Old Technology: Horsepower and Rig Up

By Steven Berg, VP Operations, with CAODC

Drilling specific size wells demands that drilling rigs be equipped with a certain horsepower. In the early days the engines produced very little horsepower, and banks of engines compounded together using chain drives were used until the desired horsepower was reached.  To reduce the rig up and prevent the need of having multiple banks of engines, the group would typically power the drawworks hoisting function, the rotary table torque and RPM, and a tail drive would typically go down to the single duplex pump needed to drill.

The engines in the 1950’s were very loose, two-stroke running diesels, robust and simple in nature with very low horsepower output.  Because of the low horsepower requirement, the engine could accommodate the introduction of any fuel, such as kerosene, diesel, gasoline, natural gas or propane.  Modern 4 stroke engines are designed for high efficiency. The size of engine that produced 70hp in the 1950’s now has an output of 450hp.

How would rigging up have been with the old style rigs?

Imagine trying to start a bank of engines after a -30 degree rig move.  Older oils did not have low temperature viscosity and became thick when cold, requiring heat to use.  The rig movers would spot the engines and compounds on the sub, and then what?  Likely a few hours of connecting chains and belts for the roughnecks while the Motorhand tried feverishly to heat up the primary engine (typically a Superior, Waukesha, Caterpillar, or Cummins Diesel) with a torch to get the oil flowing.

Using a massive bank of batteries, the Motorhand would fire the starter and poured ether or gasoline into the air intake. The crew would install the chain guards as the first engine billowed white smoke, chugging like a locomotive.  The Motorhand, confident the engine would stay running, would start the procedure again on engine #2.  With engine #1 finally burning a slight black exhaust, engine #2 would start from engaging clutches on the chaincases the roughnecks helped assemble.  Engine #1 would bog down when the clutch engaged and a small amount of gas used in engine #2 which was forced to turn over and roared to life.  Meanwhile, the Derrickhand and Driller would help spot the rest of the equipment including the pumps, mud tank, doghouse, generator building, and boiler. The floor engines were tended to for a few minutes and the Motorhand would turn his attention to the generator so the boiler could fire.  The generator procedure was much the same, using a torch and starting fluid.  The boiler was fired to build a head of steam and the rest of the lines connected to provide electricity, water, and steam to the rig.  Once everything was connected the boiler valves were opened to start heating the rig.

During the first stages of rig development, the guards around rotating equipment were simple or non-existent, the machines were crude, and the rig up was an act of brute strength. In the 1950’s this procedure took all day and perhaps a second shift to get the rig up and running. A modern rig move can be performed in a few hours.

In the 1950s, incidents weren’t counted to record damage or injury, but the need for change paved the way for the practice expected now. Modern Floorhands, Motorhands, Derrickhands, and Drillers should be thankful to not have to experience the past harsh drilling conditions. The drilling industry has always been wise to take notice of the lessons of its past because both successes and failures have brought insight on keeping incidents at a minimum and increasing efficiency.  Proper PPE, procedures, and modern equipment help the industry to “rig up” and stay safe.

The lesson here, though simple, is important: let’s remember that the modern processes and improvements used today are the gifts of those who lived through a substantially harsher time.