Changing emission standards: advice for drillers

Rising emission standards are affecting the way rigs are made — what to know when shopping for a new rig in 2019

A few efficiency and emissions factors to consider when choosing a new drill rig

A few efficiency and emissions factors to consider when choosing a new drill rig


Changing Standards

In the last decade, federal and state governments have doubled down on emission regulations, forcing engine manufacturers of heavy equipment to pick up their game. Beginning in 2006, a timed rollout of increasingly specific regulations ensured that dealers would only be allowed to sell new engines that fit updated requirements. Early years of the rollout were difficult for manufacturers as they raced against the clock to meet greener standards, but they sparked a decade of revolutionary technology in the industry.

Today, the drilling industry is in the final stage of that rollout, and new rigs coming off the line are markedly different than their predecessors. The good news is, these Tier 4 engines are cleaner and more fuel efficient. The catch? There are a couple of things drillers need to know when shopping for a rig in 2018.

Impact on Drillers

In states like Indiana, operators are allowed to continue using their old equipment as long as it’s still running. But when it comes time to buy new equipment, drillers will be required to purchase updated models, regardless of the state they live in.

These new models include after-treatment systems, which by law must remain intact. Dealerships and OEMs are not legally allowed to service on or sell equipment which has had exhaust treatment systems altered or removed. In cases where an exhaust treatment system has been tampered with, customers have spent upwards of $30K to have their engines restored to factory.

Drill rigs being manufactured in the US in 2018 are different in two main ways: 1) they involve more complex technology, and 2) they challenge the way drillers have traditionally estimated the cost of a job.

New rigs involve more complex technology

Because newer rigs include more computerized and automated functions — just like modern cars— everyday operators will find it harder to work on their own engines.  Conversely, sensors all over the machine can accurately provide a readout, helping operators quickly diagnose problems without having to call in a maintenance tech. For owners who find a reliable service shop and perform a regular maintenance schedule, these rigs last longer and reduce down time.

New rigs change the way drillers quote jobs

Factors traditionally used by drillers to calculate the cost of a well add up differently with new equipment. Added cost can include: diesel exhaust fluid, engine service costs, and the initial inflated cost of the equipment due to strict emission protocols engine manufacturers now have to build into in the design process..  

On the other hand, these added cost are offset by the efficiencies of a better engine. Thanks to integrated sensors and technologies, todays engines are lighter, pack more power into a smaller frame, and are more fuel efficient.  Engines are also better able to maintain horsepower though a load by adjusting to internal and atmospheric conditions. As an example: If it is an especially cold day — say 10 degrees outside, the engine will account for the temperature, humidity and air intake, adjusting the amount of fuel it adds to create the optimal fuel mixture for the required load.

Emerging Technology

Right now the diesel rigs being manufactured are the cleanest that have ever been on the job, but there are other benefits that accompany these recent advancements in greener drilling technology.

Off-road equipment powered by an on-road engine

The EPA regulates on-road equipment and off -road equipment in two different directives, setting higher restrictions for diesel engines in the “on-road” category. Because drill rigs technically fall under both categories, older equipment traditionally included two engines - one for the road and one for higher-horsepower drilling.

Today, advances in engine technology enable powerful drills to be run using a truck’s existing, Tier-4 engine, allowing the entire rig to meet on-road emission levels. This results in cost-savings for both rig dealers and drillers, cutting out the price of a second engine. It also means today’s rigs are less bulky — improving  maneuverability, making it easier for operators to get in and out of job sites, and earning drillers more miles per gallon on the road.

Engine readouts

As mentioned above, most rigs today are mounted on the back of a truck chassis and powered by the truck’s engine. Like any other modern car, these trucks are being designed with built-in sensors and software, making it easy for rig manufacturers to piggyback on the vehicle’s existing system.

“What we try to do is offer our customers more of an engine interface. We have a display on the back of the drill rig now that gives every engine readout you can imagine. For example, if you want to look up how much fuel you are burning per hour or what your cooling temperature is.”

People are afraid of Tier-4 engines because there is a lot of technology involved, but if you’re willing to learn how the engine operates, it will give you a lot more information when something is going wrong.

- Stephen Gessner, Engineering Manager, Versa-Drill

Now, when Versa-Drill customers have a problem, they can place a quick call in to the truck’s dealership and explain, “I’m getting this error code on my rear display.” This shortcut saves operators days of downtime and expensive service fees they would otherwise pay a maintenance tech to come on site.

In addition to troubleshooting malfunctions, engine readouts also help operators communicate with the system and learn to run their rig at optimal conditions, extending the life of their machinery.

Advice for Drillers

Rigs on the market in 2019 are a different species than they were ten years ago. Below are a few quick tips for drillers looking to buy a new piece of equipment and make it last.

Avoid idling the engine

New rigs are designed to keep the exhaust system clean by running the engine at an optimal rate. During normal operating conditions while the engine is working and under a load, it is building enough heat to burn off excess carbons from the exhaust before they reach the after-treatment system. This is called "passive regeneration."

When an engine idles, it doesn’t build enough heat to burn off excess carbons, and over time, these carbons (soot) build up in the after-treatment system. Imagine a diesel truck that has been stopped at a red light, spitting out black smoke as it tries to get back up to speed. This is the same principle.

If the engine ECM determines that the after-treatment system needs to be cleaned, the engine will default into "active regeneration". During an active regeneration, the engine adjusts to inlet and load conditions in an attempt to build heat. The operator may hear the engine RPMS increase or cycle. These conditions are normal, and the operator should continue to drill as normal. An active regeneration can also be manually overridden by the operator if they feel it is affecting the performance of the rig.  However, if this operation is continually overridden and soot continues to build, the engine will eventually shut down until a full regeneration of the after-treatment system is competed. This can mean downtime for drillers out on a job.

Do your homework

Every piece of equipment is different; and business owners should ask their dealer about everything from ideal working speeds to operation quirks before purchasing a new rig. For example, some engines will need to be run at higher RPMS and power curves may be different.

  1. Running an engine under the right or wrong conditions has an acute effect on its lifespan.

  2. An operator should know how to estimate usage for both fuel and exhaust fluid* based on optimal engine speed.

*Diesel exhaust fluid (DEF) is added to heavy equipment engines to transform harmful emissions into innocent byproducts: water vapor and nitrogen gas. It is required by all new Tier 4 engines. Operators need to understand how much DEF a new piece of equipment will use and take that into account when bidding a job. An engine running at higher RPMs typically uses less DEF.

Quick Recap

Pros of new, Tier-4 engine rigs

  • New rigs are more fuel efficient, on and off the road.

  • They are lighter, smaller and easier to maneuver.

  • Engine readouts help operators understand the way their machine is running and find its sweet spot.

  • Automatically generated error codes reduce the need for troubleshooting inspections by a service tech when something goes wrong.

  • New rigs produce fewer harmful emissions, protecting operators and the communities they serve

Cons of new, Tier-4 engine rigs

  • Rigs on the market today use diesel engine fluid in addition to regular fuel

  • Increased use of software and computerized sensors in engines makes it harder for operators to work on their own equipment

  • Up-front equipment costs may be higher, due to strict emission protocols engine manufacturers now have to build into in the design process.


  1. Avoid idling the engine.

  2. Know your new rig’s optimal RPMs and temperature conditions before turning it loose on a job.

Maddy Pimentel