ATS thrives servicing western Kansas oilfields

May 1, 2008
Oil Prices push well beyond the $100-a-barrel mark. Diesel tops $4 a gallon in the United States, and gasoline isn't far behind. While these developments

Oil Prices push well beyond the $100-a-barrel mark. Diesel tops $4 a gallon in the United States, and gasoline isn't far behind.

While these developments mean challenging times in many parts of the country, they have been good news for oilfield service companies in such places as western Kansas. In fact, the news couldn't be better. Oilfield activity is at a record pace as workers do their best to squeeze every last drop of crude oil out of the ground.

Plenty of companies and their workers are benefiting from the frenzied oil production effort. This includes American Tank Service LLC (ATS) in Hays, Kansas, an oilfield company that has seen surging demand for its vacuum truck services.

“We hardly have time to catch our breath out here right now,” says Damon Breit, ATS owner. “Since the oil business came back about five years ago, we've been extremely busy. Each of our nine vacuum trucks is handling 10 to 12 jobs a day.

“Here in Hays and surrounding Ellis County oil is a big driving force that generates a lot of revenue. This oilfield was developed back in the 1940s, but it still has a lot of potential.”

Oilfield life

Breit grew up around the oilfield and has seen both the good times and bad. His father owned a tank truck and serviced oil wells during the 1970s and 1980s. Breit also worked in the oilfield during the 1980s and 1990s, except for a five-year stint as a motorcycle mechanic.

“Many of the wells in this area were idled during the late 1990s when crude oil prices dropped to $9 a barrel,” Breit says. “Many of the oilfield jobs went away for awhile.”

Despite the slowdown, Breit wanted to get back into the oilfield. He started filling in on weekends driving a vacuum truck for another oilfield service company. By 2001, he decided it was time to strike out on his own.

“I started with one vacuum truck just as the oilfields in this area were coming back,” he says. “It was hard work, and there were a lot of long days and nights at first. Still, the money is good even though it typically takes 90 days to get paid. If you can make your bills during the first five years, you can make it in this business.”

Breit says oilfield service is a competitive business, but it's also one that still relies heavily on personal relationships. An operator's reputation is a key factor in the success of his company.

“There aren't any contracts,” he says. “Jobs are arranged with a phone call and a verbal commitment. We have to charge the right price and get out there and do a good job. We're really on the honor system in this business. ATS has succeeded because we give our customers our best effort.”

Steady growth

That work ethic paid off quickly. Before long, Breit was adding more trucks, and he had built a garage where the vehicles are parked every night. Breit even bought a Caterpillar tractor that was used to drag vacuum trucks to the well sites when road conditions were particularly bad.

“The garage is important especially during the winter,” Breit says. “We have to be able to start up our trucks no matter how cold it gets. We're always on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

“We didn't keep the Cat for very long. We found that we could do just as well by contracting with other Cat operators during the relatively few times each year when we needed help getting to a well site.”

Water accounts for most of the ATS loads and is hauled in a process that Breit describes as a “circle that never ends.” It starts when rigs drilling deep into the Earth — up to 4,000 feet — release brackish salt water with the crude oil. ATS vacuums up the brine from collector tanks at the well sites and transports it 20 to 30 miles to disposal wells where it is pumped back into the ground, far from the natural water table and vegetation.

ATS vacuum trucks haul water to sites where new oil wells are being drilled and existing wells are being overhauled. Some of the water is mixed with chemicals to improve the drilling process or to help the crude oil flow more efficiently. Water also is needed for the concrete used in well casings.

Tough job

The water cycle keeps the nine ATS vacuum trucks rolling seven days a week. The oil and natural gas sites are within 100 miles of Hays, but many of them are difficult to reach under the best of conditions. Most of the water hauls are made over bone-jarring, frame-rattling terrain.

Myths aside, it becomes clear very quickly that the western Kansas prairie where the oilfields lie is not flat. It is chopped up with hills and ridges and valleys. Creeks and streams crisscross the region and run full during the wettest times of the year.

Once a driver leaves the state roads, he encounters county roads that are so ragged with potholes and rocks that they can't be graded. Most of the county roads are surfaced with crushed limestone, which can make driving treacherous when wet or icy. From there, the roads leading to the drilling sites become little more than rutted trails.

The constant vibrations and bouncing over the oilfield terrain take a terrible toll on the trucks (and the drivers). Plastic dashboards have shattered, and the frame was split on one of the ATS trucks. The rough roads even contributed to a back injury that resulted in surgery for Breit.

Bad weather makes the driving conditions even worse. When it gets wet from snow or rain, truck tires must be chained up. In fact, the trucks carry chains throughout the year, but sometimes that is not enough. Sometimes, the company has to call in a Cat tractor to pull the vacuum trucks through the muck. “We have to get to the job site no matter what,” Breit says.

Rugged trucks

To contend with these operating conditions, Breit relies on Mack trucks. The fleet includes a mix that includes Mack Granite, CH, RD, and RB models. The trucks have a tare weight of approximately 28,000 and are capable of a 54,000-lb loaded weight.

“I've always liked Mack trucks,” Breit says. “They are tough, and they are built for the sort of operating conditions that we face in the oilfield. I started ATS with a used 1981 Mack R-Model.

“I like the Mack transmissions that can operate three PTOs and the military-style heavy-duty suspensions. Mack provides a rugged drivetrain. In seven years, we haven't lost a differential. Mack has made a lot of progress on the driver comfort side, and our newest trucks are very comfortable. In the past, drivers wore out before the trucks did.”

ATS runs a variety of Mack engines, from 400 to 460 horsepower. Eighteen-speed transmissions are standard for the operation. The newest trucks in the ATS fleet were specified for tough oilfield service with double frame rails and rugged 18,000- to 20,000-lb capacity steering axles.

The company specifies a 44,000-lb drive tandem with differential lock and camelback spring suspension. “We want all of the drive tires on the ground at all times to ensure maximum traction,” Breit says.

Tire focus

Tires also are critical components. ATS runs primarily Goodyear and Dunlop tires, and Breit wants an aggressive tread in all positions. In the steer positions, ATS is using Unisteel G177 and G286 mixed-service tires. Several trucks have been fitted with widebase flotation tires on the steer axles. Goodyear's G287 MSA is preferred in the drive positions. All of the tires are inflated to 100 psi.

“Control of the trucks is critical and the G177 with its deep, aggressive tread works very well for us,” Breit says. “The G177 tires are very resistant to punctures. We're also pleased with the performance of the G286 because it was designed for the severe road conditions we encounter.

“We put the widebase float tire on some of our trucks because it performs well on rough roads. This type of tire won't sink into soft roads, and it doesn't fall into ruts. It provides a better ride. On the downside, the tire doesn't steer well on slick limestone roads. When those roads are wet or icy, the widebase floats act like skis.

“We're getting 55,000 to 60,000 miles out of our drive tires, which is exceptionally good considering the terrain. It's proof that we have some very good drivers.”

Vacuum tanks

The vacuum tanks mounted on the trucks typically have an 80-barrel (3,360-gallon) capacity. The non-code carbon-steel tanks are built by local fabricators to meet the demands on oilfield service. Cargo-handling equipment includes a Masport 400 vacuum pump, a Bowie three-inch gear pump, and a high-pressure tri-plex pump with three pistons.

Considering the severe operating conditions, vehicle upkeep is a priority. The local Mack dealer handles most of the truck maintenance. Tire service is in the hands of Kansasland Tire, a Hays Goodyear dealer.

Engine oil and filter are changed at 10,000-mile intervals. Mechanics give the trucks a thorough inspection with each oil change. Drivers also keep a close watch for developing problems.

Tires are rotated on the same 10,000-mile schedule. “Crushed limestone roads with high crowns (needed for good drainage) really eat up our tires,” Breit says. “The inside tires on our duals wear faster than the outside tires. We see a lot of cupping.”

Good maintenance and rugged specifications help ensure that every ATS truck is ready when needed and that the trucks can haul the loads that keep the wells operational. That's what it takes to meet the needs of customers in the western Kansas oilfields.