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Clarifying Misconceptions About “Pump Noise”

My first days as an MWD field tech I heard horror stories surrounding what is commonly referred to as “pump noise”. I quickly identified the importance of learning to properly identify this “noise”. From the way it was explained to me, this skill might prevent the company you work from losing a job with an exploration company, satisfy your supervisor or even allow you to become regarded as hero within your organization if you’ve proven yourself handy at this skill.

“Pump noise”
is a reference to an instability in surface pressure created by the mud pumps on a modern drilling rig, often conflated with any pressure fluctuation at a similar frequency to pulses generated by a mud pulser, but caused by a source external to the mud pulser. This change in pressure is what stands in the way of the decoder properly understanding what the MWD tool is trying to communicate. For the better part of the first year of learning my role I wrongly assumed that all “noise” would be something audible to the human ear, but this is rarely the case.

In an ideal drilling environment surface pressure will remain steady and all pressure increases, and decreases will be gradual. This way, when the pulser valve closes(pulses), it’s easily detectable on surface by computers. Unfortunately drilling environments are rarely perfect and there are many things that can emulate a pulse thus causing poor or inaccurate data delivery to surface. The unfortunate circumstance of this means drilling operations must come to halt until data can once again be decoded on surface. This pause in the drilling process is commonly referred to at NPT or non-productive time. For those of you unfamiliar these concepts, I’ll explain some of the basics.


What is a Pulser?

A mud pulser is a valve that briefly inhibits flow of drilling fluid traveling through the drill string, creating a sharp rise and fall of pressure seen on surface, also known as a “pulse”.


Understanding The Path of the Drilling Fluid(mud)

Depending on if the drilling fluid is being circulated in closed or open loop, it will be drawn from a tank or a plastic lined reservoir by a series(or one) mud pumps and channeled into the stand pipe, which runs up the derrick to the Kelly-hose, through the saver sub and down the drill-pipe(drill-string). Through the filter screen past an agitator or exciter, around the MWD tool, through a mud motor and out of the nozzles in the bit. At this point the fluid begins it’s journey back to the drilling rig through the annulus, past the BOP then out of the flow line and either over the shale shakers and/or back in the fluid reservoir.


It’s Not Always the Mud Pumps

Developing a firm grasp on these fundamentals were instrumental in my success as a field technician and an effective troubleshooter. As you can tell, there are a lot of components involved in this conduit which a mud pulser telemeters through. The way in which many of these components interact with the drilling fluid can suddenly change in ways that slightly create sharp changes in pressure, often referred to as “noise”. This “noise” creates difficulty for the decoder by suddenly reducing or increasing pressure in a manner that the decoder interprets a pulse. To isolate these issues, you must first acknowledge potential of their existence. I will give few examples of some of these instances below:


Inadequate filtering of an open loop system:

Suction screens on intake hoses will occasionally be too large, fail or become unfastened thus allowing large debris in the mud system. Depending on the size of debris and a little bit of luck it can end up in an area that will inhibit flow, circumstantially resulting in a sudden fluctuation of pressure.


Inconsistently mixed fluid additives:

Any solid form of drilling fluid additive, if improperly or inconsistently mixed, can restrict the flow path of the fluid resulting in pressure increase. Most notably this can happen at the pulser valve itself, but it is not the only possible outcome. Several other parts of this system can be affected as well. LCM or loss of circulation material is by far the most common additive, but the least overlooked. It’s important for an MWD technician to be aware of what’s being added into the drilling fluid regardless if LCM isn’t present. Through the years I have seen serval other improperly mixed additives cause a litany of pressure related issues.


Motor chunking:

This specifically is a term used to refer to the mud motor stator rubber deterioration, tearing into small pieces and passing through the nozzles of the bit. Brief spikes in pressure as chunks of rubber pass through one or more nozzles of the bit can often be wrongly interpreted as pulses.


Air in the mud:

Sometimes when mud is displaced or a pump suction isn’t completely submerged, tiny air bubbles are introduced into the drilling fluid. Being that air compresses and fluid does not, pulses can be significantly diminished and sometimes non-existent.


Poor wellbore cleaning

Formation cuttings staying downhole can cause what is known as a pack-off of the anulus, which typically cause slower trends in pressure. A pack-off is less likely to cause significant decoding issues, but can.


Surface equipment failure:

Failed surface equipment such as transducers and transducer cables can occasionally allow current external to the circuit into the signal wire, resulting in what appears to be a pressure increase on the decoder. When experiencing poor decoding these are some of the first pieces of equipment to be replaced.


Formation, bit bounce, bit bite and intermittent motor stalling:

As many of you know the downhole mud motor is what enables most drilling rigs to steer a well to a targeted location. The motor generates bit RPM by converting fluid velocity to rotor/bit RPM, otherwise known as hydraulic horsepower. Anything downhole that interacts with the bit will inevitably affect surface pressure. One of the most common is bit weight. As bit weight is increased, so does surface pressure. It’s important to note that consistent weight tends to be helpful to the decoder by increasing the amplitude of pulses, but inconsistent bit weight, depending on frequency of change, can negatively affect decoding. Bit bounce, bit bite and inconsistent weight transfer can all cause pressure oscillation resulting in poor decoding. Improper bit speed or bit type relative to a given formation are other examples of possible culprits as well.


True Examples of pump noise

Over time mud pump components wear to the point failure. Pump pistons(swabs), liners, valves and valve seats are all necessary components for generating stable pressure. These are the moving parts on the fluid side of the pump and the most frequent point of failure. Another possible culprit but less common is an inadequately charged pulsation dampener. Deteriorating rubber hoses anywhere in the fluid path, from the mud pump to the saver sub, such as a kelly-hose, can cause an occasional pressure oscillation.

If I could change one thing about today’s directional drilling industry, it would be eliminating the term “pump noise”. The misleading term alone has caused confusion for countless people working on a drilling rig. On the other hand, I’m happy to have learned these lessons the hard way because they seem engrained into my memory. As technology improves, so does the opportunities for MWD technology companies to provide useful solutions. Solutions to aid MWD service providers to properly isolate or overcome the challenges that lead to decoding issues. As an industry we have come a lot further from when I had started, but there is much left to be desired. I’m happy I can use my experiences by contributing to an organization capable of acknowledging and overcoming these obstacles through the development of new technology.

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