AIMM Technologies tames tough scale found in oil-processing heat exchanger tubes using the Armadillo from Aqua Sales


Like most contractors, Antone Belcher has a favorite toughest-job-ever story. But these days, the assistant operations manager for Texas-based AIMM Technologies is looking for a new one, thanks to the Armadillo industrial cleaning system made by Aqua Sales.

The tube-cleaning system effectively tamed what used to be a bear of a job: the annual cleaning of a heat exchanger located at a small crude-oil processing facility on Alaska’s North Slope.

“On a scale of one to 10, this job is a 35,” says Belcher. “The scale that builds up inside (the heat exchanger tubes) is one of the thickest, hardest and toughest materials I’ve ever come across in my industrial cleaning career.”

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The processing facility is located on a drilling site owned by a major oil company. Because the crude oil produced there is too thick to pump to a nearby processing facility, it must first go through a separation process that includes a tube-and-shell heat exchanger.

By removing non-oil products – such as water, gases and sand – the process renders the crude suitable for pumping. But it also does a number on the exchanger’s 1,350 tubes, which are 55 feet long and one inch in diameter.

“Sometimes up to 400 of the tubes are totally blocked,” Belcher notes. “And on average, the majority of them are 70 to 75 percent blocked. The first two times we cleaned it, we used our patented hydrokinetic technology, which took us about two and a half weeks, working 12-hour shifts a day. But we still weren’t able to clear all the tubes.

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“Then we tried the Armadillo,” he continues. “It still took us about two and a half weeks, but the Armadillo thoroughly cleaned every tube. It hasn’t met a tube on that exchanger that it couldn’t unplug … it cleans them spotless.”

That’s important because cleaner tubes stay in service longer before scale builds up and causes the exchanger to lose heat efficiency, he notes.

Aimed at the petrochemical, paper and other heavy-industrial manufacturing sectors that use heat exchangers, the Armadillo system features remote-control operation. It allows operators to turn the water on and off, and control the nozzle/hose revolutions (10 to 375 rpm) and the insertion and regression speed. It can handle tubes from 1/2 inch in diameter and up, and generates 20,000 psi at 23 to 24 gpm.

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An indexer, a component that guides the high-pressure rotating hose/nozzle into each tube, includes independent drives that allow the operator to exactly align the traveling head with each row of tubes, which increases cleaning efficiency and tube travel time. The indexer is easy to set up and tear down, requiring no tools.

Along with superior cleaning ability, Belcher says the Armadillo offers another huge benefit: increased job site safety.

“It takes the high-pressure water stream out of the hands of the individual operating the system,” he points out. “That drastically reduces the chance of the operator being cut by high-pressure water, or the lance coming back out of the tube at them.”

In addition, the Armadillo reduces operator fatigue, requires less people on a job site and improves productivity because it can work up to 40 to 50 percent faster than manual cleaning, according to Aqua Sales officials.

“Ever since we bought the machine more than a year ago, it has opened up additional work that we couldn’t pursue before,” Belcher adds. “For instance, before we bought the Armadillo, we couldn’t get some equipment clean enough for IRIS (Internal Rotational Inspection System) inspections, especially in older tubes with a lot of pitting.”

AIMM bought the Armadillo system more than a year ago, and overall, Belcher says it was a sound investment. The unit has not only paid for itself, it has opened up new markets AIMM couldn’t pursue before.

“Initially we brought it in for the one application in Alaska … and it did exactly what they said it could do,” he says. “It amazed and impressed me, because I had dealt with this (scale) material for two previous years and I knew what to expect. It made a believer out of me. It was worth the investment if we use it just for that one job each year.

“The exchanger runs better now than it ever has, so our customer is happy, too,” he adds. “And if they’re happy, we’re happy.”


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