Oilfield Workers Buy Up Bakken Tough Trailers

Camps for Bakken oilfield workers in North Dakota and Montana are dotted with fifth wheel trailers shielded with foam-board insulation and skirting and whatever else workers can muster to keep water pipes and waste tanks from freezing and to lower heating costs.

Dustin Bretz is shown with a super-insulated 34-foot work crew housing unit at Tour America RV Center. Many of the dealership’s RVs are headed to the Bakken oil field where the boom in jobs has created a severe housing shortage. (Source: Larry Mayer/Billings Gazette)

When Bakken oilfield workers come calling Dustin Bretz, salesman at Tour America RV Center in Billings, Montana, knows standard RVs aren’t going to cut it.

There’s camping rough and then there’s Bakken rough, living full time through the winter on the frozen prairie of North Dakota and Montana, where more than a few days of arctic weather are normal, Bretz told The Billings Gazette.

“Winter time can run as cold as 30 below zero, and a lot of RVs aren’t made for that.”

So Tour America started looking for one that could handle these harsh winter conditions and came up with a Camp Lodge, Work and Play fifth wheel custom built for the Bakken environment.

“These go relatively quickly,” Bretz said.

“It has 2 to 3 inches of spray foam on the lower chasse, heated water lines, and holding tanks. They have dual-pane windows, like your house. This is a niche product.”

In this July, 2011 photo, a man walks back to his temporary housing unit in a man camp outside of Williston, N.D. Many oilfield workers say sharing an RV beats living in a man camp any day. And, some of the oilfield work is done far from the nearest man camp, making super-insulated RVs or other manufactured housing a preferred choice. (Source: AP)

Bretz has the rugged trailers, which retail for about $34,000, parked north of his main lot in full view of eastbound Interstate 90, where semis loaded with drilling equipment and bentonite are streaming to the oil patch. His show-pony RVs are in Tour America’s corral, not so easily spotted from the freeway.

Housing of all kinds is scarce in the Bakken oilfield, where high-paying jobs have lured thousands of transient workers. Real homes are hard to come by, but so are campers and trailers. The running joke is that the oilfield holds the record for homeless people with $100,000 incomes. At a western North Dakota housing summit last spring, developers identified the need for 5,000 homes over the next two years.

That insatiable demand for housing of all kinds has become good business for Billings companies with products ready to sell. Pierce Homes now markets a modular model named for the Bakken and built by Commodore Homes. At Canadian-American Structured Solutions Inc. (CASS), the demand for oilfield housing drives a significant portion of the recently created company’s business.

“I would say the fallout from the Williston area is 25 percent of our business,” said Larry Nelson, CASS investor and CFO.

CASS, which set up shop in Billings only a few months ago, shipped a four-plex to Powers Lake, North Dakota, and created duplexes bound for Regina, Saskatchewan. The company has an apartment house building in Glendive and multiple accounts from Baker to Williston.

CASS builds its products to suit the building codes for permanent structures in whatever community to which its buildings are headed.

Bakken Reservoir fields in Williston Basin

Even businesses that don’t normally target the Bakken market are picking up customers, reports The Billings Gazette.

“We say we don’t sell single-wides, but we sell a bunch of these little cabins that are right around the $60,000 mark, the cost of a nice, fifth-wheel trailer,” said Jeff Lee, of American Homes.

Lee said American Homes in Billings has sold six of the 560-square-foot cabins since August. Not all of the buildings were Bakken bound, but he expects more will be sold into the oilfield in the future.

American sells a hunting cabin that’s a super-super insulated single-wide modular home with 6-inch walls and homelike features.

“This really is just a souped up single wide, but it has a good look and feel, laminate floors, residential doors and windows and furnaces.”

Lee said American Homes in Billings has sold six of the 560-square-foot cabins since August.

Worth Pondering…

I played as much golf as I could in North Dakota, but summer up there is pretty short.  It usually falls on Tuesday.

—Mike Morley

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