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The Importance of Quality in Pipeline Construction

Quality is important in all industries, but it’s especially important in the construction of pipelines.  The reasons for this are simple.

For starters, people rely on the oil and natural gas that these pipelines bring to them.  If homes and businesses lose their main source of heating during cold weather, properties may be damaged and people may even lose their lives.

Also, quality pipeline construction does more than just ensure that people get their product on time.  It also ensures that the environment stays safe and that flooding and landslides are prevented. The oil and natural gas sectors take many steps to keep their ROWs as well as the surrounding areas safe from harm and the quality of the actual pipelines plays a large role in this effort.

Who Decides on Pipeline Construction Quality Practices

Pipeline construction quality practices don’t start and end with just one person or organization.  A wide array of people and organizations come together to ensure that quality standards are met.  These organizations can include the companies and contractors on the business side and a multitude of government organizations on the government’s end.

On top of this, organizations like the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America have brought member companies together to collaborate on ways to make pipelines of an even higher quality than ever before.  The collaboration of over 200 members has led to over 150 quality studies in the last 30 years which have helped the industry to take great strides forward in the continuing push to make each pipeline better than the last.

The main areas that impact how high the quality of a given pipeline construction project are:

  • Pipeline fabrication
  • Pipeline pigging
  • Hydrostatic Pressure Testing
  • Row Construction and Restoration

Let’s take a deeper look at each of these areas below…

Quality in Pipeline Fabrication

blankAn oil or natural gas pipeline can often run for hundreds of miles and every inch of this pipeline needs to be built to last.  If even one section of the pipeline fails, the entire pipeline becomes compromised.  For this reason, pipeline fabricators must build each pipeline with quality standards in mind.  They do this in a variety of ways.

The first step in creating a solid pipeline is to determine the exact specifications that the pipeline needs to operate safely.  Without these specifications, fabricators cannot know whether or not their pipeline meets the project’s needs or not.  Different types of pipelines will have different requirements associated with them.  For example, a transmission pipeline might need to withstand higher pressures than a distribution pipeline and would need to be built to withstand these higher pressures.

On top of this, the area surrounding the pipeline might dictate how the pipeline is fabricated.  For instance, the weight of the soil placed over the pipeline might call for a thicker pipe to be fabricated.  Even the type of material used in the fabrication could be different.  For example, high carbon steel is usually used for transmission lines, but plastics and composites might be used in other pipeline applications.

Luckily, pipeline creators don’t have to come up with this information all on their own.  Government organizations like the PHMSA and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission have strict guidelines that companies can follow to help them create both safe and efficient pipelines.  These rules and regulations will dictate what materials can be used in the fabrication of the pipes, what thicknesses need to be adhered to, and even the types of welds that should be used to ensure that they can withstand the high pressures that pipelines are often tested with.

Quality in Pipeline Pigging

Pipeline Pigging is one of the methods oil and gas companies use to test, inspect, clean, and maintain pipelines.  This process uses a device known as a pig which does the testing, inspecting, cleaning, and maintaining, and a pig trap which allows pipeline access to the pig.  The pigs and the pig traps both need to meet quality standards or the process will not work.

Different types of pigs need to be used for the different operations that they must perform.  For instance, a utility pig would be used to clean a pipeline while a separate inspection pig would be used to inspect the pipeline.  Specialty pigs may also be needed to perform specific maintenance functions that exist within certain types of pipelines.

Pipeline companies will have their own standards for operating pigs in the most efficient manner.  However, they’ll also have to comply with quality standards set forth by governing bodies like the PHMSA, FERC, and even the EPA.  One example of this is the EPA’s regulations on additional equipment that must be installed on pig traps.  PRO Fact Sheet No. 505 states that an electric or a gas engine-driven vapor recovery compressor must be installed to help recover gas and condensate during pigging operations.  This type of quality control system is great for both the company and the environment as it saves gas from being vented which reduces product loss and protects the environment at the same time.

Quality in Hydrostatic Pressure Testing

blankHydrostatic pressure testing plays a critical role in ensuring that a pipeline can meet the demands placed on it during operation.  These pressure tests are heavily regulated and specific standards must be met to ensure that the pipeline is safe to use before it goes into operation.  The PHMSA sets these quality standards and works with pipeline companies to ensure that they meet them.

According to the PHMSA, hazardous liquid pipelines and higher stress, natural gas pipelines must undergo hydrostatic pressure testing.  This testing must be done to at least 125% of the maximum operating pressure for at least four continuous hours.  On top of this, an additional four hours at a pressure of at least 110% of maximum operating pressure must be done on piping that is not visible.  In some cases, a spike test must be performed on the piping as well.  This test is performed at 139% of the maximum operating pressure and it’s conducted for about 30 minutes.

Hydrostatic pressure testing is the dominant form of pressure testing used for pipelines.  However, there are other forms of testing such as ultrasonic testing.  In some lower pressure applications, hydrostatic pressure testing can be switched out for pneumatic pressure testing.  This is a quality control system that uses air or inert gas instead of water.  The reason this type of testing is used less often than hydrostatic pressure testing is that it’s not safe to use in systems that will operate at pressures higher than 100 psi.

Quality in ROW Construction and Restoration

A pipeline cannot run successfully without a well-constructed ROW.  The ROW houses the pipeline and ensures that it can safely be monitored, inspected, and repaired.  It also ensures that the surrounding environment stays safe and that residents are not negatively impacted by its presence.  For these reasons, the quality of both the construction and the restoration of the ROW need to be high.

Once again, the PHMSA, FERC, the EPA, and many state and local organizations are there to provide regulation as well as guidance on how this process is completed.  Industry organizations, as well as third-party organizations, also come together to provide guidance as well.  The goal for all parties involved is to create a ROW that is both safe and effective for both the pipeline as well as the surrounding areas.

A high-quality ROW will be built so that it does not impact sensitive habitats, or cause flooding or landslips.  A well-thought-out ROW should improve the area, protect sensitive habitats, reduce flooding, and prevent landslips from ever happening.  Areas that were only temporarily changed through the creation of the ROW should be restored fully to the point that it’s not apparent that the area had ever been changed.

Creating a Quality Culture in Pipeline Construction

A poorly built pipeline does more than just hurt the companies who build and use them.  These pipelines can cause safety concerns, environmental issues, and can even damage the image of the industry in general.  Because of this, increasing the quality of pipeline construction is in everybody’s best interest.  Many businesses and governing bodies have joined together to help improve the quality of pipeline projects.  One of the ways they’ve done this is by fostering a quality culture within the industry itself.

Competing businesses come together in industry organizations like the INGAA, the World Federation of Pipeline Industry Associations, and the American Pipeline Contractors Association to share safety concerns, promote the use of new and improved technologies, and help create industry standards that improve the industry as a whole.  The result of these collaborative efforts is a culture of both quality and safety within the oil and natural gas pipeline industries that is hard to rival.

Final Thoughts

The construction of a pipeline involves many different processes, people, and organizations.  However, with careful planning and strict adherence to both government and industry standards, pipeline companies can continue to create high-quality pipelines that will last for years to come.

Quality is one of our core values at Hanging H, alongside eight other core values that make up who we are and what we stand for.  It’s why Hanging H has such an outstanding track record and reputation in the pipeline industry.

December 7, 2019

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