This week’s Pipeliners Podcast episode features pipeline historian KC Yost discussing the history of pipeline inspection in the industry.
In this episode, you will learn about the interesting back-story of how pipeline inspection started. You’ll also learn about how the industry has advanced through a deeper understanding of the importance of protecting the material integrity, having inspectors at each critical stage of the pipeline installation, and having processes to support coating, ditching, welding, and material selection.
Pipeline Inspection History: Show Notes, Links, and Insider Terms
- KC Yost is the Director of Onshore Services for Cronus Technology, Inc. Connect with KC on LinkedIn.
- Bitumastic coating is a type of coating used to build a vapor-proof and flexible protective coat in accordance with its formulation and polymerization grade.
- Welding inspectors employ their extensive knowledge of welding processes, test methods, discontinuities, materials, qualifications, and standards to ensure that weldments and welding-related activities comply with all applicable quality and safety criteria.
- Ditching inspectors evaluate the excavation of a trench in the right of way (ROW) for pipe installation.
- Clearing inspectors monitor the operations for adherence to relevant Owner Company and project-specific requirements for clearing.
- Grubbing is removing and disposing of all unwanted vegetative matter from underground, such as stumps, roots, buried logs, and other debris.
- Grading consists of selecting and drilling the most productive prospects first.
- Coating inspectors are responsible for performing and documenting basic and non-destructive inspections of liquid coatings applied by brush, roller, or spray to steel surfaces.
- I&E inspectors execute the specific inspections on materials, equipment, and construction/installation activities on site.
- Trenching inspectors are responsible for ensuring the proper depth for a pipeline to be laid and that the cover is replaced in a way that aligns with the land topography. Because of safety concerns in this role, OSHA has a checklist of proper trenching practices.
- Land topography is a detailed map of the surface features of land.
- X80 pipe has a minimum yield strength of 90 KSI.
- X52 pipe has a minimum yield strength of 52 KSI.
- Mill certification is issued by a manufacturer to certify the chemical and mechanical features of a product and its compliance to the applicable norms and technical specifications.
- Hydraulic testing uses water as a testing medium to determine the strength and integrity of pipe.
- Pneumatic testing uses air, nitrogen, or any non-flammable and non-toxic gas to test the strength and integrity of pipe.
- Abrasion Resistant Overlay (ARO) is specifically designed to protect the primary corrosion coating from damage during pipeline directional drilling applications, bored, river crossing, and installation in rough terrain.
- ERW pipe is an electric resistance welded pipe.
- Non-destructive testing (NDT) is a testing and analysis technique used by industry to evaluate the properties of a material, component, structure or system for characteristic differences or welding defects and discontinuities without causing damage to the original part.
- CP (Cathodic Protection) Verification is a test to reduce the corrosion of a metal surface by making that surface the cathode of an electrochemical cell.
- MTR stands for manufacturer’s test results.
- Lading is a legal document issued by a carrier to a shipper that details the type, quantity, and destination of the goods being carried.
- Manifest is a document providing a detailed description of a shipment’s contents.
- INGU is a pipeline inspection service based in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, that uses proprietary Pipers technology.
- Hydrostatic testing is a way in which pressure vessels such as pipelines, plumbing, gas cylinders, boilers, and fuel tanks can be tested for strength and leaks.
Pipeline Inspection History: Full Episode Transcript
Russel Treat: Welcome to the Pipeliners Podcast, episode 122, sponsored by Satelytics, a cloud-based, geospatial, analytics software solution, processing multi and hyperspectral imagery from satellite, aircraft, drones, and fixed cameras to lower the cost and improve the time limits of identifying leaks, encroachment, ground movement, and other pipeliner concerns. To learn more about Satelytics, visit satelytics.com.
Announcer: The Pipeliners Podcast, where professionals, Bubba geeks, and industry insiders share their knowledge and experience about technology, projects, and pipeline operations. Now your host, Russel Treat.
Russel: Thanks for listening to the Pipeliners Podcast. I appreciate you taking the time. To show that appreciation, we are giving away a customized YETI tumbler to one listener each episode. This week our winner is Michael Belota with ExxonMobil Pipeline. Congratulations, Michael, your YETI is on its way. To learn how you can win this prize pack, stick around until the end of the episode.
This week, KC Yost returns to talk to us about pipeline inspection. KC, welcome back to the Pipeliners Podcast.
KC Yost: Hi, Russel. Glad to be back. Thanks for having me.
Russel: I always enjoy having you on because I get a history lesson. I asked you to come on because we wanted to talk about pipeline inspection. I’ve been doing a lot of this lately. I’ve been covering topics that I know very little about. This would be one of those topic areas that I know very little about so I’m kind of excited about this.
As usual, I’d like you to start with a little bit of the history of pipeline inspection. Tell us how it was done in the old days when your grandfather was pipelining.
KC: It wasn’t.
Russel: [laughs] Could you elaborate?
KC: Sure. My grandfather would tell me that, essentially, what you’re after is get the pipe in the ditch and get the gas flowing from the wellhead over to the facility to get it processed, and going down the line to houses and industry.
My dad actually tells a story. He recalled when he got out of college after the war, he worked for a company. One of his first tasks during construction was to actually be part of the dope gang. He would paint on the bitumastic coating on the pipe before it was lowered into the ground.
I think it was on a previous podcast I made mention that I asked him how long it took for that coal tar to cure before they put it down in the ditch. He said he had no idea. As soon as he stepped back, they put the pipe in the ditch and they kept moving on because, again, it was all about getting the pipe in the ditch.
I think, over time, we’ve realized and understood that we know better now, that it’s important to make sure that coating, and ditching, and welding, and material selection, and protecting the material integrity is extremely important, regardless of what the federal, state, or local regulators tell us.
Just for the longevity of the pipe, it’s important for us to make sure that the pipe is put in the ground properly.
Here we are with welding inspectors, and ditching inspectors, and coating inspectors all up and down the pipeline, as they should be, making sure that everything’s put in properly.
Russel: I think that’s a great tee-up. I think it’s also interesting to note just how far we’ve come as an industry around how we do these kinds of things. The answer, how they do pipeline inspection in the old days, is they didn’t. I think that’s true.
It’s actually become a big problem for people that are still operating pipe that was constructed that way because there’s no records. A lot of times, they don’t even really know what they’ve got in the ground.
KC: Absolutely. I agree. If we want to get to corny phrases, we can actually say that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. That’s exactly what we’re dealing with here, is making sure that the pipeline operating entity has a good, solid system that will operate for a long, long time.
Russel: Right, exactly. What is involved in pipeline inspection?
KC: It’s not a real glamorous job. Many times it’s overlooked. I do recall a number of times where clients have said to me, “Why do we need to have seven inspectors out there? Why can’t we do it with three? Do we really need to have this many welding inspectors out there? Do we really need a ditching inspector out there?” It is the ounce of prevention that the inspectors provide.
Literally, there are just, depending on the project, you can have welding inspectors, clearing inspectors. It doesn’t sound like a glamorous job to worry about clearing, and grubbing, and grading, but I will tell you that about 30 years ago, I was on a pipeline project, or I was the engineer on the pipeline project, down in Gonzales, Louisiana.
Are you familiar with a catalpa tree?
Russel: I am not. Probably should be, but I am not.
KC: Okay. Fishermen in south Louisiana are very fond of catalpa trees. There’s a catalpa worm that lives in the roots of their trees, comes up, eats the catalpa leaves. I know that back in the ’80s it was very popular to pick the worms off, and then freeze them, and then use them for bait as they were fishing.
In one particular case, the clearing and grubbing inspector had not marked a particular catalpa tree that the right-of-way agent had promised the landowner would not be touched. When it was dozered over, it cost us $20,000, and a brand new tree, and a guarantee that that tree would live for five years. Clearing inspectors can be pretty important in the grand scheme of things.
Grading inspectors, making sure that the right-of-way is as smooth and undulating as possible.
Foreign utility crossings, these inspectors are really keen in that they have to deal with the third-party pipelines that we’re crossing and be able to relate to these people, and visit with them, and make sure that everything is done properly, and correctly, and understood. They’re as much public relations as anything.
Railroad and road crossing inspectors. Some of the toughest stakeholders that you deal with on a pipeline are the Department of Transportation or railroads in particular because we’re competing with railroads many times for oil transportation or refined product transportation. They want to make sure that the line’s put in there properly.
Coating inspectors, I&E inspectors, on, and on, and on. One of the things that I do want to mention is trenching inspectors.
Russel: That’s a key thing from a safety perspective I know just because of my background in civil engineering and construction years ago. Why do you think that’s of special note?
KC: I think that so many people think that trenching inspectors may be fairly low on the totem pole with utilities inspectors and that type of thing.
Frankly, when you stop and think that a third of all pipeline ruptures are caused by third parties, it’s important to make sure that you get the pipe down at a proper depth and that you don’t have 2.5 feet of cover when you need to have 3 feet of cover or you have 3 feet of cover when you need to have 4 feet of cover in a particular location. These people are quite important.
Going across cultivated fields, standard rule of thumb is to have 5 feet of cover as you go across a cultivated field because as the farmer digs up the land, the land topography changes a little bit. What might be 5 feet of cover this year may turn out to be 3.5 feet of cover next year.
It’s pretty important that these trenching inspectors get their due and their recognition. It’s an extremely important job in the entire process.
Russel: One of the things that I recently had a conversation with someone about, not on a podcast but in another conversation, was the need to inspect pipe as it’s rolled, at the actual manufacturing and that’s becoming a bigger issue from an inspection standpoint.
KC: There was a pipeline that was installed in north Louisiana a number of years ago, and somehow the mill had put on the wrong bar code for the yield strength of this steel. When the pipe was delivered, if memory serves me correctly, the company thought that they were buying X80 pipe when in reality they were buying X52 pipe. Not good. Created a great deal of problems.
We have purchased pipe or we’ve had clients purchase pipe from Asia, let’s say. We’ve had mill certifications come in from five different mills, a number of heats for 42 inch diameter. Roughly, I think we were doing 450 kilometers of pipe and five different mills, who knows how many heats were.
Then we got the mill certs. They were all handwritten. They were exactly the same, same amount of magnesium, same amount of carbon for every heat, at every run, at every mill. The client decided not to have an inspector on-site during that time.
These are the things that come up, the X52 instead of the X80 or the mill certs that are exactly the same for five different mills and a number of heats for 450 kilometers of pipeline.
Having vendor inspection is extremely important. Witnessing tests, whether they’ve been hydraulic or pneumatic, it’s good, cheap insurance. At the end of the day, that’s what we’re after. We’re back to the ounce of prevention is worth a pound of the cure. Vendor inspection is important.
Russel: It’s interesting because when I had thought of pipeline inspection, and I’m a guy who knows virtually nothing about it, I’m thinking about, “I know they’re going to be inspecting the welds.” I’m thinking about the rigor around that process. You listed about eight or nine things that I didn’t even contemplate when I was thinking about what is pipeline inspection?
Once again, KC, is it proves a theory of mine that everything is easy until you know enough about it.
KC: [laughs] Let’s go on downstream from the mill inspection. Let’s go to the coating inspectors and having someone at the coaters to make sure that proper coating is applied, that if you’re using ARO, it’s applied properly, make sure that it’s chalked and loaded out onto trucks or rail properly.
Then, when it’s arriving on-site, make sure that there’s someone there to inspect the coating and the pipe as it comes off the rail or off the truck to look for damaged coating, or out of roundness, or that type of thing.
I go back to the project in Asia or pipe delivery from Asia to South America. We were asked to send an engineer over to watch it being loaded out onto a cargo ship. It had already been coated.
We watched the loadout where they dropped a half-dozen joints of pipe, quickly ran over, brushed it off, dusted it off, checked it for out of roundness real quick, and then threw it into the hold, things that we just wouldn’t do here in the States. We were given two days over there. I think our engineer counted six times that joints were dropped as they were being loaded onto the ship.
Handling of the pipe, handling of the coating is extremely important. If you drop a piece of pipe, you could very well create a stress point that could cause you problems later on. Stress concentration was a real big problem back in the day with ERW pipe where a pipe had been quenched a little too fast in a couple of places, and stress would collect at those points.
Coating, of course, is the backbone and the reason why cathodic protection works. If the coating is damaged or if there’s a holiday there, then it defeats the purpose of having any coating at all.
Literally, I think there’s an argument out there that would say that it’s better to not have any coating at all and have cathodic protection for that than to have coating on that is chipped, gouged, and a number of holidays in it. Again, I’m not a CP kind of guy, but it seems to make sense to me in that regard.
It’s all about structural integrity, the integrity of the line, and making sure that it lasts for 50, 60, 70 years.
Russel: That’s the thing. A lot of people, particularly if you’re not in the industry, I don’t think you realize that our experience with metal is if you leave, if you put metal in the ground, it’s going to turn into nothing but a bunch of crumbly stuff.
When you manufacture it correctly, you install it correctly, and operate and maintain it correctly, you can keep that pipe in the ground for decades and have no noticeable wear defect in that pipe if you do it correctly. The “if you do it correctly” is what inspection is all about.
KC: Correct. Absolutely.
Russel: What do you think most people miss when it comes to doing pipeline inspection?
KC: I think that the inspectors that are typically put on a spread are — to use the word again — spread awfully thin and that they do a yeoman’s job in trying to make sure that everything is put in properly so that, at the end of the day, their company or the engineering firm can certify that it was put in properly and that you have great documentation on the pipe, the fittings, and the valves.
You know exactly where the welds were, you know how many welds were rejected, you know how many welds were repaired, you have the welder qualifications, you have all of this documentation done up properly so that 20 years from now, if there is a rupture, you can go back to the records and find out what the issue was.
I don’t know that many spots are being missed, but I would think that with the low number of inspectors out on a typical spread, at least that’s what I see as a trend, it makes it extremely difficult for them to cover all those bases. They’re very dedicated people. I know they do the best they can to try and at least catch all of the big stuff.
There’s a great deal of reliance on the contractor to be above the line and do things properly. Frankly, I would tell you that the contractors that we have out there are outstanding in their operations and their integrity.
They really want to get the job done properly for a number of reasons. One, they take pride in their work. Another reason is they take pride in their industry. They want to make sure that the client recognizes that they do good work, and they want to come back.
The challenge is that there are contractors that cut corners. Again, it comes back to an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. The inspection is out there to make sure that everything is done right.
Russel: As you well know, any time you have a construction project underway, there’s huge pressure to get it done. There’s so many things that can make construction more difficult or more expensive that are outside of your control.
Weather. You start digging things up in the ground. You think you know what you’re going to have, but you don’t always know what you’re going to have until you get the ground up. It’s just a lot that goes into all of that.
KC: You’re right. I think some of the best projects I’ve worked on is where the operating company and a contractor have worked in partnership to get the project done properly. There have been cycles. I recall back in the ’60s with my father, tagging along with him.
You could see that there was, if you will, an adversarial type relationship between the operating companies and the contractors. It was a bit of a challenge. Who could dig lower, who could get this done, who could get that done. Really kind of an adversarial type relationship. I think that it’s much more of a partnership now than it was 40, 50 years ago.
Russel: I think that’s true, too. I think there’s a couple things that are going on there. One, I think that constructors have a much better idea of what the operators are up against once the construction’s done. They understand that their value is not just getting the pipeline constructed, but also the records trail that they create in the construction. Particularly given where we’re going with integrity management, that’s really critical.
The other thing I think that’s operating is technology is making it easier to gather all the information that we used to have to gather all by hand. That’s a big deal, too, because if it’s easier to gather, we’re more likely to get it and get it consistently.
KC: Oh my, yes. I’ve worked on spreads where we had reams and reams and reams of paper. When you look at the chief inspector’s daily report and the welding inspector’s daily report and the clearing inspector’s daily report and grading and foreign utility line and damage pipe report and the trenching inspector’s report and third party contact report, on and on and on, coding inspector’s report.
You go down through all of that, you can just imagine if you’re working on a 100 mile pipeline that takes, I don’t know, 160 days to construct plus, that’s 160 pieces of paper filled out each day by 10 different people, and it becomes quite a monumental task to take care of all that paperwork. Keep all of it on track, in tow.
Not to mention all of the X-ray film that goes along with it, and documentation of how that’s been recorded, the hydrostatic test reports and charts, and on and on and on.
Russel: I know some of the operators now are starting to send crews out. They’re gathering handheld NDT data on every string that hits the ground.
KC: Sure, sure. Yeah.
Russel: I’ve got to ask something that’s going to reveal my ignorance. You’re using the term “spread,” so I think I could make up what that is and be right. Can you tell me what a spread is?
KC: A spread is a term used to define a segment of a pipeline construction process. If you have a 500 mile pipeline project, you may have it divided up into five spreads, each one 100 miles long, or some of them maybe 120 and others maybe 60, depending on the terrain and difficulty getting through that. It’s basically a segment of a pipeline that will be taken care of.
Now, you can have a two-mile pipeline and that would be a spread to work on that pipeline. It’s a way of segmenting a pipeline that’s going to be constructed.
Russel: Interesting. That makes sense. It’s just a term for a unit of work.
KC: Sure. You’ll have ditching, grubbing, grading, welding, backfill lowering in, X-ray — I’m not stating this all in order, but the idea is you’ll have one spread that works on this segment of that pipeline to make sure all of that works out well.
Russel: I would guess that when you’re doing your construction planning, that a big part of that is figuring out what are the mobilization requirements, and you’re trying to be able to work multiple spreads at a time on a large project. You’re going to have to sequence those.
KC: Oh, absolutely. Now, you may have multiple contractors on that. Logistics is a real challenge. Making sure that you have laydown yards for your pipe, making sure that you have a facility where the contractor can go ahead and set up trailers for operation and place for the inspectors to work, having laydown yards for all of the valves and the skids to come in for measurement, or even vessels for separation dehydration, whatever the case may be.
It’s a logistics hassle to get from, let’s say in this case we were talking about mills before, a pipe mill to the coater, and from the coater to the field, and then from wherever the rail yard is, offloading onto trucks to take it to a laydown yard for it to sit until they’re ready out on the pipeline and the clearing and grubbing has been done, to go ahead and start doing the stringing of the pipe out.
Russel: So, stringing, that would be setting the pipe out along the construction path?
KC: Yes, yes. That’s exactly what that is.
Russel: I think people that don’t even know the pipeline business would probably get this, but you see pipe in yards and you see pipe on flatbeds, trains, and trucks and such. I’ve actually never seen the pipe getting moved and set down along the string. To me, particularly if you have any issues around terrain, or waterways, or swamps, or any of that stuff, stringing could be quite the complex thing.
KC: How cool of you to get back into my family history. [laughs] My grandfather was a teamster back in the 1920s. He had a team of horses and a wagon that they would offload pipe onto his wagon, and he would take that wagon out along the right-of-way where they could string the pipe out.
Russel: You said horses. I’m betting those were actually mules.
KC: Probably so. I do know that when the company retired horses and mules, the employees had a chance to buy them. My grandfather, just before he retired, got a couple of…No, I apologize, it was in the ’40s. He didn’t retire until 1960. In the ’40s, he actually had a team of horses that he brought out to the farm to help plowing and hay bailing and that type of thing.
You’re right, there were a lot of mules out there. There were some oxen out there. Horses. I think it’s whatever was available, what the terrain was, and that type of thing.
Russel: Exactly. You can put into your mind some pictures around all of that. I think the thing that’s interesting to me about this, when you talk about it from an inspections standpoint, is one of things you’re kind of pointing out — I’m going to put this in my own terminology, KC, and I’m going to let you unpack it a little bit — what you’re really pointing out is there’s kind of a chain of custody of each joint of pipe, from manufacturer through transportation through stringing through coating and welding and dropping and burying. And all of that information is useful and valuable to support not only making sure you did it the right way, but to be able to manage it through its life cycle.
KC: Yes, yes. Absolutely. You can look at it starting with the purchase order and the packing slips and the bill of ladings and the track manifests and MTRs and the certifications that all have to be checked when the pipe is delivered to the field. It’s a chain of custody, just as you had said,, absolutely.
Russel: What would you want to give somebody, KC, as parting remarks, if you will, in this general topic of inspection? What would you want every pipeliner to know regardless of whether they’re involved in construction or not?
KC: Inspection, certification, validation is extremely important for the operating company now and in the future. To me, having an inspector out there to make sure that everything is done properly and put into the ground correctly is, again, the ounce of prevention that is literally worth the pound of cure.
Find out the problems now, deal with the problems now, deal with it before you put gas or oil or refined products or whatever in the line. Make sure that it meets the specifications.
I think that there’s a lot of value that inspectors bring to the installation of pipeline, and frankly the long-term operations of pipeline. We haven’t even touched the base talking about cleaning and drying, engaging in caliper pigs. Inspectors are extremely important in making sure that there aren’t any dents or gouges in the line, and making sure that that all works out.
We haven’t talked much about establishing baselines and inline inspection runs and that type of thing. I think you had someone from INGU do a podcast recently. That’s a pretty cool little sphere that’s out on the market that may save some time.
These people, men and women, that are out doing inspection work are working hard to make sure that the integrity of the entire system is up to standard. It’s important for all of us to recognize how important their job is, and how important it is for us to appreciate their hard work and effort out there standing alongside the contractors.
Russel: I think the other thing, too, is that inspectors are part of the team. They provide a valuable service. The constructors, their primary focus is construction — getting it done.
There’s a lot of moving parts around all of that. When you think of the inspector as part of the team, versus somebody that’s making sure you did your job right, that’s not really what they’re doing. What they’re really doing is being part of the team to ensure that we get to what we’re trying to get to.
KC: Exactly. Absolutely. An inspector told me back in 1976 to be sure to tell them what to do, not how to do it. There are a number of ways of skinning cats. As long as the finished product works out well and you follow specifications and procedures, everything’s good to go.
It’s amazing how inspectors are able to leave personal preference off the table. Just make sure that the product and system that’s installed has a great deal of integrity and is good for years to come.
Russel: I think that’s a really excellent point, KC. It’s a great place to wrap it up, is that one of the hardest parts about being an inspector, particularly if you have a lot of experience, is not telling people what to do but here’s the outcome that needs to be achieved. Not “here’s what you need to do.”
That is a unique set of interpersonal skills. Not everybody has it, speaking for myself.
KC: I’m reminded constantly that when I point my finger at someone I have three fingers pointing back at me.
Russel: Exactly. It’s so true.
Hey, KC. It’s a pleasure as always. Thanks for coming on board. We’ll have you back. I think I’d like to talk about a couple of other things. In particular, I’d like to talk about hydrostatic testing. I think it’d be useful to talk about what do you do when you find defects. As an inspector is doing their jobs and they find problems, what’s the process for resolving all of that?
KC: Great topic.
Russel: I think that would be a good conversation, as well.
KC: Absolutely. I’d enjoy that very much.
Russel: Thank you, sir. I appreciate it.
KC: Have a wonderful day. Thank you so much for having me on.
Russel: I hope you enjoyed this week’s episode of The Pipeliners Podcast and our conversation with KC Yost. Just a reminder, before you go you should register to win our customized Pipeliners Podcast YETI tumbler. Simply visit pipelinepodcastnetwork.com/win to enter yourself in the drawing.
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Transcription by CastingWords