March 6, 2015 0 Comments Experience Working in Alberta's Oilfield

February- from about to lose everything to about $10000

As emphasized in my previous entry, I spent much of December and January watching myself burn through much of my savings- being out of work for 7 weeks without EI coming in. Frantically I called multiple companies- one as much as 7 times- in search for work, and went in person to hand out resumes and shake hands, only with no avail. The news and word of mouth loomed with layoffs and the inevitable recession around the corner with falling oil prices.

However, when I thought it was all over- and had the phone in my hand calling my university to crawl back to school on a student loan and say goodbye to almost everything I’ve earned so far, I received 7 calls back for work, much of them all around the same time. It was just a coincidence that the first opportunity happened to pay me more than enough. I grossed just a little shy of $15,000 from January 31 to March 3 from being a vac and water hauler, along with the major boon of camp. However, a certain portion of this pay was a living substance that was tax-free. Camp itself saves me an extra 700-800/month in travelling and groceries expenses. According to my calculations, my tax return will be somewhere around $3000 – 4000, so this money will help tremendously in paying down my debts and develop a financial buffer going into the near future.

Camp quality varies upon camp. This one was alright- not wonderful but not bad. The room is small as you can see (photo is taken from standing by the door to get in). Bed is small and does what it was meant to do. There is a small TV in front of it not visible in the photo, but I don’t watch TV so I cannot comment. Desk along with its chair are not the most comfortable to work on, as you tend to hit your knees against the bottom of the desk and the desk is small to work on. Beside the bed again not visible is one moderately-sized dresser and half a wardrobe for your clothing and other misc. items.

The shower is rather small. You have to wash your legs by letting the water trickle down them- there is not enough room for the water from the shower head to directly hit them. On some days the water temperature was not correct; I bathed in almost boiling hot water and had to squeeze in one corner, slowly scooping some water to wash so I would not burn myself. I talked to the management regarding that and apparently it had something to do with the staff forgetting to turn certain taps off.

There were small packages of soap and shampoo provided, but I just brought my own. In the recreation room there was a vending machine to purchase your own as well as other misc. grooming items like shaving blades and deodorant, but I just brought my own variants of such as well.

Breakfasts were the same everyday- typical selection of eggs, bacon, omelettes, pancakes, and sausages- with a section of some fruits. I worked night shift so it felt very strange to eat breakfast before bedtime everyday, especially the identical one.

Dinner had a weekly schedule of certain foods being served on certain days. Burgers, fries, stakes, rice, assorted vegetables, potato, gravy, ham, and chicken were typical food. The food wasn’t that great but wouldn’t say terrible. The major upside was it was free.

Work itself consisted of running vacuum and water trucks to serve the rigs that were drilling shallow holes (usually a couple hundred meters of depth each) for the drilling project.

The roads were made of ice, and were very narrow. Some corners had signs that had to be called on the radio to alert people you were coming around them, as you could not see around them. At night driving is even more complicated as visibility was terrible on top of the roads being slippery to begin with, and there were days with heavy snowstorms.

Vacuum trucks removed the mud that collected in tanks, produced by drilling. We would then clean the tanks with the assistance of steam and water, using the vacuum system to suck up the debris.
Then, the vacuum truck was driven to a tailings pond at the mine where we dumped the mud.

The water trucks, in addition to provide assistance in tank cleaning, were mainly used to maintain water levels in the rig boilers and water tanks. That water was used to actively provide steam and water in general for various operations. When out of water, the water trucks were driven to water filling stations to collect more, with representative quantities recorded on tracking sheets. These stations were either a pump or a water hole. In the case of a hole, a hose was stuck into it and the water trucks had a pumping system that extracted the water.

Vacuum and water trucks were not difficult to operate, but the number of things that could go wrong complicated things very quickly. In the extreme cold (down to -48C in my case, but historically in the area it had been colder), the most common problem was freezing equipment and hoses. To avoid this, we had to suck valves and hoses dry and drain the hoses immediately after use to ensure nothing was in them. Sucking the valves dry was referred to as “burping your tank”, where you ran the vacuum system on with the valve open to suck out any possible debris that collected in them. Vacuum truck cyclones had to be constantly drained, though many operators always forgot to and would freeze up, causing the vacuum system to have operational issues. Steam and antifreeze was used to thaw out frozen equipment and hoses. To keep the water trucks’ pumps and water warm and not frozen, the trucks had to maintain an idle rev at 800 – 1300 rpm depending on the truck.

Poor road conditions aside, working night shift proved to be a challenge. Sleeping during the bright daylight was very difficult, as even with curtains closed stray light seeped in, and I was assigned the camp room at the end of the building beside the exit door that frequently slammed as other works went in and out. The snow removal crew with their loud snowblowers and beeping skid steers also worked right outside and make it near impossible to fall asleep. But I didn’t want to complain as every extra day of work earned me another $425 – 475 (part tax free), which was critical going into the future.

I woke up at 2:30PM, then would go to the gym until 4PM. Then shower and brushing up would take half an hour. Dinner would be about 45 minutes, and then I would take 15  – 20 minutes to grab food in bags for work, get dressed, pack up, and be at the company pickup truck to drive to the work site at 5:40PM. I usually didn’t get back to camp after work at around 7 – 7:15AM. Then, dropping my stuff off and dressing down, and then going to breakfast would bring that to around 7:30AM. I ate the typical breakfast and then would spend a little time on the phone or laptop in my room until around 8:45 – 9AM, and then go to sleep.

Unfortunately the work did not last as long as I liked, so I had to look for work again. Coincidently I received a second call from a company that called me previously in the beginning, so I went for the interview. It was more just to briefly discuss the job and take photocopies of my documents and tickets. The pay is much lower- a month of work with days off would gross about $10000. But this is still good and critical to me at this time. Work is to go from late March to the end of June according to current plans. This should be more than enough to collect a house downpayment as well as build up a financial buffer of liquid investments, though I worry about putting off my electrician apprenticeship too long.

I forecast to have immediately liquid assets and cash of $33000 – 35000 based on the current information I have available… by the end of June. To get a house at that time would still be very risky, given my limited cash and uncertain job situation, and would have to dip a bit into CMHC premiums unless I settled for a condo. Then I will have to search aggressively for an electrician job in-town. Of course the oil patch is extremely unpredictable, and I may only acquire half of such. Perhaps that is one of the thrills of life- not knowing what will happen.

My current strategy going forward, after my next vac truck gig, is as follows:

(1) If immediately liquid assets and cash are as of projected, then get a 3 bedroom duplex or detached with a big garage. Garage is for personal preference as it would be a place to store and work on my nice cars I plan to have in the future. I will use one roommate or even 2 if comfortable to cover part of my mortgage payment. Though I may suffer a few thousand dollars in immediate loss because of CMHC, the house will be a tool to accumulate net worth  continuously going forward, especially during the lower-income period while accumulating blue book hours.

(2) Saved cash will be used as a buffer as I acquire blue book hours at lower wages. Though if overtime is available, work is consistent, and I stick to my budget very strictly, I should not have to tap into savings. But it is there in case expenses exceed income.

(3) After electrical work slows down, I will revert to trucking in the oil patch again to build savings. A significant portion of such savings will be used to buy beat-down oil and gas stocks and a junior miner(s). Then as savings rise, then my portfolio will gradually diversify into other sectors, with a mix of big dividend-paying companies and smaller riskier ones.