By Gary L. Hix, R.G., CWD/PI

There are many different ways to drill a domestic water well. One is what we call the “mud rotary” method. Whether or not this is the desired and/or best method for drilling your well is something more fully explained in this brief summary.

Air and water are both fluids that can be used to remove cuttings from the bottom of the borehole as the driller drills your water well.

One advantage of drilling with compressed air is that it can tell you when you have encountered groundwater and gives you an indication how much water the borehole is producing. When drilling with water using the mud rotary method, the driller must rely on his interpretation of the borehole cuttings and any changes he can observe in the recirculating fluid. Mud rotary drillers can also use borehole geophysical tools to interpret which zones might be productive enough for your water well.

The mud rotary well drilling method is considered a closed-loop system. That is, the mud is cleaned of its cuttings and then is recirculated back down the borehole. Referring to this drilling method as “mud” is a misnomer, but it is one that has stuck with the industry for many years and most people understand what the term actually means.

Sampling drill cuttings when drilling mud rotary

Sampling drill cuttings when drilling mud rotary

The water is carefully mixed with a product that should not be called mud because it is a highly refined and formulated clay product—bentonite. It is added, mixed, and carefully monitored throughout the well drilling process.

The purpose of using a bentonite additive to the water is to form a thin film on the walls of the borehole to seal it and prevent water losses while drilling. This film also helps support the borehole wall from sluffing or caving in because of the hydraulic pressure of the bentonite mixture pressing against it. The objective of the fluid mixture is to carry cuttings from the bottom of the borehole up to the surface, where they drop out or are filtered out of the fluid, so it can be pumped back down the borehole again.

When using the mud rotary method, the driller must have a sump, a tank, or a small pond to hold a few thousand gallons of recirculating fluid. If they can’t dig sumps or small ponds, they must have a mud processing piece of equipment that mechanically screens and removes the sands and gravels from the mixture. This device is called a “shale shaker.”

Cuttings coming off shale shaker

Cuttings coming off shale shaker

The fluid mixture must have a gel strength sufficient to support marble-size gravels and sand to the surface when the fluid is moving. Once the cuttings have been carried to the surface and the velocity of the fluid allowed to slow down, the fluid is designed to allow the sand and gravel to drop out.

The driller does not want to pump fine sand through the pump and back down the borehole. To avoid that, the shale shaker uses vibrating screens of various sizes and desanding cones to drop the sand out of the fluid as it flows through the shaker—so that the fluid can be used again.

When the borehole has reached the desired depth and there is evidence that the formation it has penetrated will yield enough water, then it’s time to make the borehole into a well.

Before the well casing and screens are lowered into the borehole, the recirculating fluid is slowly thinned out by adding fresh water as the fluid no longer needs to support sand and gravel. The driller will typically circulate the drilling from the bottom up the borehole while adding clear water to thin down the viscosity or thickness of the fluid. Once the fluid is sufficiently thinned, the casing and screens are installed and the annular space is gravel packed.

Taking viscosity readings

Taking viscosity readings


Gravel pack installed between the borehole walls and the outside of the well casing acts like a filter to keep sand out and maintain the borehole walls over time. During gravel packing of the well, the thin layer of bentonite clay that kept the borehole wall from leaking drilling fluid water out of the recirculating system now keeps the formation water from entering the well.

This is where well development is performed to remove the thin bentonite layer or “wall cake” that was left behind. Various methods are used to remove the wall cake and develop the well to its maximum productivity.

Some drillers use compressed air to blow off the well, starting at the first screened interval and slowly working their way to the bottom—blowing off all the water standing above the drill pipe and allowing it to recover, and repeating this until the water blown from the well is free of sand and relatively clean. If after repeated cycles of airlift pumping and recovery the driller cannot find any sand in the water, it is time to install a well development pump.

Additional development of the well can be done with a development pump that may be of a higher capacity than what the final installation pump will be. Just as with cycles of airlift pumping of the well, the development pump will be cycled at different flow rates until the maximum capacity of the well can be determined. If the development pump can be operated briefly at a flow rate 50% greater than the permanent pump, the well should not pump sand.

Before selecting the mud rotary drilling method, there are economic factors you may need to consider:

  1. The cost of the bentonite product, water supply, and mud mixing equipment
  2. The need and the price for geophysical logging the borehole
  3. Whether or not in-the-ground mud pits can be dug to hold the cuttings
  4. Whether or not the well development water can be discharged to the ground
  5. Disposal of the drilling mud and cuttings when the well is completed
  6. The time it takes to develop the well as compared to other methods of drilling.

Mud rotary well drillers for decades have found ways to make this particular system work to drill and construct domestic water wells. In some areas, it’s the ideal method to use because of the geologic formations there, while other areas of the country favor air rotary methods.

Some drilling rigs are equipped to drill using either method, so the contractor must make the decision as to which method works best in your area, for your well, and at your point in time.


To learn more about the difference between mud rotary drilling and air rotary drilling, click the video below. The video is part of our “NGWA: Industry Connected” YouTube series:


Gary L. Hix, R.G., CWD/PI

About the Author

Gary Hix is a Registered Professional Geologist in Arizona, specializing in hydrogeology. He was the 2019 William A. McEllhiney Distinguished Lecturer for The Groundwater Foundation. He is a former licensed water well drilling contractor and remains actively involved in the National Ground Water Association and Arizona Water Well Association.

To learn more about Gary’s work, go to His eBooks, “Domestic Water Wells in Arizona: A Guide for Realtors and Mortgage Lenders” and “Shared Water Wells in Arizona,” are available on Amazon.