New Levels in Upkeep Planning

Facing 10-year checkups, ethanol facilities turn to service providers to help stay ahead of maintenance and compliance issues.
By Ann Bailey | June 15, 2016

Many ethanol plants built during the industry’s boom years are at, or approaching 10 years of operation. The new set of challenges—how to spot issues in tanks and pipes, discontinued parts, planning upgrades for outdated systems, keeping compliant with regulations—calls for a new level in maintenance planning.  

“Plants all run differently and they all have their own mindsets in their management teams, so we can set up a plan for them, but that plan is dynamic,” says Paula Emberland, ERI Solutions account manager. ERI, based in Colwich, Kansas, has added nondestructive testing and inspection services in recent years to complement its work with safety inspections and regulatory compliance. The maintenance plan ERI Solutions designs for plants is flexible, Emberland says.  “It’s not a hard, fast, set plan because that just doesn’t work,” she says. “If plant managers see something they think might be having an issue with or their efficiencies are poor, they may call us and say ‘You know what, we really want to get these evaps done this time versus next time.’”

The goal of ERI’s maintenance plan for its ethanol plant customers is to ensure that the plants are in compliance with U.S. EPA regulations, Emberland says. “Sometimes we get out there and see some pretty serious issues that need to be taken care of right away—for example, the tanks. They’ll have a problem with their floating roof that could be an EPA issue or they’ll have a crack in one of the welds in the floor that could, again, be an EPA issue if that tank leaks.”

ERI Solutions recommends plants have contractors on-site or on call before it arrives for inspection. That way, if ERI identifies a problem during an inspection, the contractor can fix it and then ERI can do another inspection, Emberland says. “We’ll re-inspect the welds or the problems and ensure that they are repaired correctly and that the plant then can go back into operation or put that tank back in use.”

Besides identifying near-term problems, ERI’s inspection also helps plants determine the longevity of its tanks, Emberland says. “The other thing all  this testing does is that it allows the plant to come up with an estimated lifetime expectancy, so on the tanks, for example, if there are certain things found, we can provide them with an expected lifetime expectancy so they can preschedule repairs if they need to. If they don’t need to do them this year, maybe they need to do them in five years. That allows managers to plan for the future and determine which tanks and pressure vessel issues they need to take care of and budget for.”

Mechanical Integrity
Lincoln, Nebraska-based Olsson Associates, which provides engineering services to a variety of industries, also provides inspection schedules for ethanol plants, says Shawn Zablocki, Olsson Associates industrial program leader. “We can help them develop an actual mechanical integrity program that applies to their pumps, their control devices, their safety devices, to the standards required within the procedures, plus a written document as to how you are going to perform those mechanical integrity inspections and what you’re going to follow,” Zablocki says. “We can help put together an integrity inspection schedule for the tanks.”

For ethanol plant managers faced with meeting the requirements of myriad rules and regulations, hiring an outside company to monitor and address their maintenance needs can not only bring clarity to what can be confusing, but also save money, Zablocki says. For example, there are several standards that apply to ethanol plants, one set being from the American Petroleum Institute. “A lot of people will default to API standards for smaller tanks and vessels when they really don’t need to. So they’ll hold themselves to a standard with respect to what’s expected and also with respect to a more frequent inspection schedule.”  

“API has a couple of different standards. API 653, which is for large atmospheric tanks. API 510 applies to pressure vessels and also to vacuum vessels. Where plants have columns that are run under vacuum systems, we’ll inspect to API 510. API 570 applies to piping systems—all of the pipe racks and pipe systems. The Steel Tank Institute has a code that generally applies to the smaller atmospheric tanks. So for things like a flash receiver or flash vessel that are not under pressure and basically shop-fabricated tanks, STI would apply. That’s a much less stringent code than the American Petroleum Institute standards.”

Olsson Associates strives to ensure that its ethanol industry clients are compliant with the proper codes and standards so they aren’t spending more than they need to on the testing programs and can apply that money to other projects, Zablocki says. There also is some confusion regarding EPA and OSHA regulations for process safety management or a risk management plan, he says. “They specify that plants should do integrity testing. Sometimes people think that EPA or OSHA is providing the inspection code or standard, and they do not. They simply say the plant should test to applicable codes and standards, which then goes back to the API and Steel Tank Institute.”

“Basically, the plants need to do inspections at appropriate intervals and we do provide that special service,” Zablocki says.

Water Treatment Plus
In addition to water and process technologies, U.S. Water provides long-term maintenance and inspection services to customers, including ethanol plants, across the United States, says Mitch Manstedt, U.S. Water, strategic business leader. “U.S. Water has a lot of different areas that we touch on in ethanol facilities,” Manstedt says. “We can impact a lot of ongoing day-to-day maintenance and also the longer-term liability and upgrade due to aging equipment.

“We are on call as needed. Typically, someone in U.S. Water is available 24/7 for emergency response, inspections, etc. Also, we’re in these facilities on a routine basis because our sales and services representatives are going to these facilities either weekly or monthly to conduct analytical testing, system integrity checks, inventory monitoring. They look at any issues and long-term problem areas that need to be addressed and resolved.”

“Most of the maintenance is centered on pretreatment equipment, which would be up-front of the water systems in these facilities. Pretreatment equipment is what we could consider a consumable item”, Manstedt says. “There are items in there that go bad, due to age or due to poor water quality that need to be looked at, addressed, tested and identified on a regular basis,” he says. Pretreatment equipment could be considered the “life blood” of the water treatment system, he notes. If it is operating efficiently and maintained properly, the rest of the system runs seamlessly.

As ethanol plants age and technology advances, providing services to ethanol plants may mean melding the old with the new, Manstedt says.  “When I first started with U.S. Water 10 years ago, some of these pieces of equipment didn’t have the ability to interface with the current ethanol plant control system. They were single stand-alone pieces of equipment that really didn’t have any eyes, ears or data being able to be captured from them.

“With advancements in automation today we can seamlessly integrate those controls and automation packages into the plant control system they’re operating at their facility,” Manstedt says. “They can control it, they can trend it, they can collect the data. They can have programs that officially monitor how well the systems are operating and really get a good idea of what needs to be done and be proactive for scheduled maintenance, for scheduled cleaning.  U.S. Water provides its ethanol clients with the expertise to keep the plants’ old and new technology and systems running efficiently, Manstedt says. “By looking at these pieces of equipment and understanding the life cycle, we can predict when replacement or upgrade is needed to reduce downtime, increase efficiencies and positively impact the bottom line.”

U.S. Water, like ERI and Olsson Associates, offers its clients short-term and long-term plans to address their maintenance needs. “Depending on what the facility has for equipment or items that needed to be addressed, we have monthly, quarterly and yearly checks done on certain pieces of equipment, maintenance or analysis of those pieces of equipment and those are checked to make sure that we are keeping the system up-to-date and operating efficiently,” Manstedt says.

For example, about 40 percent of the ethanol facilities built in the past 10 years have a certain piece of software equipment. U.S. Water recently learned that the company that makes the software is going to start discontinuing a certain line of products, Manstedt says. That means that U.S. Water needs to be proactive and plan how it will acquire spare parts and make them available to their clients and then determine the next step. “Once they discontinue a line, how do we keep that line operational for future years?” Manstedt asks. “Or do we come up with a whole new upgrade or replacement?” Each plant will choose differently, he says. “Some, for example, may want to continue using their current operating system, while others may decide to wait three years and then implement a new technology. Every plant is handled on a case-by-case basis understanding what’s best for it and, hopefully, what’s best for that piece of equipment.”

Author: Ann Bailey
Associate Editor, Ethanol Producer Magazine