Best practices for refinery boilers field service

Those servicing refinery boilers often face tight deadlines, limited outage windows, and space constraints. Industrial boilers are generally custom pieces of equipment operating as part of a specific process.

Shawn Brewer

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Article Summary

Those servicing refinery boilers often face tight deadlines, limited outage windows, and space constraints. Industrial boilers are generally custom pieces of equipment operating as part of a specific process. Those servicing them must understand how the boiler integrates with other equipment in the plant. Refinery boilers play a role in multiple workflows. The output from crackers and other refinery equipment can grind to a halt without a working boiler. Thus, boiler errors in the field can prove very expensive.

Expertise up front

Some facilities have a non-technical administrator who deals with inquiries from refinery personnel. As calls come in, they should be directed to a person with many years of experience in refinery boilers. This person must be able to ask the right questions and evaluate the job and what it will really take to fix the problem. Otherwise, maintenance projects may be poorly planned. Unforeseen circumstances can lead to overruns, excess charges, and unhappy customers. It is a sign of respect that when a refinery customer calls, their initial point of contact understands their needs, can assess how many people may be needed for a project, what other expertise might be required on site, and any testing that should be done such as for water quality issues. Preliminary first contact sets the stage for a successful refinery visit. By accurately gauging the job needs in terms of manpower, materials, tools and components, estimates for job costs can then be done with some confidence. Of course, a wise move is to send someone to the site to find any unknowns that might interfere with a smooth in-and-out visit. Talk to those on the ground, inspect the boiler, and find out what it will take to complete the job in the allotted time. Overruns will not go down well when refinery operations depend on that boiler being up and running fast. A key aspect of planning is boiler access. Congestion is common in refineries and chemical plants. Those planning boiler outages should take care of measuring entrances, headway clearances and the area around the boiler to determine how equipment should be transported into and within the facility. Don’t make the mistake of sending a semi with two large boiler parts if there is only room for a smaller vehicle capable of turning into a facility and deposit components close to where the work needs to be done. By planning well in advance, each large piece of equipment can be sent in a smaller truck.

Site visits

No matter how good your first point of contact is or how well you scope things out on the ground, there is always a need for contingency planning. Once you physically get inside a unit, you may find there is a lot more wrong than anyone suspected. There needs to be a contingency plan in place to tackle issues fast. It is not uncommon, for example, for leaky tubes to lengthen a maintenance visit. A superficial inspection might indicate that only one or two tubes need repaired. But once you get in there, it might become apparent that the tubes need to be completely replaced. Good field service teams have the parts and manpower onsite already or can get them there fast. They know that it can be difficult to predict when to do a partial retube and when the whole boiler should be done at once.

Customer recommendations

Those finding tubes in poor condition, particularly when they have only been in operation for a couple of years, should advise refinery maintenance personnel on what should be done to minimise the risk of tube degradation. Poor water quality or improper blowdown procedures can manifest unevenly throughout the pressure vessel internals, creating poor circulation or corrosion in various areas of the boiler. On the air/gas side of the boiler, improper burner performance, too, can create uneven heat distribution. Further, a buildup of combustion byproducts can cause hot spots or corrosion. A well-maintained unit, on the other hand, can appear new for decades. Educate personnel on best maintenance practices in addition to completing the repair.

Project co-ordination

Good planning sets a project up well. What moves things through to successful completion is good project coordination and execution. The field service team should engage closely with refinery management and maintenance personnel. They want you in and out quickly with the job done well. But things don’t always go exactly to plan. It is best to work well with those on the ground to come up with the right solutions to complete the job. Co-ordination includes several facets. It means knowing the safety protocols expected by the refinery and aligning with these as the job progresses. It means mapping out access routes and locations where repairs can be done on equipment. Workers on site often need a trailer set up nearby, an area where systems and components can be laid down and enough room to remove parts of the boiler and place them somewhere near but not obstructing the job. Another aspect of field service is respecting the fact that other work may be ongoing and that these other projects may sometimes collide with your own. Go over points of potential conflict in advance.

Don’t wait

Boiler problems should be dealt with sooner rather than later. Boilers are under tremendous strain and are integral to so many processes within the facility. A small problem can quickly escalate due to the pressure extremes they operate under. Anytime there is even a small issue, it is best to act. Call your local service company and get somebody in to look at it before something more serious occurs.


Shawn Brewer is director of Business Development and Field Services at Rentech Boiler Systems, focusing on boiler repair and the company’s field services. Rentechboilers.com.

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