaving the rest intact.”

Taking that approach, he says, eliminated moving roughly 10,000 cubic yards of dirt that the company didn’t have to move-at $4 a yard, a $40,000 savings to Huffman’s bottom line. “It might not sound like much to some, but when you are being competitive on a $400,000 job and know you can save $40,000, it might be the difference between getting that job and not.”

Liner Notes
To the uninitiated, construction of a natural-gas pad might seem fairly straightforward: Level the area, install the rig, provide some access roads, and start drilling. Nothing could be further from the truth. Gas pads are complex systems that include (in addition to the drilling rig itself) processing and storage tanks, well heads, pumps, and one or more large impoundment ponds designed to hold either fresh water for the hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” process, or the fluids removed as a byproduct of that process. Construction of those ponds, says Golden, provided another example of how their newly acquired technology could benefit them.

“This site is about 10 acres in size, with a massive fresh water impoundment pond on it. Each one of these ponds is built, then lined using a custom-sized, high-tech, expensive pit liner. Contractors bid on the liner installation based on numbers provided by the design engineers and install it based on the pond’s actual finished dimensions. If the actual pond is slightly larger, they have to seam together segments of the liner material for the best fit, which can be very costly. With GPS there is no guesswork; our design is exactly what the engineers lay out for total area. Now, those guys are smiling from ear to ear since there is no wastage or a need to buy additional material.”

The elimination of traditional surveying and staking, coupled with the downtime associated with that effort, is yet another huge plus from Golden’s perspective. “You start accruing four and five hours of downtime at a clip and you are talking thousands and thousands of lost dollars in a hurry,” he says. “Now the dozer with Topcon’s 3D-MC2 controls the lift while we are compacting, and we work our slopes as we go along. Everything is done; we don’t have to come back and fool with it again. There is no way of overstating just how valuable always being in control of the site is to us.”

Setting a Trend
In addition to the machine-control functionality on the dozer, Huffman’s John Deere 200 excavator is equipped with Topcon’s X-63 system, which, says Golden, gives an impressive level of control in a number of areas of the job.

“In the erosion and sediment facet of the project we have to construct silt ponds, and the GPS-based technology on the excavator allows us to quickly and easily build the sediment traps. Everything is on grade; everything is done. That used to be a staking and surveying nightmare. The same holds true for cutting in access roads; any unnecessary cutting and hauling has been eliminated. Now, all we have to do is fill it back in with rock and move on.”

Given the tremendous advantages GPS provides on a project such as Huffman’s, one would assume that every company working gas and oil construction would be on board with the technology. Golden says that, surprisingly, is not the case.

“Oddly enough, despite our size, we are kind of the pioneers in this industry for GPS and machine control. But I’m convinced everyone will eventually have to be going that way just to remain competitive. We are lucky to have been one of the few small companies that could make the move early on. But, to give credit where it’s due, it really helped that we had the support of an organization like PPS. Everyone there-Dave, Jay, Matt, Keith-has been available for us when we needed them. They made the transition to the new technology a smooth one, and their follow up service is a textbook example of how it should be done. It didn’t take us very long to realize we’d made a smart decision.”

Different Criteria
Huffman Construction bucks tradition in other ways as well. While other larger firms doing similar work rent the heavy equipment needed for the job, Huffman chooses instead to purchase it outright. Consequently, while the larger firms look at how much the equipment costs them an hour, they, instead focus on how much it saves them in an hour.

“So for every hour that machine is running, we need to make sure we get what it’s worth to make sure we can pay for it, maintain it, and so on,” he says. “Topcon’s GPS and machine control do all that for us and then some. We started this project in late July and, despite only being able to work three days a week for the first three weeks because of rain, we still wrapped it up on schedule. On a six-week job like this, I think it’s safe to say we saved every bit of two weeks-that’s huge.”

The ability to shave valuable time off the length of a project is critical to a smaller firm like Huffman Construction, whose limited size and available resources allow it to do only one such project at a time. Golden says that limitation precludes them from bidding on another job until they are just about through with the one in progress.

“Now, we are able to streamline things to such a degree that we will be into the bidding process sooner and, as a result, getting more work like this. In the next few years, we want to continue to grow as a company; if we have at least a couple more machines equipped with Topcon’s systems, I’m certain we can do whatever we set out to do.”