Cold work

Aug. 1, 2006
IT'S AROUND midnight on a chilly autumn night, and Cliff Rutt is hard at work driving a 3200-gallon propane bobtail. He turns off the dirt road at the

IT'S AROUND midnight on a chilly autumn night, and Cliff Rutt is hard at work driving a 3200-gallon propane bobtail. He turns off the dirt road at the entrance to the first of six oil well sites needing propane deliveries.

Rutt owns CDR Propane in Johnstown, Colorado, and oil well drilling activity accounts for about two-thirds of the small company's business. Propane heats water that is combined with an industrial gel and sand in the fraccing process to improve the performance of oil wells.

“Our success with CDR Propane is closely tied to oilfield activity in the northeastern part of Colorado's front range,” Rutt says. “One of our first accounts when we started in 1998 was with a drilling company. We also have about 250 residential accounts within a 50-mile radius of Johnstown.

“I got into this business after 35 years of farming. I started in 1994 as a driver for another small petroleum distributor and went on from there.”

Family operation

With just three bobtails, CDR Propane is a small propane distributor and very much a family operation. However, Rutt is optimistic about future prospects for the company. He wants to build a bulk plant and add more bobtails.

“There is plenty of propane demand in this area,” he says. “Supply is the biggest problem we've faced recently. Propane was in short supply last winter, and that's something that seems to happen anytime it gets extremely cold in this area.

“We're awaiting local government approval to build a 60,000-gallon facility. Having our own bulk plant would help ease the product shortages because we could arrange our bulk propane shipments. It also would improve the efficiency of our operation.

“Currently, we load our bobtails at the American Pride Co-op in Mead (Colorado), a 25-mile roundtrip. My son Darrin fills the bobtails in the morning, so they are ready when I start my routes in the afternoon. He also makes deliveries in one of the bobtails. My daughter Kendra rides along with me to help with the residential deliveries, and I'm encouraging her to get her CDL (commercial driver license) so she can handle some of the deliveries on her own.”

Keep-full customers

Most of CDR Propane's residential customers are on a keep-full schedule, which helps the propane distributor to maximize productivity. Will-call customers account for a small amount of the business and typically have enough storage that they can get by with one or two refills a year.

“We follow a six-week schedule to supply all of our keep-full customers,” Rutt says. “We have a 200-gallon minimum for these accounts. We're busiest during December, January, and February, and we can do up to 20 customers a day.

“Our chief objective is to avoid outages. Outages are a big inconvenience for everyone. If we have a customer without heat, we are required to do a line test to ensure that the system is safe and operational before refilling the customer tank. That is an additional aggravation for the customer.”

Outages are an even bigger concern in the oilfield operation where drilling activity goes on around the clock. Propane is used to heat water that is pumped down the well as part of the fraccing process that creates fractures in rock formations near the bottom of a well, making it easier to collect and pump crude oil to the surface. The water is maintained at around 72 F by hot oil units.

Demanding work

CDR Propane is available 24 hours a day to service the oilfield accounts, but most of the work is done at night — usually midnight or later. Often, Rutt is accompanied on his late-night rounds by his wife Lydia.

Typically, CDR Propane will resupply six to eight well sites a night during the winter. These sites may be as much as 50 miles apart. The distributor usually delivers 400 to 450 gallons of propane to each customer location. However, a few accounts have super heaters that hold 1500 gallons of propane.

Rough roads and stormy weather can make it difficult to reach the well sites. Sand and gravel roads are typical. “Sometimes, the only way we can get back to the well site is to be towed in by a D9 Caterpillar tractor,” Rutt says.

Considering the operating conditions, Rutt wanted the toughest, most maneuverable bobtails he could find. He turned to High Country Proco in Berthoud, Colorado, for help in specing the right equipment for the job.

Rutt started with a 1991 Chevrolet with a 2800-gallon pressure vessel. It was followed by a 2001 Kenworth T300 bobtail with a 3,000-gallon tank and a 2005 T300 with 3200-gallon tank. Today, the Chevy bobtail serves as a backup unit.

“We learned over the past eight years that we need a rugged, reliable truck that can go where the maps show there aren't any roads,” Rutt says. “The T300s handle the dirt roads, maneuver easily around equipment and fences, and carry our payload to some pretty out-of-the-way places.”

CDR Propane's newest T300 has a Cummins 315-horsepower engine, six-speed Allison automatic transmission, and single drive axle. “The drivetrain configuration and a longer wheelbase make this truck maneuverable and easy to drive,” Rutt says. “It also has a very comfortable interior.”

The T300 cab offers a comfortable work area, an important feature during those cold winter nights in the oilfields. Rutt says the center console workstation offers a convenient place to store job tickets, and the console cover provides a good writing surface.

Rutt says he also appreciates the increased cab lighting in his newest T300, including a dual-bulb dome light and an additional light on the driver side when he's doing paperwork.

Visibility is another plus with Rutt's newest truck. He chose the optional corner windows and a powered window on the passenger side. “The corner windows were an important consideration because we drive on remote roads with sharp turns where it's often hard to see,” he says. “The corner windows also make a difference with improved visibility when we're backing up to a drilling site.”

Daughter Kendra outfitted the truck with a custom set of air horns that are guaranteed to catch the attention of other motorists and drilling rig workers. The truck also has Alcoa aluminum wheels and Michelin XZE steer tires and XDN2 drive tires that perform very well off-road.

All three of the bobtails have enclosed steel decks at the rear with the hose reels, meters, and other delivery hardware. Rutt says the cabinet provides protection against winter weather and makes it easier to operate the hardware.

The 3200-gallon MC331 pressure vessel mounted on the truck was fabricated by Arrow Tank & Engineering. Tank hardware includes LC meter and printer, RegO internal valves, and Full Circle swivel. Base Engineering Inc supplied the remote shutdown system. The Corken product pump is matched to the Allison automatic transmission and is powered by a Muncie PTO.