Based an hour outside of Buffalo in Olean, New York, M J Painting Contractor Corp. is 1,800 miles (2,896.8 km) away from the 60,000-bpd CHS refinery in Laurel, Montana. But in this modern tale, when CHS needed a facelift for its massive crude oil heater, all it took was one Google search to bridge that gap.
“They were searching for a bit to find someone capable of doing it,” said Pete Dandrea, sales manager at M J Painting, which lists prior refining clients on its website. “They were happy they found someone that could pull it off. They did a Google search to see who could paint refinery equipment like this, and that’s how they found us.”
According to Mike John, Jr., the on-site project manager on the Laurel job and vice president of all gas pipeline and oil refinery projects, a prior coating on the heater’s steel substrate was flaking off — and corrosion had already taken place. As a result, CHS needed an imminent high-temperature coating solution. However, the complication was that because of the heater’s importance to the refinery and the client’s desire to keep the unit operational and without any downtime, this was far from an ordinary coatings application.
“Temperatures during the day reached 90 °F [32.2 °C], and the heater had a surface temperature of 400 °F [204.4 °C],” John recalled. “There were a lot of hazards. I traveled on site to meet with the client beforehand and reviewed all the particulars. We met all their insurance and safety requirements, and with our training, they gave us the opportunity.”
Keeping Their Cool
For this job, John and two crew members from New York set out in late summer for a five-week stint in Montana, working 10-hour days and seven days per week. While a larger crew might have done the job faster, the two-man crew allowed John to provide sufficient oversight, which was of considerable importance on this job given the high heat and inherent safety risks.
“Concerns of heat stress, dehydration, and potential for burns offered unique challenges for our workers,” John said. “They filled out work permits daily to discuss the hazards they’d encounter.”
As a result, wearing the proper personal protective equipment (PPE) was critical on this assignment. Daily PPE included hard hats, safety glasses, steel-toed boots from brands such as 3M and Radnor, insulated gloves that would allow them to handle or touch the hot metal, and fireproof clothing from LAPCO. Ongoing communication between John and the workers was another key component.
“They’d have a daily safety meeting before anybody touches anything,” Dandrea said. “You always talk about the challenges of the project, safety-wise. Part of those was to make [crew members] aware to drink your fluids, wear your clothing, and if there are any signs of dehydration or inability to perform certain functions, you have to tell us. Mike was on site as project manager, but when someone is in the air 200 feet [61.0 m] on a lift, it’s hard to know what their condition is, so you have to implement breaks. They were working long days and long weeks, so there were mandatory breaks put into the timeline.”
CHS officials remained in the loop on all safety issues.
“Refineries aren’t even going to let you step foot on their grounds if you don’t have a strong safety record behind you,” Dandrea said. “But Mike has been in the business since he was a kid. He has almost 30 years of experience in this type of stuff. The other workers, our average tenure is at least 8‒10 years on our key guys. We bring a lot of experience to the table.”
Project Lifts Off
Besides formulating the safety plan, another daunting aspect of the job was simply reaching the entirety of the 50-foot-high (15.2 m), 100-foot-long (30.5 m), and 20-foot-wide (6.1 m) structure and all four of its sides. To do this, crew members used a 20-foot (6.1 m) scissor lift and a 60-foot (18.3 m) articulating boom lift from JLG.
“They had to use the special scissor lift on a lot of places because of the narrow confines around that heater,” Dandrea said. Generally, one crew member was on the lift at any given time, with the other worker helping to manipulate the various pieces of equipment from the ground and helping ensure safety. John provided oversight of each.
“We did employee training before they started on using the lifts, the PPE, and all of the equipment,” John said. “We supply and train our guys on how to use all that safely. We use hot-work permits as well.”
Crew members generally worked on one side per week, beginning by taping off any sensitive areas, such as gages, that were not to be blasted or coated. Then, working in small sections on each side, they prepped the steel to a NACE No. 2/Society for Protective Coatings (SSPC) Surface Preparation (SP) 10: Near-White Blast Cleaning using Graco’s EcoQuip vapor abrasive blast rig.
“Being that you’re sandblasting on an active crude unit heater at 400 °F [204.4 °C], you cannot produce a spark,” John explained. “We had to use a vapor blaster for safety reasons.”
Because the prior coating was lead-based, the crew used a calcium silicate-based additive from TDJ Group called Blastox to encapsulate any lead dust particles while also taking air monitoring samples to ensure air quality. “We had zero airborne contaminants,” John said. “Everything was safe.”
The crew worked in small sections because the blasting needed to be quickly followed by the application of the first coat of the new coating. “If you don’t coat the same day, you will have flash rusting on the surface and have to re-sandblast it,” John explained.
Job specifications called for two coats of the Heat-Flex Hi-Temp 1200 coating from Sherwin-Williams, described as a single-component, inert, multi-polymeric matrix coating designed to combat corrosion under insulation and in high-heat applications. “It provides a lot of durability because it can withstand the thermal shock and the cycling of that heater,” John said. “If they shut down the unit, the coating wouldn’t fail. It would still adhere. The startup and shutdown of the unit would be protected.”
The Heat Flex 1200 was applied in a gray color using an HVLP (high-volume, low-pressure) pressure pot spray gun system from Binks. It was applied at 6‒8 mils (152.4‒203.2 microns) per coat, with curing occurring rapidly due to the heat of the active unit.
The crew generally tried to do all of its blasting and subsequent initial coating on each of the four sides of the heater during the first part of each week, leaving the final days for the application of the second coat without any blasting. “It creates quite a mess when you’re abrasive blasting, so we tried to be as efficient as we could,” Dandrea said.
Big Heater, Small World
Using that same diligent process on each side of the 2,000 square foot (185.8 m2) heater, the M J Painting crew safely and successfully finished the job in barely more than a month — and remarkably, the CHS refinery in Laurel remained operational throughout.
“We had no callbacks,” John said of the appreciative client.
“There was zero downtime,” added Dandrea. “There were no incidents, no safety issues or concerns. We were proud of that, and I think they were happy with the final result.”
For M J Painting, it’s yet another success story that with any luck, someone else might stumble across on Google. Even with big refinery heaters located thousands of miles away, it’s a small world after all.