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Well drillers on call

When Valerie Andrews arrives on a job site, people call her "the water lady."
She is the president of Andrews Well Drilling and Pump Service Inc. in Pleasant Valley. The company installs new wells and services existing wells and pumps.

As president, Andrews not only oversees the small company's drilling projects, but is often the first one on the scene when customers call because their residence or business have no water.
"We're always on call," she said. "At night all the calls come to my cell phone - 90 percent of the time I don't go out in the middle of the night, but I'll go first thing in the morning and check it out."

Sometimes, she's able to fix the pump on the spot, as when it's a matter of fixing its control box, which might be burned out, or have a fluid leak.
She uses an ohmmeter to see if all the circuits are complete, and then checks the motor in the pump to see if it's working. If the job gets more complex, the whole motor or even pump might need to be replaced.

According to the New York state Department of Labor, there were 600 non-oil and gas earth drillers in the state in 2008. The average salary is $45,430.
In order to drill in New York state, one needs a license from the New York state Department of Environmental Conservation. Many drillers also voluntarily get a certificate from the National Ground Water Association.

Although there are some schools that specialize in well-drilling, training is usually on the job, according to Cliff Treyens of the National Ground Water Association.

"Traditionally, a lot of these well drilling firms have been family-owned business for multiple generations, so a lot of (the drillers) have learned on the job by helping the driller," he said.

Andrews started in the well business more than 25 years ago when her husband had a surprise for her.

"He comes home one day and says, 'I'm buying a well rig.' And I said, 'OK.' We started drilling our own wells and installing our own pumps, my husband and I, working together."

Her husband, Tom An-drews, died in 1994, but the company continues to be a family operation, with her son helping with the pumpwork during the summer when he's not in college, and her daughter working at the office. She also has a drilling crew, led by her business partner, Bill Snook.

To be a driller, you need to know a little about geology and be mechanically inclined, according to Charles Crover, treasurer of the Empire State Water Well Drillers Association.

"You need to know the types of soils and how they react when you're drilling through them," he said. "There are different types of drilling for different types of geology."

Today, there is a lot more pump maintenance than pump drilling, with the cold weather and down economy. In the winter, the ground is frozen, and so not much drilling can get done.

And half of Andrews' business is dependent on digging wells for new construction, so fewer construction means fewer new wells. That said, according to Andrews, "There are always people running out of water who need new wells."

The difficult part of the job usually comes when unexpected problems occur while servicing a well.

Sometimes it can be difficult maneuvering the truck to the well head, so the pump can be lifted out.

A bad day can come when a pipe breaks, and falls to the bottom of the well, which is usually 300 to 400 feet deep. Then Andrews has to use self-made tools to fish it out.

Despite the occasional difficulties, Andrews finds the work rewarding.
"It's always exciting when the people have no water, you go over, and do the job, and the people are happy. They're happy to have the water back, and we're happy to give it to them. That's exciting," she said.

Bernard Langer is a Journal intern. Reach him at blanger@poughkee.gannett.com or 845-437-4821.