The safest means of transporting hydrocarbon fuels is by pipeline. Pipelines are kept safe by constant monitoring and integrity testing by the industry, an important safeguard that can be challenging.
That challenge has suddenly become easier and far more efficient due to the ingenuity and entrepreneurship of Richard Eckles of Bozeman. Eckles has launched a business called Pipe Dogs Inc., in which — just like it sounds — he uses trained dogs to find leaks along pipelines. It’s an approach that is likely to be a game-changer for the industry. No modern technology can outdo a dog’s nose when it comes to detecting a molecule of scent.
That is a fact that Eckles learned well as an explosive- detector dog handler for the US Navy, where he served for 21 years.
But for all his experience with dogs, Eckles said, “I appreciated the dog’s capability even more after I started this company.” It is really amazing how they can detect just a speck of scent. While the typical technologies used in detecting leaks can identify a scent in “parts per million,” a dog can detect in “parts per billion.”
As a case in point, Pipe Dogs Inc. was contracted by a natural gas company to help find a leak that they hadn’t been able to locate for several weeks. A hydrostatic test showed they were losing a small amount of pressure over an eight hour period in a mile long pipeline, buried four feet underground.
After Pipe Dogs went through their proprietary process of preparing the pipeline, Eckles brought out Hondo, a specially trained dog, to walk the right -of -way. Within five minutes, Hondo started scratching and digging, which is the alert he is trained to give.
The crew dug down to the pipeline to discover two pinhole-size leaks.
“The whole pipeline crew was amazed,” said Eckles. The chief inspector commented that “there is nothing in their tool box that could find leaks that small, with so much accuracy”, and in just five minutes. It was mind blowing even to Eckles, considering that he’s worked as a dog handler for a long time.
While dogs may be low-tech, they are also low-cost and very effective at finding very small leaks, quickly and easily. This saves time and money, and allows for corrective measures before a leak becomes a bigger problem.
“Every one of the pipeline organizations want to do the best by their business, their customers, and the environment,” explained Eckles, “We can be a great tool in their toolbox.”
In this unique business, Eckles has trained three Labrador Retrievers—Hondo, Holly, and Kelley – to provide detection services for oil, gas and pipeline companies anywhere in the US. Hondo and Holly are yellow labs. They are brother and sister and were born in Texas. Kelly is from the same breeder and is a black lab. Almost any breed of dog has the capacity to do the job, but Eckles has, so far, used labs because he likes them (who doesn’t?) – And, they present the kind of warm and friendly image he wants for his company.
Eckles is a bit surprised at where his military experience and search for a business has led him. After retiring from the Navy, he searched for a college to study business. “MSU kept popping up on the list of what I was looking for,” he said. Montana was always a place Eckles thought he would like to live. He and his wife love the outdoors and felt Montana would be a great place to raise their three boys.
In December 2014, Pipe Dogs was launched on a bootstrap, as so many entrepreneurial efforts are. Part of getting their feet on the ground, included taking part in the Boots to Business curriculum, which is a special program presented by the Region VIII Veterans Business Outreach Center (VBOC), based at Big Sky Economic Development in Billings, especially for veterans and their spouses. BVOC staff provides training, counseling and consulting for transitioning military service members, active duty, veterans, reservists, and guardsmen, who are interested in pursuing small business ownership.
Eckles said that the program offers a great opportunity to network.
While his business started slow, it has steadily been growing, as word gets around. Eckles believes that the timing for the service he offers is very good, given the strength and growth of the oil and gas business and the demand for pipelines, as well as the increasing regulatory safety requirements.
The opportunity is huge, with 2.5 million miles of pipelines in the US, carrying products like oil and natural gas, and pumping them to refineries for processing, power plants, homes and businesses. Most of the lines are buried, but some run above ground.
Pipe Dogs Inc. is “a novelty to a lot of people,” said Eckles. “The oil and gas industry is very technologically driven. We are accustomed to the use of dogs in law enforcement and the military, but the idea of using dogs in finding leaks in the oil and gas industry is fairly new. We find ourselves educating the industry that it is the same superior olfactory sense that make dogs able to detect explosives and narcotics so successfully, that Pipe Dogs harnesses to search for leaks in the pipelines, with accuracy, and in a short amount of time so we are able to save them money by shortening downtime, and not having to dig up long stretches of pipeline.”
Pipe Dogs is the kind of business that requires travel, and a lot of it. Eckles usually drives to locations. “The dogs are great travelers”, he said.
Eckles anticipates the need to add more dogs and handlers to grow the business. He plans to focus on employing other veterans.
Most of his business, so far, has been for pipeline companies in Texas. It gradually grew northward to the Dakotas and is now spreading westward, as more companies learn about the success of his service. He is hoping to have the opportunity to work with pipeline operators here in the Rocky Mountain Region.