Plumbing and gasfitting in the mining industry
Perhaps no plumber understands this better than George Doty, who co-owns Wil Mechanical. Doty has been involved in plumbing and gasfitting in a huge mining operation since 1975, the oil sands fields of Fort McMurray in Alberta, Canada.
Oil sand mining is dirty business. For the past 40 years bitumen has been extracted from the Athabasca Oil Sands by surface mining. Once the first few feet of topsoil are scraped off and stored for replacing later in the process, huge diggers gouge out tons of sand and drop them into the world’s biggest dump trucks for transportation to an extraction plant on the mining site.
Typically, the oil sands are 130-195 feet (40-60m) deep. Originally, the sands were mined with draglines and bucket-wheel excavators and were transported to processing plants by conveyor belts. However, in recent years large mining companies such as Syncrude and Suncor have switched to much cheaper shovel-and-truck operations using the world’s biggest power shovels with 100 tons (90 tonnes) per load and dump trucks with a payload of 400 tons.
Oil sands are termed ‘hydrophilic’ or ‘water wet’ because each grain of sand is covered by a film of water which in turn is surrounded by a coating of heavy oil (bitumen). The sand looks like black, sticky tar, although when winter temperatures drop to about -30ºC (and sometimes -50ºC) it can be as solid as concrete. In summer when the mercury rises to a ‘warm’ 0ºC, the sands can become like molasses, making navigation on the surface treacherous.
On average it takes two tons of mined oil sand to produce one barrel of synthetic crude oil (42 gallons or 159L).
As production methods have evolved and become more efficient, crude from oil sands production has risen to about 270,000 barrels a day. By 2012, production is expected to rise to 500,000 barrels a day.
Plumbing companies like Wil Mechanical play an extremely important role at these mining sites.
Doty speaks with pride about the truck service/wash stations that Wil Mechanical has equipped. The company has just completed its seventh facility for a fifth mining company.
“These shops need to operate 24/7 because the size of these huge trucks means that they take six or seven hours to clean. Previously, they took about 12 hours to wash but some improvements in methods and technology have shaved off quite a bit of time.
“Washing these large trucks is done using a citrus-based chemical degreasant presoak and high-pressure wash using monitor nozzles on several levels, each flowing water at 150-200 gallons a minute.”
Doty says on average every truck is washed/serviced each month (depending on engine running hours) and as much as 20 tons of material can be washed off each truck at each wash. The vehicles have to be clean so mechanics can work on them and inspect them for wear and tear.
“Each truck also has an extensive fire-suppression system housed in about 130 feet of piping around the vehicle chassis and cabin to protect the machine and driver in case of fire. For obvious reasons, this has to be checked thoroughly at each service. This is a harsh environment, and the coarse sands are extremely abrasive on anything made of metal.
“There are also strict environmental controls we have to work under. And water recycling is a major task,” Doty says.
“Cleaning trucks uses plenty of water, all of which is recycled through a series of filters, settling ponds and slurry pumps. This is an evolving practice of finding the best combination of ponds, weirs, etc, to extract the most solids, which are eventually returned to where they were dug out of the earth. It’s an ongoing challenge.
“Mining here is very environmentally conscious. In fact, buffalo now graze on the original open pit sites. What was once flat land has been landscaped by the mining companies to produce some great looking habitat.
Wil Mechanical employs an average of 30 tradesmen. The plumbing work on these sites ranges from conventional plumbing and HVAC systems, on-site office facilities, warehouses, control buildings, water and waste-water treatment facilities to wash bays and service shops for trucks and equipment.
“Washing the trucks is only one component. As with any vehicle they require servicing, oil changes (2,000L per truck) grease, compressed air for tire changes, etc.
“Servicing the trucks on-site means the workshops need large storage tanks, extensive distribution piping and hose-reel stations located in the service bays which Wil Mechanical is also responsible for fitting.”
There’s a lube bay behind the wash facility, and a welding bay and tire bay in the truck shop.
“The lube systems for the trucks are state-of-the-art. Vacuum pumps are used to extract hundreds of liters of oil from the truck sumps and massive amounts of pressure (10,000psi 478,800 pascals) have to be utilized to squirt grease from bulk tanks into the right places on these enormous vehicles.”
Products stored on-site include open gear lube (imported from Texas), heavy gear lube delivered at extremely high pressures, engine oil and other specialized products.
Doty says to lubricate one truck it takes:
• 1,194L (315 gallons) of coolant;
• 417L (110 gallons) of crankcase oil;
• 701L (185 gallons) of differential oil;
• 432L (114 gallons) of power steering oil;
• 1,842L (486 gallons) of hydraulic oil;
• 629L (166 gallons) of transmission oil;
• hundreds of kilograms/pounds of grease.
Heating the structures in winter while maintaining healthy air quality through the HVAC system consumes 50-70 million BTUs of natural gas energy each hour. Doty’s company must ensure that no worker gets cold.
“We have just completed some shops with in-floor radiant heating and others with conventional unit heaters and infrared heaters to see if they are more cost-efficient,” Doty says.
Oil sand mining is labor intensive, and it’s not uncommon to have to change facilities to cater for 800 employees – male and female – at each site. Shifts operate around the clock, so adequate shower and washroom facilities are a must. Wil Mechanical has been responsible for the fit-out of many of these facilities.
“Plumbing is not new to mine sites, but the challenging weather, ever-increasing equipment size and the ongoing pressure to streamline maintenance activities has ‘pushed plumbing’ to be bigger and better.”