Top Torque started with one tool

Volant tool greatly simplifies running casing with top drives

Estevan – Back in 2011, Josh Biggs had never been to Estevan, but he and his new wife, Kristin, came to the Energy City, bought a house and set up shop. Pulling a seacan behind their truck, the business, Top Torque Torque Services Ltd. was based on one, singular tool, the Volant CRT, an innovative new way to run casing on top drive rigs.

Seven years later, the shop is no longer a seacan, but a much larger facility that used to be owned by a cementing company. There are now 11 tools instead of one. But the operation is still a two-man show.  

“We’re a two-man band,” said Biggs. The other player in that band is tool hand Tanner Frycz. And between the two of them they’ve been able to keep those 11 tools working between around 10 rigs at a time.

Biggs grew up in Peace River, Alta. He started out on the drilling rigs for a few years, then went to work for Volant in Edmonton. “I was there pretty early on. There were 20 people at the time,” he said. Of those, he was one of three with rig experience, the others were engineers and other technical people.

“I saw the tool come from prototype to market version,” he said. Coming to southeast Saskatchewan allowed him to not be in competition with Volant’s own operations based in Edmonton.

The Volant CRT (Casing Running Tool) is just that, a tool that allows top drive-equipped drilling rigs to run in casing in a manner that is much more efficient than the old way.

That old way involved using several nubbins in rotation. They would have to be threaded into the collars of pipe on the catwalk. When the pipe was lifted to the top drive, the nubbin would be engaged by the drive, then would have to be removed on the drill floor and sent down a zip line to the catwalk for use in one of the subsequent joints of casing pipe.

The Volant CRT eliminates the use of nubbins.

When the pipe arm lifts up the joint of casing, Biggs explained, “It screws to the quill off the top drive and goes inside the casing. It grips the inside of the casing with five expanding dies.”

The expansion is controlled by the rotation of the top drive, as is its disengagement.

It’s all done via the existing controllers the driller has on the rig, rotating the top drive in and out. It mimics screwing into drill pipe. Turn to the right until its tight. There’s also a torque read-out for the tool.

Over the years Top Torque went from working out of a seacan to the back of Viking Surplus’ shop to, now, the former Sanjel facility on Mississippian Drive.

Biggs said it was a “silver lining in the recession,” as they were able to buy the shop for about half of its previous value in March 2017. It sits on a 1.5 acre yard.

That’s a big change from when he first moved to Estevan, when real estate was hard to come by, for business or residential.  

“We came Aug. 28, and couldn’t find anything to rent,” Biggs said. In a few weeks, they bought a house.

“For that time, we had one rig for Penn West, around Alida. They got rid of Alida and I went to Waskada,” he said.

The number of rigs went from zero to one to five pretty quickly.

Another company started offering the Volant tool in the area in 2013, but the downturn happened, and that competition got out of that line of business. “We were here first. We’re the only ones left with the Volant. The closest are in Lloydminster,” Bigg said.

This all coincides with a slow transition towards top drives in southeast Saskatchewan by some drillers. “Top drives used to be a Manitoba thing. Most Manitoba rigs were top drives,” Biggs said. By the winter of 2012-2013, they were looking after 11 rigs. It’s common to put on 600 to 700 kilometres a day in the field.

As evidence of that transition, when things were hopping in 2012, they had 10 top drive rigs. Last year they also had 10 top drive rigs, but on a much-reduced rig count.

The Manitoba work led to working out of a shop in Carnduff for a year in 2015. But as the Manitoba work subsided, it made more sense to work out of Estevan. That was the time Frycz joined.

Most of the rigs they work with are super singles, what Biggs calls, “The little rigs that could.”

He noted that since he started doing this, there was a perception those rigs couldn’t handle Stoughton, Roche Percee and Torquay areas, but that has since been proven wrong.

When the rig count in southeast Saskatchewan plumbed the single digits during the lowest times of the downturn, of the rigs that were working, several were top drive super singles.

To contend with the downturn, they did a little bit of hotshotting.

A Volant tool will typically spend about 24 hours on the rig. Top Torque drops it off and picks it up. Initially, they would remain with the tool, but the rigs that use them are adept with it on their own now.

There are three difference sizes of tool. The 4-1/2 inch base handles 4-1/2 to 5-1/2 inch. The 5-1/2 inch base takes care of 5-1/2, 7, 8-5/8 and 9-5/8 inch. The 7 inch base takes care of 7, 8-5/8 and 9-5/8 inch. They swap out dies as needed to fit the casing.

Frycz said, “You can circulate through it. It has a packer cup on the bottom of it. It’s a power tong, elevator and circulation swedge all in one.

He added, “We have a torque calibration sub that can be used for calibrating any style of top drive rig. We just got it last year.”

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