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The Dangers of Damaged Industrial Tanks

 In Industrial

While industrial storage tank reliability isn’t typically the first thing on plant managers’ minds, it is crucial not to overlook the potential dangers of damaged or improperly maintained tanks. 

Problems with your tanks can emerge slowly over time — they can also occur in a moment of catastrophic failure. The key to avoiding both of these types of failures is to anticipate possible causes and to implement active and preventative inspection and maintenance procedures. 

The rest of this article will take a look at what causes damage to storage tanks, the effects of possible damage, and a few maintenance tips to increase the lifetime of your tank.


Causes of Industrial Storage Tank Damage

Let’s start by laying out some of the sources of catastrophic and long-term damage to industrial tanks. While this list is by no means exhaustive, it does provide a starting point so you can take a look at your current practices.


Internal Corrosion

Industrial storage tanks are often used to hold toxic, flammable, or otherwise hazardous materials. While these tanks are the safest means of storage, that does not mean that the tanks are immune to the effects of these chemicals. The pH, chemical composition, temperature, and velocity of a stored material in tandem with the exact type and grade of tank material can lead to massively different corrosion rates. This corrosion can be spread out throughout a tank or localized, which is referred to as pitting. 


Overdue Cleaning and Maintenance

Without regular check-ups on potential weak points and the general condition of your tanks, a small flaw in construction or a missed sign of overuse and corrosion can snowball into a much bigger problem. Regular and systematic evaluations and maintenance are required to catch problems like these. 

In addition, the continuous cycling of various materials through the tanks will leave behind excessive residue and sludge, all of which must be cleared for effective use in the future. This is particularly important if you ever intend to switch the stored material in a certain tank. These cleaning processes are crucial to keeping your plant operational, and can now be done without any confined space entry by your team. Ecorobotics’ robotic sludge removal services can reduce cleaning costs by 20–25% and downtime by 30–50%. It ensures you never feel the pressure to skip over or delay your next scheduled cleaning.


Improper Installation or Construction

These tanks are complex pieces of machinery and each piece must be properly constructed and installed in order to ensure full functionality with working safeguards. Improper welds, poorly reinforced joints, or a poor foundation can all lead to catastrophic failure down the line. Even things like not properly accounting for UV radiation can count as improper installation and can lead to issues. 


Severe Weather Events

Although it can be exhausting to plan for every possible weather pattern, extreme weather events can often cause severe failure when neglected. Fukushima’s failure due to the tsunami of 2011 is a famous outlier, but seismic events, hurricanes, tornados, lightning strikes, and cold snaps are significantly less uncommon and must be considered in any plant plan. For something as common as a potential lightning strike, it is simple enough to ensure that all your tanks are properly grounded, especially for flammable materials, and the rest of your preparations can extend from there.


Exceeding Pressure Limits

Tanks all have certain pressure standards and design specifications depending on their intended usage. Proper venting and maximum levels can reduce the potential for excessive pressure, which is particularly possible with fuels and other volatile compounds, but things like careful filling procedures are also required to avoid anomalous events. 


Tank Age

Related to corrosion and maintenance, tanks have effective service times — usage past these lifetimes has the potential to introduce more points of failure than can be easily accounted for or maintained away. It can also be difficult to get replacement parts for such systems, so don’t hesitate to upgrade a tank that is beyond its shelf life.


Human Error

For every safety measure and maintenance procedure that you can take on, there is always the possibility for human or measurement error. Performing dangerous work too close to a tank, allowing sloppy habits, or slacking on safety measures can lead to mistakes and stacking issues that lead to failure. 


The Effects of Damaged Industrial Tanks

The failure of an industrial tank, at best, can lead to the emission of hazardous and valuable chemicals into the environment. It could pose danger to your workers, the ecosystem, and your entire business. In the worst case, these mistakes can be deadly to humans and debilitating to a plant.

Since 1990, “hot work,” which includes welding, burning, and other spark-inducing mechanical activities, has led to dozens of tank fires and explosions and over 60 fatalities. In 2009, a team in Atwater, California, was torching a fitting off of an old fuel tank that had been improperly cleaned after its last use. That left residual flammable vapors inside the tank, which directly led to an explosion that severely burned two workers. 

In another example, two contract welders at a MAR Oil facility in 2008 had been assigned, with unclear authorization and clearance, to perform a weld on a singular empty tank in a series of interconnected tanks. Because the other tanks had not been emptied, the tank they were working on was still venting combustible vapor. The vapor caught fire, leading to an explosion and their deaths. In these cases and several others, improper monitoring, programming, and oversight led to dangerous consequences for people who were performing what should have been safe operations. 

Even if issues with venting and leakage do not lead directly to such catastrophic events, these leaks can cause other notable issues. Materials in your plant must often stay isolated and decontaminated, so a leak may cause cross-contamination. This can even be caused by improper tank cleaning and switching of the material that a tank is holding. This contamination can often lead to delays in your production and potential recalls.

Furthermore, many such chemicals have strict emission limits — any tank failure may lead to overrunning these limits. Violating environmental regulations is dangerous in its own right, but can also lead to fines and other regulatory action that may massively impact an operation. Certain materials, particularly waste products, have extremely strict regulations regarding emissions, and you must be careful to understand the consequences of mishandling hazardous waste so that you can properly prepare for its storage and disposal.

On top of all this, once a tank reaches a critical failure, the entire apparatus must be replaced. A single failure point will often cascade into multi-system failure where no simple repair can restore the tank to working order. This is incredibly expensive and will lead to extended plant downtimes. 


Storage Tank Maintenance Tips

With all of these possible vectors of failure and the consequences thereof, it is crucial to establish strong maintenance practices. 

Among these are regularly scheduling maintenance of crucial systems and understanding the timelines along which failure events can happen. You should perform easy maintenance often and ensure best practices around refilling. More complex repairs will require their own timelines, so more extensive planning is key.

Proper cleaning of your tanks can be a crucial part of an overall maintenance strategy. While it can be tempting to put this off as long as possible to keep your operations running at maximum capacity, introducing robotic tank cleaning in place of slower, more expensive, and more dangerous human cleaning will enable you to get the best of both worlds. Ecorobotics’ sludge removal and cleaning services can drastically reduce the downtime on such operations. These regular cleanings will go a long way to enhancing your productivity while active, not to mention the ways in which this can contribute to safe operations. 


Practice Safety at Your Industrial Plant

Overall, good maintenance and cleaning practices enhanced by cutting-edge technology can ensure the smooth, continuous, and safe operation of your industrial tanks and your entire plant. The more you can do to inspect for and proactively maintain against tank failures, the better off your plant will be in the long run. Making sure to incorporate good maintenance practices will increase the longevity of your storage tanks. Learn more about the consequences of mishandling hazardous waste.

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