What You Need To Know Before Hauling Water in the Oil Patch

Tackling North Dakota

What do you need to know to get your trucks properly equipped for hauling water in the oil patch, be that in North Dakota’s current drilling boom or in any other area? A friend who owns a trucking company asked that question today.

Here’s what I told him.


I understand your confusion and yes, I can clarify things a bit.

1. There are some trailers with vacuum pumps mounted on them.

2. You don’t want that. What you do need is to have a vacuum pump mounted on the tractor, behind the cab–in any one of several possible specific positions. These are PTO driven, and there are huge differences in cost, capacity, durability, and general pain-in-the-assness between brands. I’ve been out of the game since April of 2009, so don’t know about inflation and/or competition, but last I knew, adding a pump to your existing tractor would run you somewhere in the $10,000 range.

3. Why you need the pump to be on the tractor: Much more flexibility, for one thing. Most companies require you to have your own trailer, but there are a few who will let you pull their trailers. And while some pumps are indeed trailer-mounted as mentioned above, most of those in current use (unless things have changed drastically) are still tractor mounted. Obviously, if you’re pulling the other guy’s trailer, and it has a pump, use his and save yours!

I don’t know how they power the trailer mounted units; obviously not via PTO.

4. Most “standard” oil patch vacuum semi trailers are in fact 130 barrel units. A few ultralight units exist in the 140 barrel size, but in my book, the owner who purchases an ultralight for the oilfield is out of his mind. He may find more work–company owners love being able to have you haul more water every trip–but the patch is hardcore tough on equipment. You need some heavy duty underpinnings.

If you’re sending an OTR (over the road) tractor to the patch, just adding a pump first, be ready to break a few axles and springs, etc., until you swap them out for heavy duty replacements.

5. Any driver new to the patch will need a bit of training to haul water. I’ll list just a few things to remember–you might want to print out the list for future reference. There’s more to it, but this would be a start:

Two water haulers, Production Transport rigs operating in western Colorado. Pulling for P.T. was the best job I ever had.

Two water haulers, Production Transport rigs operating in western Colorado. Pulling for P.T. was the best job I ever had.


A. The vacuum pumps all have a handle which “pushes” water in one position, “pulls” it in the other, and is “neutral” in between.

B. Some pump designs will tolerate “slamming” from push to pull (or vice versa) on the fly; others will not. If one driver seems to be busting up a lot of pumps for no apparent reason, check his/her technique.

C. Water is generally taken on (and delivered) through one of two four-inch pipes situated at the rear of the trailer.

D. The essential pressure gauge (for delivery) should be clearly visible to a driver standing near the rear of the trailer.

E. You’ll need a full set of heavy duty hoses designed for water hauling and able to withstand a reasonable amount of pressure. Not the super-intense numbers put out during a frac job (where huge pump trucks slam fracturing liquids downhole to break up rock formations), but at least 50 psi. As a driver, I found myself unwilling to leave the truck yard without at least 60 feet of 4-inch hose on board, plus at least 30 feet of 3-inch.

F. Various hose fittings are also essential. If it were me, I’d snag a contract first, then go ask a working hand for that company: “What do you guys consider an adequate fittings list?” Then take that list to the nearest store specializing in oilpatch “stuff”…hoping your check doesn’t bounce.

G. A lot of water trailers come with sight tubes. These are vertical columns of clear plexiglass that show you the level of water in the tank–at the back end, anyway; if the trailer is not sitting level, they’re obviously less accurate–at a glance. They’re crucial accessories…until the temperature drops far enough to freeze the water in them and they burst. To avoid that, the driver shuts off a couple of valves and drains the tube, which of course means they’re worthless in subzero weather and it’s back to guesswork. A few trailers are now available with sight “bubbles” or other clear view ports built into the tank itself. Those sound like they might be a better deal…but I’ve never had the chance to work with one.

H. A common alternative to the sight tube is the float-driven gauge. The float is inside the tank–much like the float in your home toilet tank. A rod extends through the tank wall, a pointer is attached to swivel as the float rises and falls…and you’ve got a gauge. Until the seal around the rod starts to leak. Or the float ceases to go up and down like it should, sometimes just sticking, or springing a leak and sinking.

I. Air pressure: Here’s where nothing but a bit of training and a lot of experience will help your drivers…and sometimes not even that will do the job. When blowing off a load, it’s common to run somewhere in the neighborhood of 15 psi. But in many situations, that’s way, way, too high. If you’re blowing fresh water into a 400 barrel upright for a drilling rig to use, you can pretty much rock and roll until the tank is nearly full to the brim.

Note on experience or the lack thereof: It doesn’t always matter. In December of 2006, my fifth day on the job, hauling fresh water to a rig drilling on Long Ridge in Colorado, I was blowing off a load under full pressure into an upright storage tank. Suddenly the 4-inch fitting which coupled the hose to the trailer pipe split in half. The resulting water cannon hit me full force, knocking me to the ground and spinning my hard hat more than forty feet across frozen ground before it came to rest under a pickup truck. That time, fortunately, it happened in the middle of the day and the sun was shining.

Then again, in February of 2009, the timing and weather weren’t so kind. While delivering a load (though to a different location), I was knocked down once again by a hose problem. This time the fitting held, but the hose slipped the clamps and popped off the fitting. The force of the water was such that I had to roll out of the blast before I could get my feet under me.

It was around midnight, and the temp was hovering around 10 degrees Fahrenheit.

That’s fresh water. But if you’re hauling some of the stuff that comes up out of the wellhead, taking it from a frac tank at one location to a different frac tank at another location, look out. Some of that stuff–depending on the hole from which it came–is really nasty, hardly water at all but a chemical concoction dreamed up by the Fire Demons living deep in Mother Earth. With the worst of it, using15 psi when the receiving tank has only a foot or two to go may result in all sorts of ugly running over and spilling on the ground, creating an incident . This is truly Heads Up Territory. I’ve seen fired-up water in a frac tank continue to swirl and slosh violently for up to an hour before finally settling down! And if that slosh sloshes over, gets your customer and the State involved?

Trouble in River City!

Hint: Make sure there’s room left in the top of that tank and cut your pumping pressure down to somewhere around 5 psi. (Which usually means opening an air release valve a bit and protecting your ears; the pumps themselves have no pressure adjustments as such.)

I’m thinking this is enough for one day. Please feel free to keep on asking questions.

4 thoughts on “What You Need To Know Before Hauling Water in the Oil Patch

  1. I have a pump on my truck for pumping crude ( I’ve never pumped crude ) and I had one put on the trailer I am buying 165 bbl. Do you think the crude pump will handle the water? What kind of setups am I going to need A 4 inch line going to my tank from the pump on the truck? Any other info you can give me will help Thx Alex

  2. Alex, if your pump is a vacuum pump, it should be able to handle pretty much any liquid material ranging from oil to water to not-too-thick mud…because the pump moves compressed air. It’s the air that sucks or blows the material being hauled into or out of the tank; none of the material actually goes through the pump. (Or it shouldn’t most of the time, anyway, if both the operator and mechanical components are functioning correctly.)

    As for the line going between pump and tank, ours were all 3 inch lines–for moving the compressed air–but the size needed will depend entirely on the fittings found at either end (pump or tank). I’m not familiar with the 165 barrel units; you’ll need to simply look to see what’s needed there.

    Other info: You might find something useful in my five-post “Manual for Oil Patch Water Hauling” which can be found here:


    That manual is designed around the 130 barrel tanker, but most of the basic steps and things to watch out for will be similar regardless of the size of your tank.

  3. I like that you mention how it’s important to be careful if you’re transporting the stuff that comes out of the wellhead form one frac tank to another. When using them, it would probably be important to ensure you have the right type of frac tank. You could do this by working with a rental company and talking to them about how you plan to use it so that they can help you figure out how to haul the stuff or provide other information that could help you use the equipment correctly.

  4. Thanks for commenting, Erika. It’s impossible for a lowly water truck driver to “ensure you have the right type of frac tank,” however. Drivers don’t haul water IN frac tanks; they haul water TO or FROM frac tanks. The frac tanks, for the most part, are standard units placed by the company operating the well and are heavy loads to move even when empty. Hauling water in one would be out of the question. Contracted water haulers have no say in that. In other words, as a driver I would be instructed to go to site “A” to pump a load of water into my truck’s tanker trailer, then haul that load to site “B” to offload in whatever frac tank(s) the drilling or servicing company had ready to receive that water.

    The biggest “difference in tanks” are not so much “different types of frac tanks” but as follows:

    1. Frac tanks.

    2. Fresh water tanks.

    3. Production water tanks.

    Only drivers with specialized training are assigned to “pull” water from production tanks. (There is no “push” because these are loaded with water being pumped from the wells.) Pumping a load of frac water into a fresh water tank would most likely cost you your job immediately. Conversely, fresh water IS pumped INTO frac tanks in many cases. Or to put it another way, fresh water can go anywhere safely. Frac water cannot.

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