May 2020

Valves, Pumps and Turbomachinery

Doing more with less: Extending critical fluid system resources

Fluid system operators are tasked with maximizing value from their systems to enhance plant and refinery operations.

Menz, B., Swagelok

Fluid system operators are tasked with maximizing value from their systems to enhance plant and refinery operations. However, many common inefficiencies threaten that mission. Maintaining efficiencies can be more challenging than ever before, as highly tenured employees enter retirement and leave a growing skills gap behind. Meanwhile, in-house technical staffs—particularly maintenance and instrumentation technicians—are dwindling, as organizations cut costs to maximize profitability. From a plant resource perspective, the math does not add up.

How can plants overcome these challenges of a shrinking labor pool and smaller in-house technical teams? One way is by partnering with a reliable supplier on common, but critical, fluid system fabrication and assembly activities to ensure proper operation and system health. Taking these activities off fluid system operators’ plates allows them to focus on maximizing the value of end products.

Leaving such fabrication and assembly work to third parties requires proper vetting of expertise and capabilities to ensure delivery of effective, high-quality systems. Plants and refineries must have confidence that they will receive leak-tight and fail-safe assemblies, and that those systems have been tested to strict standards prior to delivery. To help fluid system operators recognize how an outside provider may assist in these areas, this article will review some common assemblies that require expert attention from assemblers, including grab sampling panels, seal support systems and gas distribution panels.

Grab sampling panels

Ubiquitous throughout processing plants, refineries and other industrial facilities, grab sampling systems serve a key role in validating process conditions, environmental emissions and product quality. Such systems enable closed-loop sampling—or spot sampling—so technicians can draw a fresh sample from process lines into a portable vessel and then transport that sample to a remote lab for offline analysis. The samples that technicians take must be representative of the process. In addition, because technicians must capture samples from running processes, grab sampling assemblies must be carefully designed and fabricated to ensure operator and plant safety.

In processing facilities, aging fluid systems often feature rudimentary grab sampling assemblies. Such systems may be as simple as a single valve tapped into a process line (with no additional safeguard in place), where an operator can draw a sample. Although samples are pulled directly from the process stream in this rudimentary design, they still may not be representative for many reasons. Such system designs need to be updated to enhance both personnel safety and sample representativeness. However, with in-house teams busy covering daily operations, they are unlikely to have the time to fix deficient grab sampling systems, let alone to optimize their designs.

A third-party provider can help plants conduct safe, accurate sampling by designing and assembling optimized grab sampling systems (FIG. 1). A skilled provider will understand the intricacies of pressure, temperature, system media composition, materials of construction, and surface treatments, and consider all these factors into securing a representative sample for analysis. For example, a grab sample system provider with deep knowledge will understand when it is appropriate to use a probe to capture samples from a tap, where the tap should be located, and how the probe should be oriented in the process stream. By moving grab sampling design and fabrication services to a reliable provider, plants can rely on experts to consider all system variables and arrive at a design that will draw representative samples, condition them as needed, and then deliver them to an appropriate vessel (such as a cylinder) for transport. The provider’s designs will also surpass the safety standards of the single-valve grab sampling assembly.

FIG. 1. A grab sampling system panel assembled by a third-party provider will be optimized to its specific role in a plant’s quality control program via a standard or customized design.

Seal support systems

Pumps, compressors and other rotating equipment serve a critical role in a plant’s overall efficiency. This equipment must stay online to keep production running, which requires well-maintained mechanical seals to prevent leaks and keep the equipment operating properly. To ensure that seals deliver consistent and reliable performance, seal support systems are typically used. Such assemblies supply a gas or a liquid to a mechanical seal to regulate the environment in which the seal operates (FIG. 2).

FIG. 2. Using high-quality components designed for maintainability can maximize the uptime of seal support systems, such as this American Petroleum Institute (API) Plan 22 cooled flush system with a strainer.

Like the rotating equipment they support, seal support systems typically operate continuously. However, diminished in-house plant teams may not have the resources available to reliably maintain these critical systems. In such cases, a dependable system provider can help a plant reduce maintenance needs and costs by providing well-designed seal support systems that are easily serviced and maintained. For example, during general pump maintenance, seal support systems may need to be drained for servicing. A well-designed support system can simplify this maintenance requirement by including low-point drains that allow the system to be purged of fluids quickly and safely. In addition, the system should use as few connections as possible to minimize the number of potential leak points. Using leak-free tube fittings prevents leaks during regular system operation and enables the system to be serviced easily.

Quality and reliability are not the only important metrics for a seal support system. If a component within the assembly needs to be replaced, rotating equipment engineers must be able to do so quickly to avoid prolonged downtime. Therefore, engineers will want to ensure that the seal support system supplier has quick access to critical spares and can also provide local service and support.

Gas distribution panels

Processing plants and refineries commonly use a variety of gases throughout their facilities. These gases are delivered to the plant, or to a subsystem within the plant, through gas distribution systems (FIG. 3), which are fed by sources like gas bottles, bulk gas storage tanks or onsite gas generation. Because fluid system operators must manage many other critical processes, gas distribution assemblies can be overlooked, neglected or forgotten during regular maintenance. This can be a concern to plant managers, as the facility may be losing money—or worse, increasing safety risks—due to an unnoticed leaky gas distribution assembly. This concern is amplified when considering systems handling hazardous or expensive gases such as hydrogen, oxygen or helium.

FIG. 3. Following strict, documented standards, a third-party provider can deliver consistent gas distribution assemblies to enhance plant efficiencies.

Transitioning gas distribution design and assembly to a reliable and knowledgeable third-party provider can help resource-strapped plants enhance system reliability and uptime. For example, a provider may produce customized gas distribution systems to transport critical gas and utility fluids from a central location to the desired point of use inside a laboratory or test facility. Fabricated to strict, documented standards, these types of assemblies can bring efficiency to operations by simplifying a plant’s fluid system designs and streamlining the acquisition of duplicate systems across a plant, as well as across facilities.

Choosing a reliable provider

Extra manpower and in-house technical instrumentation resources are a luxury in today’s processing environment, leaving many plants scrambling to keep up with preventive and reactive maintenance activities. Transitioning the fabrication of a few critical assemblies to a third-party provider is one way that plant managers can help to alleviate their resource constraints. When doing so, they should ensure that their chosen suppliers offer expertise, stringent testing, and high-quality components and materials of construction. These qualities will not only ensure that the provided assemblies will be designed for long-term service and to minimize leak points, but that they can also be serviced efficiently to reduce system downtime. HP

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