Utilities waking up to leak detection

Yawar Mian looks at the cost of leaks in pipes and how they can be tracked down.
By Yawar Mian
Mon 20 Oct 2008 04:00 AM

Yawar Mian looks at the cost of leaks in pipes and how they can be tracked down.

The rapid development of infrastructure in the Middle East over the last decade has brought to the fore many new operational challenges. Regional utilities and oil and gas companies are continuing to expand their domestic and cross-country pipeline networks to meet rising demand for petroleum products, natural gas and water.

Socio-economic indicators suggest that the demand for piped gas and water will continue to rise in the years to come. Sustainability of efficient and reliable services is therefore moving up the regional development agenda, while utilities and municipalities are increasingly waking up to the need for maintenance and upkeep of their pipeline networks.

Old cross-country pipelines older than 30 years often suffer leaks, even though they are designed for a life span of about 50 years.

The focus is on proactively seeking solutions to cope with any emergencies and accidents that could be avoided by putting a stitch in time to save nine. Competitiveness, proper planning and cost-cutting are taking root in the oil-rich Gulf states, no longer willing to squander their petrodollars on expensive and unreliable technologies and systems.

Management teams have become smarter and wiser, thanks to the exposure provided by global technology companies setting up regional bases.

A complex challenge faced by utilities lies in eliminating and preventing leakages in pipeline networks, which have been causing losses of millions of dollars that have started surfacing only recently.

Most common cases of leakages are being reported in municipal water distribution pipelines - the backbone of civic and industrial operations in a harsh desert environment, especially in the hot summer months.

In the UAE, Al Ain Municipality is losing up to 30% of the water in its 3,000 km irrigation network. Dubai Electricity & Water Authority (DEWA) has reported about 10% leakage in its existing pipeline network, while District Cooling Systems at the Dubai Festival City, which use underground piping for chilled water circulation - are facing leakages in a brand new network.

Industry experts say leakages in refrigeration and water lines in the domestic environment are very common. Pipe pieces come in 6 m-10 m lengths and joints are potential leak locations.

All pipelines, sooner or later, suffer leakages but this could be prevented by using reliable techniques and technologies capable of identifying and repairing them.

Old cross-country or sub-sea pipelines older than 30 years often suffer leakages, even though they are designed for a life span of about 50 years. Corrosion is a major challenge. Newly laid pipelines could also leak if not properly routed and laid.

In a desert environment, if the bed for a pipeline is not properly prepared and the sand shifts, the pipeline could sag under its own weight and develop leakages at joints.

"Pipelines that are laid at room temperature expand or contract at operating temperature. For example, chilled water pipelines will contract a little when they carry water at 4C. If the layout has not been proper, the joints get stretched and could cause leakage.

District cooling system pipelines are very prone to failure. It is difficult to quote percentages," says G. Ramakrishnan, managing director of Dubai-based Pinnacle Knowledge Group.

Leakages at the chilled water pipeline at Dubai Festival City were not detected by the copper wire leak detection system in place. The subsea pipeline of Dubai Petroleum apparently also develops leaks and divers have to be sent to locate and fix them.

The complex nature of pipeline operations makes it difficult to ascertain the success rate of existing pipeline leak detection technologies available in the regional and global markets.

"Success is a matter of chance. Spurious alarms and inaccuracies in predicting leak locations have ruined the reputation of leak detection systems. Ferrous pipelines are more prone to leakage over a period of time. This is because corrosion is not uniform across the pipeline length and depends heavily on how effectively the cathodic protection (CP) systems have been monitored and worked," says Ramakrishnan.

On camera

Flir's TermaCAM GasFindIR is capable of spotting gases not visible to the naked eye. The company has adapted technology used for the military to replace less efficient methods of detecting leaks at oil refineries. Its use increases the capability to instantly spot a leak, improves productivity and reduces wastage of man-hours.

The handheld camera detects a wide range of hydrocarbons, which appears as black smoke in the camera's viewfinder. A telephoto lens can be attached to the camera for far-away viewing and the technology makes a traditionally labour intensive and lengthy process of checking for leaks more efficient.

One of the first customers was Exxon Mobil's Baytown Olefins Plant in the US, where the normal quarterly inspections required eight full-time employees to complete. With the Flir camera, the check was shortened to about two weeks.

Glass reinforced plastic (GRP) or Fibre reinforced plastic (FRP) pipes do not suffer corrosion. They, however, tend to develop leaks due to inherent weaknesses of joints and inadequate welding qualification procedures.

Plastic pipes are also prone to fail due to bending over a period of time. Plastic pipes exposed to the sun get damaged due to ultra violate light and heat, while polymer pipes could get depolymerised with time, become brittle and crack.

Leaks at pipeline joints, albeit common, could be prevented through the use of precision valves that last longer than run-of-the-mill equipment.

The right valves can prevent accidents, losses and ensure smooth operations over a longer period of time.

Dubai-based Flowtech - specialising in valves and control systems - contends that products that conform to international standards from manufacturers who have specialised in their particular field of valves, actuators and control equipment could significantly reduce and prevent pipeline leakages.

"The right valves can prevent accidents, losses and ensure smooth operations over a longer period of time. Oil and gas companies have been more aware due to the environmental impact of pipeline projects, but now the water and sewerage utilities are catching up. Desalinated water is becoming more expensive. The two major countries implementing pipeline projects in the region are the UAE and Saudi Arabia. Both need more water due to expansions in residential towns and commercial areas. In terms of execution of projects, the UAE is moving at a faster pace," says Wael Alshihabi, business development manager at Flowtech.

The heavy demand has also given rise to competition, but at the end of the day it all comes down to service and who can provide the back-up support. Many new solution providers are coming to the region.

"From our warehouse, assembly and test facility in Dubai and an office in Abu Dhabi we can also provide local back-up, spare-parts and after-sales service, as well as assist utilities in selecting the right valves," says Alshihabi. "Our services extend across the Gulf and Arab region and we represent several leading international valve manufacturing companies," he says.

Pipeline networks could last longer if developers take into account all aspects of their projects from an early stage. Getting the right people on board and identifying the right equipment allows a pipeline network to last for 25-50 years and some pipelines have survived longer than that.

But the lifecycle of projects keeps changing because of expansions to existing networks. New cities, towns, commercial and residential areas need water and the pipeline networks need to be upgraded. Additional costs could be saved by planning for the long term.

Infrared technology

Robert Pitman, the Dubai-based regional sale manager Middle East & South Asia of the Thermography Division at the US-based FLIR Systems says that most leakages at oil refineries, gas plants and pipelines could be detected at an early stage.

FLIR offers a range of infrared cameras to monitor infrastructure and pipelines. The FLIR ThermaCAM ultra lightweight infrared cameras are used in predictive and preventive maintenance inspections.

For utilities, failure is not an option. Infrared thermography is common at utility predictive maintenance programmes in the US and Europe and has enabled utilities to avoid costly failures, improve service reliability, and prevent electrical fires.

In the Middle East, gas plants and oil refineries where health and safety staff from the US and Europe are quick to adopt modern technologies at Saudi Aramco and companies in Qatar. Some local and other expatriate workers are still using the ancient soap tests that are not reliable and take more time and man hours, a valuable resource when skilled people are hard to find.

"Safety is growing in importance in the region. One such example is Kuwait National Petroleum Company which has pushed the use of cameras at its three refineries and gas stations.

"The US and Europe are still far ahead but the GCC is heading in the right direction. Accidents at Saudi Aramco and Kuwait Petroleum Company have woken up people to the environmental impact of leakages that can cause deadly and costly accidents," says Pitman.

Software solution

The Panorama software for Leak Detection and Leak Localisation in Pipes introduced by Pinnacle Knowledge Group works on a rigorous computer simulation of flow through a given network. After the model is created, it creates extensive leakage scenarios and simulates response of the network pressures to any specific leakage.

The software's strength lies in capturing unique signatures of different leakages at different locations and creating a reference library of such signatures. It is an on-line, real-time software and looks for certain indications of leakage and the pattern of the network response.

The response pattern is compared with signature libraries to get possible location of leakage. This is then further confirmed through affirmative simulations.

The software works with any size and complexity of network. It has been used in India for a dedicated pipeline and gas networks running over 1,500km with over 100 users. Panorama has also been used for a proposed 3,000km gas pipeline to check design.

Panorama is being installed for gas networks of over 100 metres in several apartment buildings in a scheme for off-line leak detection and maintenance. It is an all-purpose, any-scale, any fluid, gas or liquid, all season software based on knowledge.

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