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View from the west

Drilling on Vancouver Island.

July 5, 2012  By Stefanie Wallace

C hances are, if you live in the Cowichan Valley area of Vancouver Island, you’ve heard of the Slade family. Their family business, Drillwell, started in Cowichan Bay in 1965 on the property of Ken Slade (the patriarch of the business and family).

Chances are, if you live in the Cowichan Valley area of Vancouver Island, you’ve heard of the Slade family. Their family business, Drillwell, started in Cowichan Bay in 1965 on the property of Ken Slade (the patriarch of the business and family).

From left to right, Paul, David, Ken and Calvin Slade are the four driving forces behind Drillwell. 



In 1994, the business moved to a 3.5-acre property in an industrial area just outside of downtown Duncan. Now in its 47th year of business, Drillwell is run by the second generation of Slades, brothers Paul, David and Calvin, who became partners in 1982.

Although Drillwell installs geothermal systems, conducts hydro-flushing of wells and drills for mining and exploration, water wells have been the main focus of the business since the beginning, when the majority of drilling was done with cable tools. Paul has seen the progression of industry machinery, and guesses Drillwell purchased one of the first air rotary casing hammer machines in British Columbia, back in 1972. “A casing hammer machine replaced a lot of the cable tool drilling, and now we are replacing the casing hammer machines with dual rotary machines,” Paul says. The company’s fleet currently includes five dual rotary machines, one conventional machine, two auger machines, four cable tool machines, a large pump machine and several crane trucks.

Starting a business isn’t cheap, especially with the hefty price tag attached to all of the necessary equipment. “I think anyone who is involved in [the drilling industry] knows it’s a crazy overhead, so it’s pretty tough to get going,” Paul says. “You can spend a million dollars pretty quick before you can earn a single buck, so having family in the startup is pretty beneficial.” And a core group of employees is essential. Drillwell has anywhere from 20 to 30 employees, depending on how busy they are. Paul notes that maintaining family business principles has contributed to Drillwell’s low turnover rate. “We expect a lot from our guys; they’re, of course, our greatest resource, and so we’re very flexible,” he says.

But even with a great team, the best equipment and years of experience, challenges appear, and the Slades have been busy adapting. “The drilling conditions out here are pretty challenging, in that in a five-kilometre radius we have granite bedrock exposed, we have 300 feet of overburden, and we have shale bedrock exposed,” Paul says. The cost of geothermal installations on the Island is considerably higher than in other parts of Canada, such as the Prairies, where ground conditions are more predictable, he adds. “In a five-kilometre radius, you can have extreme conditions that can double your costs of drilling in no time.”

Drillwell has adapted to geological obstacles by using existing equipment, purchasing smaller tools of the trade and investing in proper training. But unpredictable conditions combined with Vancouver Island’s mild climate make geothermal a tough sell. Paul says larger facilities or buildings requiring more heat and air conditioning are more open to installing a geothermal system, but the technology is not as popular in residential projects as it has been in other parts of Canada.

“The climate is so friendly and mild, and the need for heating and cooling are small and short lived,” says David, who is currently building a house equipped with ground source geothermal and other eco-friendly options. “It’s probably my grandchildren or great-grandchildren that will see the benefit of it,” he says. “I’m lucky that I can afford to do this, but I’m investing in the technologies even though I’m not likely to see an actual financial payback.” David notes that British Columbia’s cheap electricity is another blessing and curse. “It’s great for us and British Columbia, but it’s another challenge behind [geothermal], which is a very sustainable way of heating and cooling,” he says.

While Drillwell as a company has come across challenges, the brothers say that British Columbia’s water well drilling industry is facing a few challenges of its own. Lack of regulation, protection and awareness are three issues very dear to the heart of the company.

“Ground water is our most valuable natural resource . . . because of that it should be protected and regulated,” Paul says. “If you’re cutting corners when you’re doing your work, you’re cutting some of the protection.”

Public education about ground water has made headlines lately, thanks to the work of the Cowichan Watershed Board (David serves as a member). A recent survey conducted by the board concluded that 72 per cent of residents in North Cowichan and Duncan didn’t know the source of their water, and fewer knew how much money they spend on water per year.

“Something this important is so taken for granted; the only time you worry about it is when it’s short,” Paul says. Drillwell is working to bring more light to this issue, to help sustain the future of ground water. “For many years, the drillers have been the unlegislated keepers of probably the most valuable resource in the ground,” Paul says. David is a member of the Water Act Modernization committee, which is working to modernize the 100-year-old Ground Water Act in British Columbia. “We’re trying to introduce the water sustainability act, which is going to incorporate a whole bunch of different aspects of ground water and surface water, hopefully with an emphasis on the environment and on resource protection,” he says, adding that the hope is to have the act in place by spring 2013. “[The committee] is doing it with a great deal of public input and consultation, so hopefully it’s something that won’t have to be looked at for another 100 years.”

The board isn’t the only group that’s busy planning for the future. Paul insists that he and his brothers certainly don’t feel – “or act!” – their age, but they are beginning to discuss their succession plan. “We’ve got a couple of good years left in us yet!” he says. With some of the third-generation Slades working at the business from time to time, the brothers are hopeful the family business will continue as such. “It’s been wonderful being able to be involved with our parents and keep them in the circle . . .

you couldn’t offer someone a better retirement,” he says of his father Ken and mother Patricia, who still visit the shop every day. Ken is still president of the company, and the three brothers are directors. “We’re all equal partners and slowly buying out mom and dad’s shares as the company can afford it,” Paul says.

Meantime, the Slade family will continue to progress as they have been, rallying for change and trying to stay one step ahead of the game. “We’ve seen things, and we’re trying to keep up,” Paul says. “We’re not trying to be cutting edge, but we like to consider ourselves one of the leaders.”

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