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Five Ethanol Plant Maintenance Checks to Consider in 2010
by Kristin Brekke

Maintenance is an important part of daily operations at America’s ethanol plants, an effort to keep facilities running safely and efficiently – and to prevent interruptions and unnecessary repairs before they happen.

Neil Havran, Plant Asset Preservation Manager for design-build firm ICM Inc., emphasizes how crucial it is for ethanol plants to stick to the schedule for all annual and below recommended maintenance, but he also says there are other items to consider. Making a checklist of these five items will be a good investment toward the safe, sound operation of your ethanol facility in this new year.

1. Examine the medium- to high-voltage electrical.

Just as you expect the lights to come on every time you flip the switch in your living room, ethanol plants expect the incoming power to always be at the ready. But what happens when there is a problem?

“If you lose incoming power, you’re done,” Havran said.

Electrical power systems are hierarchical, so the point of the failure would determine whether the process of ethanol production suffers a complete or only partial outage. Either way, it’s not a chance you want to take.

Havran suggests checking the electrical service coming in to the plant and the breakers. Also, if there are oil-filled transformers, an oil sample should be taken. These maintenance steps should be taken at five years of operation, if not at years one or two.

“These things are easy to forget about, but they do require some maintenance,” Havran said.

2. Check pressure safety valves.

Pressure safety valves are key to the safe operation of the ethanol plant, the name indicating just how critically important they are. Unvented tank pressure, for example, can lead to catastrophic failure at your plant.

Havran recommends checking them monthly through a visual inspection. A program can also be started where the valves are rotated out periodically and sent back to the manufacturer for retooling to ensure that all valves will be in top condition at all times.

3. Inspect tank internals.

The tanks themselves and the equipment inside of them should also be checked. Havran recommends checking the tank internals annually for signs of excessive wear or deterioration.

It’s also a good practice to check the steam straps to make sure there are no leaks, and to check the slurry blenders and agitators inside the tanks. Worn mixers or agitators, for example, can lead to unnecessary downtime or reduced effectiveness in mixing.

4. Look into instrument calibration.

Although some instruments are self-calibrating, it is possible for some to fall out of calibration. Some may need to be checked and recalibrated as needed. Having the instruments as precise as possible will help your production process be as efficient as possible.

5. Implement a process safety management and mechanical integrity program.

Implementing a program of this nature is not only a good idea for your plant, but is an EPA requirement. Checking for corrosion or deterioration of tanks and vessels can address small issues before they become big ones. Havran suggests visual inspections of this equipment, or non-destructive testing such as ultrasonic thickness testing.

The Mechanical Integrity component of Process Safety Management identifies all piping, tanks, and vessels that hold or transport “hazardous” material, as defined by the EPA. At a typical ethanol plant, this would apply to the 190 and 200-proof solutions, plus the ammonia system. These vessels, tanks, and piping systems need to have some form of non-destructive test taken to determine the rate of corrosion.

“The refinery industry is well-versed in this,” Havran said, and the ethanol industry is, by comparison, young and still learning the best practices for long-term operations.

Environmental Compliance Checks Not to Miss

Regular maintenance is key to preventing unnecessary and expensive repairs, but it’s not the only checklist of important items. Keeping up on your ethanol facility’s environmental compliance is also necessary for preventing costly errors. Andrea Foglesong, ICM’s Environmental Affairs Manager, offers these three tips:

1. Know the expiration date of important permits.

It’s important to know the expiration date of important permits such as the Operating Permit for air quality compliance and the NPDES (National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System) discharge permit for water quality compliance. These permits often expire after five years and need to be renewed for coverage to continue.

2. Have an up-to-date Risk Management Plan.

Having denaturant and anhydrous ammonia on-site at your ethanol plant, in excess of certain thresholds, means the plant must have a Risk Management Plan (RMP). These plans must be renewed every five years with the U.S. EPA, and also if there is a change in management or a change in the quantity or types of chemicals or products stored on-site.

3. Review and upgrade environmental plans every five years.

While it’s common for environmental plans to require training and annual review, there are several plans that require more extensive review and a plan upgrade every five years. Be sure to check your facility’s SPCC (Spill Prevention Control and Countermeasure), SWPPP (Storm Water Pollution Prevention Plan), and Site Security Plans to see if they are in shape or need attention.

About the Contributors:

Neil Havran is Plant Asset Preservation Manager for ICM, Inc. in Colwich, Kansas. He may be reached at (316) 977-6287 or [email protected]. This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it

Andrea Foglesong is Environmental Affairs Manager for ICM, Inc. in Fort Collins, Colorado. She may be reached at (970) 206-4480 or [email protected]. This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it

Ethanol Today thanks both for their contributions to the article and for sharing their expertise with our readers. Please contact them with questions relating to ethanol plant maintenance, or contact the ICM office at (877) 456-8588 for more information about the services they offer.

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The American Coalition for Ethanol publishes Ethanol Today magazine each month to cover the biofuels industry�s hot topics, including cellulosic ethanol, E85, corn ethanol, food versus fuel, ethanol�s carbon footprint, E10, E15, and mid-range ethanol blends.
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