December 2015 Vol. 242, No. 12


Ultrasonic Cleaning Technology Helps SoCalGas Achieve Greater Efficiency

Special to Pipeline & Gas Journal

High-powered engines require high-powered cleaning to maintain operating efficiency and productivity. One natural gas facility is realizing significant time savings, seeing greater equipment efficiency and extending the life of its 100-year-old equipment, saving millions of dollars in the process.

At Southern California Gas Company’s (SoCalGas®) storage facility in Valencia, CA, five 5,500 horsepower compressor engines move 250 MMcf/d of natural gas under 600-650 lbs. of pressure, from pipelines to storage fields 2 miles beneath the earth’s surface. The storage field holds 30 Bcf of gas.

The engines required for this job are similar in size and capability to those used to power jet engines and cruise ships. Each $10 million engine weighs 710 pounds. and has 16 valve heads.

Despite the age of the engines – purchased by SoCalGas just over 50 years ago as they reached their 50th year of life – they are expected to run for several more years. The engines are constantly updated with new technology and components. Proper maintenance and cleaning extends their lifespan and maintains production efficiency.

Before Ultrasonic: Significant Cleaning Time Required

According to Michael Towne, retired operations supervisor who oversaw the use and maintenance of these engines for 33 years, their large size and high power mean great amounts of oil, grease and grime build up throughout all the components, including lifters and fuel-check valves. Keeping them in efficient working order involves continuous, time-consuming effort.

In order to keep up, the engines are on a rotating, annual overhaul schedule intended to extend their life an additional five years with each overhaul. The team begins cleaning one engine on Nov. 1 with a completion deadline of April 1. Before purchasing a Power Pro 8000 industrial ultrasonic cleaning unit from Omegasonics in 2006, this process required four dedicated full-time workers, each paid $45 per hour, during that five-month period.

Each component had to be removed and disassembled before the staff hand-scrubbed them in harsh chemicals using masks and gloves for protection.

“The parts never seemed to get completely clean,” said Towne. “It was difficult and expensive until we started using the ultrasonic technology. Once we bought the machine, we used it constantly. It never left the floor.”

Before purchasing, Towne was able to use an Omegasonics machine for a week during 2006. They tested the dirtiest parts, saw how clean the technology’s cavitation bubbles got the components, even in tiny and remote places, and decided to purchase one of the company’s industrial units. They use the machine every day and have only ever required the one machine to get the necessary job done.

“With the ultrasonic technology, everything gets cleaner and works more efficiently,” said Towne. “The engine’s valves are as clean as they could possibly be and lubed properly. Pockets are open so more gas can go through.”

He said the cleaner valves don’t get as hot, making it possible for gas to pass through more efficiently. This also saves on replacement components, as parts used to break more readily due to the high heat.

Lower Labor, Equipment Costs

By more efficiently extending the life of its 100-year-old engines five years at a time, SoCalGas is seeing a minimum savings of $50 million in replacement engines. The company is realizing a time and labor savings of 75%, or $135 per hour. Parts that once required two hours of hand cleaning now get cleaner after 15 minutes in the ultrasonic unit. Engine overhauls require one person’s time instead of four, reducing the cost from at least $180 per hour to $45.

Additional savings are achieved as the facility no longer uses harsh chemicals requiring costly disposal. Cleaning no longer requires masks, gloves or respirators, and the risk associated with employee exposure is eliminated.

Towne was pleased when they discovered the ultrasonic unit is able to clean and extend the life of Grade 8 nuts and bolts. This saves on the cost of these expensive parts and creates an additional efficiency: because the threads of these high-end bolts get pristinely clean, they are easily reused and able to perform better at securing engine doors and other components. These tight seals decrease oil leakage, resulting in less frequent cleaning and downtime, and significant savings in oil usage.

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