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Thu 29 Oct 2009 04:00 AM

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Speedy heat exchanger health check

Mike Watson says in a crowded market place, picking a maintenance firm with an innovative approach can shave days off downtime and improve overall plant efficiency.

Speedy heat exchanger health check
Mike Watson, Managing Director, Tubetech International.

Mike Watson says in a crowded market place, picking a maintenance firm with an innovative approach can shave days off downtime and improve overall plant efficiency.How have you seen a change in approach to refinery maintenance in the Middle East?

I have been in this industry since 1984, and it was very clear to me that this industry was something of a cowboy industry, mainly because of the lack of professionalism from service providers. There was a concentration on quantity rather than on quality, as the number of companies providing maintenance has increased, while standards of equipment used and performance have reduced. What you get is a cost effective solution to clean the refinery or the plant but the result was poor.

What does a typical job in the Middle East entail?

It is about identifying problems before they become a cause for concern and getting the large, difficult tasks finished so that shutdowns can be shortened. Often these problems are cleaning and inspection related. Refinery and petrochemical plant maintenance presents challenges in various areas. One of those targets is the quick, efficient cleaning of heat exchangers and other plant assets.

Often regarded as a "traditional" procedure, it is crucial that clients source and encourage a more inventive approach to achieve successful de-scaling, whether for improved performance or for integrity inspection, especially on the more challenging exchangers in order to avoid unscheduled maintenance.

Do you find any differences or challenges more common in this region?

Communication is the main challenge, as it is rare that refineries possess accurate historical data on previous cleaning/inspection activities and what exists is often pitifully inadequate. We have never once found a refinery that could provide archives on how something has been cleaned, which means pressures, volumes used, technology applied or any other significant information which could hold the key to improving performance the next time around.

Invariably the comments from refinery personnel refer to pressure jetting or chemical flushing and very little else. A clear and precise information gathering strategy is crucial to understanding the details of the problem - information such as limitations of access, deposit characteristics etc - all of which help contractors to apply the best technology in the most efficient manner.

This information reduces the chance of ‘bottlenecking' by preparing and understanding a cleaning problem before it occurs, planning for the best cleaning technology which benefits plant performance, reduces the cleaning time, increases energy savings and reduces the plant's carbon dioxide footprint.

What's the best advice you would offer to local operators?

The best time to conduct refinery maintenance is sooner rather than later. Regular maintenance of heat exchangers, fin fans, furnaces and flare lines means that blockages and heavy scaling should not cause unplanned shutdowns which end up costing refinery operators dearly.

What cost benefits can you offer to consumers?

A typical quote for traditional high-pressure water jetting of a heat exchanger using 10,000 psi pressure could include an undertaking to do the job two days faster.  It might save $350,000 over a 21 day shutdown. Classic high-pressure jetting of shell-side bundles uses around 250 gallons per minute, every hour, during every ten hour shift from just one contractor.

A 90% reduction reduces that to just 315,000 gallons to be handled and disposed of and a corresponding reduction in chemicals used to treat the waste. The only people who aren't going to be pleased about this are the tanker company operators, who will make far less money out of you than before. Cleaning contractors who have their own tanker operations have a vested interest in using as much water as possible!

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