Machinery Protection in Harsh Conditions
Oil & gas pipeline machinery froze in Texas during the winter storm starting a chain reaction that caused deaths, food and water shortages, and power plant shutdowns. In this case, the machinery at pumping stations, valves, and even the pipes weren’t protected from the freezing temperatures.
Houston and the areas surrounding aren’t normally subjected to cold and snowy conditions. The equipment associated with and operating the pipeline infrastructure were protected as it might be in Alaska, Dakotas, or Nebraska.
Sure some of the power shortages were due to power generation and processing facilities being shut down during the normally mild winter months for maintenance. This only compounded the disaster that Texans have experienced.
How should the equipment be protected from harsh conditions?
In Northern geographic locations pipelines and the machinery that operates them are protected through insulation and heating devices specifically designed to protect against the cold.
PTC ceramic element heaters are often used for heating in these harsh climates. The unique temperature control devices take up little room, aren’t combustible, and self-controlling. PTC stands for positive temperature coefficient which manages resistance in reverse relationship to the temperature. Once the set-point temperature is reached the increasing resistance shuts down the circuit. The same characteristics offer fast warm-up due to low resistance at cooler temperatures. Read further how PTC heaters work.
PTC finned air and PTC fan heaters are used in electronic cabinets to keep the control circuits from moisture and freezing temperatures. Both are designed to transfer the heat produced by the PTC elements into the cabinet, operator cabs, or ventilations systems for building climatization.
PTC surface heaters are attached directly to the surface to be heated.
PTC cartridge heaters can be inserted directly into a container or vessel to heat materials inside efficiently.
Silicon rubber flexible heaters can also be used to wrap around pipes, valves, or adhered to machinery curved surfaces. These silicone rubber heaters can take harsh conditions including handling and abrasion. Some are custom-made into unique sizes for applications.
History of Pipeline Construction Machinery in the United States
Machinery for the construction of gas and oil pipelines in the US began with drilling the first commercial oil well in 1859 in rural Pennsylvania. The well only produced 25 barrels a day; there was no place to put it. Soon drillers began buying up all the wooden barrels available. Producers quickly bought up barrels for molasses, fish, whiskey, water for transporting oil.
The challenge was getting the barrels to market. Horse-drawn wagons carried the 42-gallon barrels to the closest refinery. Transportation was expensive in part because the teamsters and the railroads charge high prices to haul the barrels.
Soon an oil trader built a 5 mile long 2-inch diameter pipeline that transported 2,000 barrels a day to the nearby railroad depot. It still took a few decades to make barrels obsolete, but even today, oil is sold by the barrel!
American Petroleum Institute estimates by 1920, there were 40,000 miles of pipelines in the US transporting oil to markets. In the following decade, that number tripled as machinery made it easier to build longer pipelines.
Harsh environments spurred new technologies for worker comfort
Horse-drawn carriages didn't provide much protection from the elements. As motorized trucks came into use for hauling pipes, enclosed cabs protected drivers from the elements.
Onsite where construction crews laid and welded workers would put up tents covering their worksite. Later they learned how to move the tents along the pipeline as they moved to the next section for welding.
Modern environmental protection involves heating and cooling elements that require little maintenance and operation of equipment battery voltages. Long mean time to failure needed in the remote operating areas of pipeline installations led to PTC ceramic heating elements.
Today's cabs, fluids, batteries, and other electrical equipment are protected by PTC heating and Peltier electronic cooling systems. These robust systems used in space and different harsh environments are ideal for providing comfort to pipeline equipment operators.
The need for gas on the east coast drives demand for even more pipelines
Natural Gas became popular in the 1930s but primarily used locally near gas wells in Texas & Colorado. The east coast still used coal or a derivative gas made from coal for heating. No one had yet built long-distance pipelines. The lack of long-distance pipelines changed during WWII.
German U-boats were sinking American tankers carrying oil from the gulf to the east coast. The US government built the first long-distance pipeline for transporting oil from Texas to New Jersey refineries. Construction of the BIG INCH began in June of 1942.
As work progressed on construction projects for the Big Inch from Texas through Arkansas to Illinois, plans began for the Little Big Inch. Neither project used a one-inch pipeline. The Big Inch used a seamless 24" diameter pipe, while the Little Big Inch used a 20-inch steel pipe for distribution from the Big Inch's main terminus. The Big Inch continued to Pennsylvania, where the Little Big Inch extended to New York and New Jersey refineries.
Each section of the 24" seamless steel pipe was ½ "thick and up to 44 ft in length. The 20" diameter pipe was 5/16" in thickness and up to 44 ft in length. Each section of the 44 ft Big Inch pipe weighed 4,200 pounds. This pipe size was not easily transported to remote locations, welded together, or laid in 4 ft deep and 3 ft wide trenches.
It took vast amounts of steel and machinery to dig ditches, weld, and lay the pipe into the trenches over more than 1,475 miles plus secondary lines for the Little Big Inch. Men were laying as much as 9 miles of pipe per day. At completion, there were 34 pumping stations to move the oil through the Big and Little Big Inch pipelines.
After WWII ended, the government sold off the war asset and converted it to transport natural gas from Texas to the US's eastern seaboard. The current system of invisible pipelines crisscrossing the US is expansive and continues to expand.
Map of existing pipeline routes in the United States.
Manufacturing the Seamless Steel Pipe
Seamless steel pipe manufacturing has a history of its own that goes back 100 years—not created without piecing together two ends of a curved ribbon of steel making a round shape. The term seamless refers to the process. The process butts the two sides of a continuous ribbon of steel together where it is welded, burnished, annealed, and cut to length. The finished product appears to be seamless.
The machinery processes for manufacturing the seamless pipe have improved since the Big Inch with automated high-frequency welding and continuous processes. The process can be inline after billet or continuous and cold rolling of the steel or a secondary operation creating the pipe from coiled steel.
A large-diameter pipe can go up to 60" in diameter, but most oil and gas pipelines for long-distance transportation are 48". Smaller diameter pipes are used for distribution systems. Today a natural gas pipeline carries gas at high pressures from 500 to 1,400 pounds per square inch. These large diameter pipes require shaping from flat sheets rather than casting a rod that is pierced to create the hollow tube.
Transportation of Pipe from Manufacturing Plant to Construction Site
Trucking and train transportation was the next big challenge for pipeline construction. The up to 44-foot and 60-foot lengths of pipe weighing up to 4,200 lbs per section required heavy machinery to load and unload. Train tracks didn’t run to the job sites which required an additional offloading site where pipes might be temporarily stored until trucks took them the last few miles.
Needless to say the laying pipe across the country involved some very remote construction sites and adverse weather conditions. Equipment and personnel need to work effectively regardless of the cold, heat, rain, or snow conditions. The Trans-Alaskan pipeline system is one of the most notable pipeline projects with adverse weather conditions.
The pipeline ran from Prudhoe Bay across Alaska to the port of Valdez on the southern coast 639 miles away. The diameter of the pipe was 44 inches and is capable of pumping 2.136 million barrels per day.
Pipes making up the pipeline rest on supports above ground due to the permafrost making it infeasible to bury the pipeline. They are not attached to the supports allowing for expansion and contraction since the temperature ranges 150 degrees F between summer and winter months.
Not all pipeline construction sites are as rugged as The Trans-Alaskan pipeline but mountains and northern states of the US can offer similar challenges. Due to the remote nature of most pipeline routes, it can be difficult to get pipeline construction equipment and pipe to the sites.
The cabins of trucks, trains, and onsite operating equipment are made more tolerable for operators through the use of PTC ceramic heaters.
Want to learn more or have a specific application?
DBK USA has experts standing by to answer your questions. Specialists in PTC heating elements and cooling applications can help you select the right components for your application.
Feel free to call our engineers directly at 1-864-607-9047