Performing Under Pressure

With a strong focus on quality and safety, a northern Minnesota-based industrial cleaning company with service locations throughout the Corn Belt has grown with, and near, ethanol producers.
By Tom Bryan | February 21, 2022

Every company keeps some things close to the vest. Over a decade of experience in ethanol plant industrial cleaning has given Premium Plant Services certain insights into fluid dynamics that give it a competitive edge. But the company’s real keys to  success are no secret at all.

“We simply do our best to accommodate schedules, meet customer objectives and get the work done quickly. Repeating that over time builds trust,” says Mark Parenteau, Premium’s founder and CEO. “Our relationships with ethanol plants are successful because producers are familiar with us to the point where they don’t have to spend much time explaining what needs to be done. We know the plants, we know the people, and they know us. It’s about relationships and being familiar with the facilities we serve.” 

It’s also about resources and know-how. Parenteau says Premium’s customers appreciate its deep bench of capabilities, equipment and specialized personnel. Over the past decade, the Hibbing, Minnesota-based company has grown into a true one-stop shop for not just ethanol plant hydroblasting, but all forms of industrial cleaning. Most producers shut down twice annually for this type of work—spring and fall—not just for cleaning but equipment repair, replacement and upgrades. With so much to do in less than a week, from pipefitter arrival to final cleanup, scheduling the work can be as challenging as getting it done.    

“Plant managers have a lot going on before and during shutdowns,” Parenteau says. “Why worry about keeping track of multiple contractors when they can have one hydroblaster come in that knows exactly where to set up, how to stage the work and get it done efficiently and correctly? We can coordinate everything without the plant manager having to handhold or put in a lot of extra time and effort. They know we’re a good partner.”

Swift and Safe
Industrial cleaning during a scheduled shutdown is a process that largely pivots around intense use of horsepower with water and other media throughout the plant, from the facility’s distillation and evaporation vessels to its coproduct dryers and energy center. Shutting an ethanol plant down for days is costly but failing to do so can jeopardize plant performance or even result in equipment failure. Parenteau says the most capable hydroblasters are those that get jobs done swiftly and efficiently—inside of a customer’s targeted downtime—without sacrificing quality or safety. 

Premium’s managers believe being responsive starts with staffing and resource management. Multiple service locations and 75-plus employees during peak seasons enable both Premium and its affiliate, Innovative Plant Solutions, to accommodate all reasonable ethanol plant scheduling requests year-round. In addition to their headquarters in Hibbing, the companies have service locations in southern Minnesota, eastern and northern Iowa, and central Wisconsin. With personnel, trucks and equipment at the ready in those locales, Premium can efficiently deploy its teams throughout the Corn Belt. Having multiple sites also makes it easier for team members to make shop runs for equipment or blasting media when needed.  

“Our locations give you an idea of how connected to ethanol we are,” Parenteau says. “We cut our teeth on these plants, and we’ve learned how to clean them better over time in close collaboration with our customers. We have all grown together and figured this out together.”

 Achieving better industrial cleaning includes safer cleaning. Premium and IPS share a culture of safety rooted in communication, accountability and, to a growing degree, mechanization. “Cleaning ethanol plants, hydroblasting in particular, is among the most dangerous work in all of biofuels,” Parenteau says. “If you’re not talking to cleaning vendors right out of the chute about their culture and viewpoints on safety, you may be making a grave error. That should be your top priority.”

In addition to continuous safety training, Parenteau says Premium and IPS are progressive about adopting cleaning approaches that utilize automation to mitigate risks. “We’ve pushed hard to automate the process of cleaning evaporators, for example. You can imagine 20,000 psi on the end of a stinger two feet away, and you have to shove it down a two-inch hole that’s 30 to 40 feet long,” he says. “That kind of hydraulic pressure is very nerve-wracking and, honestly, quite dangerous. Automating that process has helped reduce a major risk element of our work.”

While the pandemic has made staffing challenging for almost all employers, Premium and IPS try to avoid the common hiring traps some contractors fall into: hiring hastily or foregoing proper training. “You really shouldn’t hire just anyone to clean ethanol plants when you’re shorthanded,” Parenteau says. “It’s not only dangerous, but you’re certainly not going to get a good quality product at the end of the day because it takes time to master the equipment. Getting in the nooks and crannies of an ethanol plant and knowing how best to get a difficult or tough spot cleaned is a real skill. Some companies simply don’t have the knowhow or patience to get it done right. We think that starts with training. You’ve got to have highly trained, qualified personnel, and that’s one of the things that sets us apart as a good hydroblasting contractor.”

Blasting Away   
While there are many different forms of industrial cleaning and applicable blasting media—water, sand, slurry, dry ice and sponge—hydroblasting and industrial vacuuming, or “vac” services, are the “meat and potatoes” of the trade. 

“The physics of hydroblasting are hard to beat and, combined with vac, it’s the standard one-two punch,” says Premium’s Service Manager Dan Rice. “Hydroblasting removes the material—knocks it off the surfaces—and then its vac’d up with a powerful vacuum on a large truck, which has dump capability for appropriate disposal.”

While there is always some post-job cleanup, Rice says simultaneous blasting and vac service closely finishes each area of the plant being cleaned. “The sooner you get the process equipment cleaned and emptied of material, the sooner the facility can get back online,” he says. “You couple the two processes together as much as you can to speed things along.”

The time needed to clean a typical 50 MMgy corn ethanol plant can vary, depending on the type of facility, the way it is operated, the duration of time since its last cleaning and other factors. Rice says certain variabilities exist between, for example, ICM-designed plants and POET-designed facilities, requiring slightly different industrial cleaning regimens.

“The distillation and energy center cleaning processes tend to be quite different with those two designs,” he says. “Depending on what a client wants done, it could be 12 to 24 hours for an energy center in an ICM-design plant with two distillers grains dryers. And that’s typically, but not always, hydroblasting. Slurry blasting is also used. On the distillation side of the house—and this is also dependent on the design of the plant and what their situation is—it can be a 24- to 48-hour process, or even a 72-hour process, all said and done.”

Parenteau explains that the timeframe for completion can also be affected by the amount of ancillary cleaning work that is prescribed on a job. Cleaning various process lines, for example, can add additional time. As can the amount of evaporators and the severity of deposit, or foul, within the honeycombed vessels comprised of hundreds of long, narrow tubes. 

“There can be anywhere from 400 to 1,600 tubes, and in the large 100-million-gallon-plus plants as many as 3,000 tubes,” he says. “So, it’s hard to define the hours we spend on each plant, because there is so much variation in terms of having to punch every one of those tubes and get them perfectly spotless. And depending on the foul, it could be 30 seconds per tube or 90 seconds per tube—and we often don’t know exactly what we’re facing until we get the tops off.”

Parenteau explains that his crews are accustomed to surprises and don’t get rattled by tough projects. “It’s a little like roulette, or the shuffle of the deck, when it comes to ethanol plant cleaning, because you really don’t know what you’re going to run into until you get there,” he says. “With longtime customers, you do have some understanding of the plant and how it’s typically run, but you don’t know exactly what you’re facing until you’re on site. Sometimes you quickly realize it’s going to take 30% longer just because of the more difficult material you find once you get there.”

Rice says historical knowledge of a plant and a relationship with its personnel help Premium and IPS predict and plan for each job. “There are times when our crew members even know that one of eight vessels at a plant is always  tougher to clean the other seven. “In that way, we know with a fairly good margin of error what they’re walking into,” he says. “There are a lot of variables, and until you get the lid off, you have to stay prepared for anything.”

Flexibility and Trust   
During the pandemic, many U.S. ethanol plants shifted their shutdown schedules or even skipped one of two annual cleanings as they lowered their run rates, cut back on spending and tried to reduce the number of vendors on site. At the start of 2022, Parenteau says, traditional scheduling is returning.   
“I would say we are very close to normal with scheduling right now, and the bookings really started to pick up last fall, extending out  as far out as next spring,” he says, explaining that ethanol plants usually schedule industrial cleaning six to 12 months in advance. “Plants are definitely back on track with bookings and I’d say we are back to pre-COVID scheduling.”

Timeframes for shutdowns vary by company and region, but most producers book spring cleanings between late March and late May, and fall cleanings between early September—usually starting right after Labor Day—and mid-November.

“It can be challenging because everybody wants to get on top of those dates, so it’s pretty tough, especially if a plant had another contractor [fall through],” Parenteau says. “You never want to overschedule to the point of placing pressure on quality, standards or safety, but we have a hard time turning plants away. So we do this dance of looking at dates and trying to figure out how early or late they might be maybe willing to schedule the work.” 

Parenteau says there are some things producers can do to minimize the amount of downtime required by industrial cleaning. Specifically, he says, some producers have been able to stay online while evaporators are cleaned—one vessel at a time. “The evaps are the most time-consuming part of distillation cleaning,” he says. “So if we can take those off-line while you’re running, say you have eight of them and you take one down and operate with the other seven—with, of course, a little bit of a reduced capacity—you’re getting the most difficult part of the job done before shutdown. If we can get those evaps knocked out ahead of time, we can get in and out of a plant within a couple days.”

While the speed of industrial cleaning is important to producers, Parenteau says the end-result of the work is ultimately what matters most. “The quality of the cleanliness, including final cleanup, is largely what determines customer satisfaction,” he says. “Shutdown cleaning is a very big deal for ethanol plants. It costs a lot of money to have these plants shut down for days, and they’re putting a lot trust in you to get it right.”

Rice adds that building client trust starts with good communication. “With each customer, we try to demonstrate not just how the work will be done, but how it will best be done, and with what equipment, how and why,” he says. “That dialogue is shaped by our supervisor on site and directly carries over to the technicians executing the work. The people at the plant are experts on running their equipment and, likewise, we take pride in being experts on cleaning that equipment, so the facility can continue to perform optimally. That’s another part of our approach that’s no secret.”

Author: Tom Bryan
Contact: [email protected]