March 2020, Vol. 247, No. 3


Causes, Effects and Solutions for Damaged Pipelines

The United States has more than 2.5 million miles (4 million km) of pipelines dedicated to liquid and natural gas. Although many are unaware, this large network provides a lifeline to everyday activities like pumping gas, generating electricity and even heating a home.

Since the raw materials that produce these luxuries are found in different parts of the world, pipelines are often seen as the safest and most efficient option for transportation. However, because of several high-profile pipeline failures, the public is increasingly skeptical of the benefits they provide.

Because pipes are used to transport these important, yet potentially harmful, chemicals, they’re typically situated in hard-to-reach places to avoid risks posed by people, heavy machinery and other influences. 

Although damage can and does occur to underground pipes due to accidental impacts from outside sources, it’s the pipes themselves that can cause a lot of issues.

The mishandling of equipment during the transportation process can cause unseen damage, which, in turn, leads to failure. Chips, cracks or breaks sustained by a pipe’s surface during transport serve as catalysts for much larger issues once these materials are placed on a line and made operational. 

Potential Issues

When a piece of critical equipment fails, it can bring an entire operation to a standstill. Shutdowns (even those lasting a short time) suppress productivity, since companies are forced to address necessary repairs or replacements before resuming operations.

The subsequent downtime can be costly to companies since a stop in production can result in delayed timelines, missed opportunities with customers and damaged reputations. 

In addition to the base costs associated with downtime is the cost of extra labor and any parts necessary to resume production. Although there might be maintenance personnel to handle smaller occurrences on a regular basis, equipment failure can require additional hands to resolve the issue in a timely manner.

This means having to compensate more people than expected, sometimes at a higher rate due to the immediate need for help. Replacement parts can also be expensive, especially when needing rush delivery, as opposed to being ordered months or weeks in advance. 

Without a properly functioning pipeline, companies are also forced to address the inadvertent loss of products and the consequences it poses. The leaking of hazardous materials can lead to extensive environmental remediation, which can cost thousands of dollars more in cleanup.

Like most things, pipes decay with time, especially when used to transport corrosive materials. Equipment is bound to require occasional maintenance and even replacement. Considering the average life span of a pipe, what chemicals are being transported, the climate and other variables, companies can set timelines for maintenance to take place.

However, unknown breaks, cracks or other damages can disrupt schedules. Although proactive planning is a good start, and works in theory, having actual systems in place that can alert users to upcoming failure is a better way to allocate resources and personnel, and create maintenance timelines. 

How to Avoid Issues

To better prepare for pipeline degradation and avoid serious consequences, it’s important to use a wide range of devices to monitor, track and alert users of deviations in real time. For example, impact monitoring devices can be used to glean insights into potential damage experienced during the logistics process.

These types of products help operators identify and inspect potential damage before equipment is put into use, which helps avoid the significant costs related to running a damaged piece. It’s important to understand what, if any, impacts are occurring, specifically for high-value, high-risk pieces of equipment.

Once pipes are delivered and evaluated based on the data collected from the impact monitors, they can then be fitted with devices designed to monitor vibrations. By benchmarking regular vibrations and monitoring ongoing vibration patterns, companies can be alerted to signs of potential pipeline failure. Being aware of potential failure before it takes place could then allow companies to halt operations on their own schedule for maintenance purposes.

Some devices, like SpotSee’s ShockLog 298, record impacts, vibrations and environmental conditions, allowing users to understand the specifics about the transport and know who was in control of the equipment at the time. 

These types of devices work as a two-pronged solution, ensuring a safer supply chain and providing decision-making details regarding vendor behavior and equipment handling.

Additionally, vibration monitoring of the finished pipeline, check valves and electrical systems can provide the peace of mind for pipeline owners and operators that everything is operating within tolerances. If something does change significantly, they can be notified of the out-of-tolerance condition and take action to remediate.

Other ways to safeguard pipes include proper securement and packaging. The more securely a piece of equipment is packaged and tied down for transport, the less opportunity there is for items to move around and incur damage throughout the supply chain.

Trucks with air-ride suspension are another option for reducing damage to pipes in the supply chain. By replacing springs with a bag of compressed air, air-ride trucks are able to increase their shock absorbency ratio, allowing for a smoother ride. 

Pipeline failures are caused by a multitude of variables, but many can be attributed to damaged pipes. Whether the damage occurs before implementation or after an extended period of use, there are measures companies can take to reduce the odds of failure, thus decreasing the chance of unplanned downtime, environmental harm and associated costs.

Using some form of condition monitoring from transportation to delivery, implementation and operation can reduce the amount of issues faced by oil and gas companies, decreasing the negative image associated with pipelines.  

Author: Kraig J. Nunn provides technical expertise and consulting services at SpotSee. Nunn holds a bachelor’s of science degree in industrial engineering from Kansas State University.


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