The role of robotic tank cleaning in decontamination and demolition

27 October 2023

Decommissioning of oil storage tanks requires decontamination of the asset, before demolition can begin. In most cases, this involves the bulk removal of sludge and residual oil deposits in the safest and most environmentally-friendly manner.

The demolition industry has long recognised the benefits of using mechanical plant and equipment to tear down and remove steelwork. Modern demolition techniques have made great strides in terms of ensuring safe processes and they excel where clean assets are concerned. However, a desire for greater assurance regarding the environmental control and fate of oil residues places additional demands on the techniques that have traditionally been employed.

Dependant on the contracting approach taken by an operating company in their dealings with the demolition company, the process of ensuring that the assets are in fact clean, can fall to those whose experience lies primarily in the demolition field rather than the decontamination field. It is the natural reaction of a demolition company to expect to use mechanical plant for such a purpose, but they may not be aware of the latest techniques and equipment available.

Equally, they may have little experience or understanding of the demands placed on modern operating companies by environmental regulators or main boards increasingly conscious of their company’s valuable reputation as a sustainable enterprise, aware of its environmental, social and governance (ESG) responsibilities.

Reputation management

In today’s connected world, reputation is everything. For both demolition contractor and operating company, news of accidents, or environmental incidents spreads fast, leading to negative public perceptions. Adverse incidents can irreparably damage a company’s reputation, undermine investor confidence, and directly impact share prices.

Routine cleaning of tanks which are to remain in service, can be achieved through a range of different techniques. The traditional approach of sending operatives in with shovels, assisted perhaps by bulldozers, to manually remove sludge and residues from tanks is inherently hazardous.

It demands a lot of both their personal protective equipment (PPE) and their operating methods such as permit to work (PTW) systems, to ensure their safety. Failures of either PPE compliance or PTW System compliance are likely to put operatives at risk. When this risk manifests itself during a confined space entry (CSE), consequences can be high.

It is for this reason that operating companies, especially those who work with demanding operating management systems are required to do all that they can to avoid manned CSE when other alternatives are available. For safety reasons, the market is starting to value ways to conduct tank cleaning using mechanical methods that isolate the person from the confined space risk.

Maintaining standards

Operators of high hazard installations are also closely monitored by environmental regulators. During outages of tanks, the highest standards are demanded of such companies. Strenuous measures are taken and enforced to ensure that during routine tank cleaning, the possibility of ground contamination is minimised. These standards and duty of care for the environment persist during any decontamination process ahead of demolition.

Operating companies are thus looking for the highest standards in both environment management and safety during normal operations, but also as their plants are deconstructed at end of life. At the same time, demolition contractors are looking to use mechanical equipment because of the efficiency it delivers.

At this interface between demolition contractors’ expectations and running plant cleaning techniques, mechanical approaches such as robotic tank cleaning are becoming more popular. The initial investment in implementing automated systems is offset by considerable risk reduction, minimised expenses associated with accidents, injuries, and litigation, reduced labour costs and even lower insurance premiums.

Flexible and quick response

Robotic techniques are flexible, accommodating a wide range of tank designs and contents, with an ability to operate in Zone 0, Class 1 Div 1 Ex-rated atmospheres. They utilise the addition of steam or diesel cutting agents to ensure that previously stubborn sludges and deposits are released by the tank to the suction systems of the robot. There are a number of tips and tricks to effective robot operation, requiring an investment in training and development by the contracting company. Set up on site is rapid, robots are of course not susceptible to fatigue or elevated tank internal temperatures and in many circumstances, tanks are cleaned quicker than other approaches.

In conclusion, by prioritising use of robotic tank cleaning, demolition contractors and operating companies can protect their brand image, enhance stakeholder trust, and maintain a positive market valuation.

Employing manless entry systems, such as Re-Gen Robotics’ tank cleaning service can signficantly reduce or eliminate many of the headaches and costs associated with oil storage tank cleaning.