Growing Texas oilfield fluid transport company K-3BMI focuses on building an efficient, durable fleet.

When Karlis Ercums III went into business in 1981, the then 20-year-old entrepreneur bought an aging vacuum truck to drive around South Texas, picking up waste oil from service stations and hauling it to recycling facilities. The rattletrap rig drew vacuum the old-fashioned way, off of its engine's exhaust manifold.

Lessons learned from relying on the antiquated equipment had a lasting impact on Ercums' approach to outfitting K-3BMI's growing fleet of service trucks and roll-off rigs working both the oilfield and the municipal biosolids industries across the Lone Star State.

After more than 30 years of hauling fluids, Ercums has a specific set of equipment standards, with a heavy emphasis on dependability and durability. His focus on detail goes right down to fenders specially adapted by K-3BMI's fabricators to protect the cab and vacuum pumps on tank trailers.

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Based in Alvin, Texas, K-3BMI reflects a merger of two separate businesses: K-3 Services, a diversified oilfield services company focusing on fluid transport; and BMI, a municipal biosolids management contractor.

With more than 120 trucks, Ercums says K-3BMI's prime focus is on the transportation of fluids to and from drilling and completion sites in the Eagle Ford Shale in south-central Texas to the Haynesville Shale in northeast Texas/northwest Louisiana. His trucks are also dispatched on longer trips, hauling specialty drilling fluids and chemicals to gas and oilfields from Pennsylvania and North Dakota to Colorado and California.

Switching to aluminum

One of the most distinctive characteristics of the K-3BMI fleet is the reliance on 166-barrel aluminum vacuum tank trailers in addition to the 130-barrel carbon steel vacuum transports that have long been the standard in the oil and gas fields. Ercums became interested in using larger, lighter aluminum tanks soon after he moved into oilfield services. "Back in 1986, everybody was using carbon steel 130-barrel trailers and I thought we could be more competitive with aluminum."

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Despite warnings from experienced haulers, Ercums bought a used aluminum crude oil tank trailer and began converting it into a vacuum rig, fabricating many of his own components along the way. Although Ercums was confident in his idea, he took a cautious approach. "We started out carefully and pulled 15 inches of vacuum. Then we experimented a bit more and added some ribs to it."

When Ercums was ready for more testing, he told a driver to load 7,000 gallons of biosolids in the prototype. "But he loaded 8,400 and it cracked." That calamity didn't deter the young Ercums; it just sent him down a different road. In 1988, he approached Trailmaster Corp. in Fort Worth, Texas, to build an aluminum trailer. The result was a 166-barrel trailer that weighed 9,900 pounds, 20 to 30 percent lighter than typical 130-barrel carbon steel vacuum trailers.

When Ercums took delivery of his first aluminum tank trailers, skeptics predicted saltwater and chemical loads would deteriorate the tanks, and that using air-ride suspensions to better protect the trailers against bumpy oilfield roads would not work. Nearly 30 years later, Ercums claims the Independent Truck Tank aluminum trailers he buys from Houston-based Trailers of Texas are more durable than carbon steel rigs, more efficient because of their lighter weight and more profitable because of their greater capacity.

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Down to the bumpers

Although he is loyal to equipment that has served his company well, Ercums remains adaptable, as evidenced in a shift in his preference for trucks to pull the company's vacuum rigs and heavy-duty roll-off trailers.

"We recently switched and went with all Kenworths from Performance Truck in Baytown, Texas. The Kenworth T-800s have 62-inch sleepers and HP 2000 auxiliary power units, so when drivers get on location and they're going to be there a while on off-duty, you don't have to idle the engine to run their AC, TVs and refrigerators."

Ercums says with the new-generation diesel engines, the past practice of idling trucks for long periods can cause serious damage. In addition to the auxiliary power units, K-3BMI specs trucks to be delivered with severe service heavy-duty chrome center-pull bumpers on the front. Ercums also specs the trucks with 450-horsepower PACCAR and Cummins engines, 13-speed transmissions and the Kenworth 8-bag air ride suspension.

"That's what our drivers demand," Ercums explains. "They may have to run in South Texas one day and then the next day they may have to run to North Dakota, Pennsylvania or Bakersfield, Calif., and they need a truck that can handle the oilfield roads and the highway."

Since 2010, the company has specified disc brakes all the way around its trucks and trailers. Ercums says his team convinced him that the ease of maintenance and the endurance of the disc brakes are worth the added investment.

"They're a lot more expensive, but from my point of view, it's one of the best moves we've ever made," he continues. The same theory backs the decision to run all trucks on 11R24.5 tires. "We run the tall rubber because of how long it lasts. Insistence on heavy-duty bumpers is another nod to longevity. Deer are a frequent road hazard in many areas that K-3BMI serves, and Ercums says that after going to the more expensive bumpers, none of his trucks have sustained damage from collisions with deer. And the center-pull feature means less chance of damage when one of his rigs gets stuck on a muddy oilfield road and has to be pulled free.

Once trucks and trailers are delivered, K-3BMI continues to fine-tune before putting them into service. Mechanics mount Gardner Denver Demag Wittig RFL 100 pumps behind the landing gear of the vacuum trailers, a spot where they are more protected from road dirt and debris. "It's an expensive pump, but it's bullet-proof," Ercums says. K-3BMI opts for hydraulic drives on the pumps because they run cleaner and have less downtime compared to pumps running off of drive shafts.

K-3's employees assemble the hydraulic systems in-house based on a design perfected over the years. To help protect the pumps and cabs, fabricators modify quarter fenders to mount over the trucks' drive tires.

Before new equipment is put on the road, drivers are trained on proper operation. "Because of the emissions on the new trucks, it is extremely important that the drivers are trained on the trucks' systems," Ercums says. He relies on his own mechanics to maintain equipment and do most repairs.

Expansion plans

Ercums has developed a pattern when deciding to enter a new market. "We look at the play to see if it's going to be a long-term situation," he says. "We look at the area to see if there are opportunities for growth. We look to see if there's a strong infrastructure.

"If we decide to go into a new town, we buy property and we put up a building to meet our needs. We put down roots and we let people in the community know we're there to stay. We build really nice, top-of-the-line maintenance facilities."

The facilities are designed with lifts, compressors and other equipment needed to maintain the K-3BMI fleet. And Ercums says his managers focus on hiring skilled mechanics usually sent straight to school to learn how to properly maintain modern diesel equipment.

"Seventy percent of the fleet is 2010 or newer and that means they are more complicated because of the new laws on emissions. Our mechanics are not only turning a wrench, they have to learn how to use the computers to do diagnostics and they need to understand the new engines."

When trucks and trailers come in for repairs or maintenance, mechanics are responsible for a long checklist of tests and maintenance tasks before putting a rig back on the road. "I would rather fix a truck in our shop than send someone out to fix one at the side of the road in the middle of the night," Ercums explains.

Promote from within

As his company grows, Ercums develops his own managers. "The majority of the managers who run our locations came up through our ranks, either as drivers or as mechanics. Many were supervisors first at other locations, but most of them jumped at the opportunity if I asked them to manage a new location."

One benefit of developing his managers, Ercums says, is their willingness to work as a team. He brings them together for quarterly meetings where they can discuss common issues and challenges, but he says they are also encouraged to maintain that teamwork when they go back to their individual offices. The networking makes it possible for the company to efficiently allocate resources — both equipment and people — where demand is the greatest. But the value of the teamwork goes beyond that, Ercums says.

"For a while we were busy servicing rigs for a number of companies in the Haynesville area. A lot of those rigs have moved down to South Texas. Our guys were telling them, 'We have yards down there,' and sharing contact information with the clients and our other managers."

And since Ercums' company also has a smaller fleet of winch trucks, his local offices make sure clients changing location know that K-3BMI works on a lot of rig moves.

Quality counts

Ercums' approach to outfitting his company can be expensive, but he says the investment has been worthwhile. He believes the larger aluminum tanks on his trailers make his operation more efficient and he says the way K-3BMI specs its trucks make them more durable. That, he says, makes services reliable. And service counts, he says, because "the types of fluids that we haul are extremely important to the drilling and completion of wells. If they are not delivered on time, that can cost the client a lot of money."

Acknowledging that he sometimes can't compete with bids from competitors with lower costs, Ercums says, "We've built a lot of our business on being the second call, not the first call. If we've got someone who tells us they're getting a better price, we tell them, 'That's OK, but if they aren't able to do the job, then just call us back.' We get called back."

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