By Brittani Schroeder and Angelica Pajkovic 

Dan Heberer has had an interest in machinery since he was young. With an early love for motorcycles, Heberer developed a passion for understanding the mechanics of different systems. Fascinated by the inner workings of machinery, this eventually led him to a degree in mechanical engineering and a career in the industrial sector as a rotating equipment engineer. “I have worked in several different engineering roles throughout my career,” explained Heberer, “and the somewhat natural evolution of my working experience has led me to work with a number of different pumps in both technical and team leader roles. After a few years in a managerial role, I realized that I preferred the hands-on nature of the technical role. So when I had the opportunity, I opted to return to my role as a rotating equipment engineer focusing on pumps and compressors,” said Heberer.

A Day Working with Pumps

In his role as a pump engineer at a top tier petrochemical company, Heberer’s first task of each day was to check on the operations from the previous evening. “I would look to see if there were any problems with the machinery that arose overnight, and once that was done, I would review the maintenance orders that had come through,” Heberer related. He went on to explain that the most common issues he would attend to were leaking pumps, pumps that were making noises or vibrating abnormally, and pumps with general performance issues.

Once he determined what the urgent issues were, Heberer would work to determine why those problems had occurred and come up with a plan to correct them. “You have to assess symptoms and determine the cause of an issue in order to develop an effective and efficient course of action,” said Herberer. “Deciding. whether the pump is performing well enough to keep it running or if it should be shut down for repair is at times obvious, and other times a collaborative decision with input from Operations and Machinery Analysts.” In most places Heberer has worked, pumps are spared, and having a reliable spare pump is essential before swapping the two.

The Bad Actors

Determining the ‘bad actors’ in a plant was another aspect of Heberer’s daily role. “Bad actors are the pieces of equipment that experience repeated failures over an extended period of time,” stated Heberer. “As they continually plague the facility with breakdowns, it was part of my job to find a long-term solution rather than a short-term fix. For example, if the mechanical seals are leaking and constantly need repairs, that might lead me to think about how we could improve the seal plan,” said Heberer.

One of the ways Heberer has seen success with difficult-to-seal fluids is to switch to API Plan 53B, which maintains a pressurized barrier fluid between the inboard and outboard seals of the pump. Heberer further explained that most of the required pump repairs take place in-house. “If we are talking about seals, for example, we would work closely with our seal supplier,” said Heberer. “In our facility the seal supplier has an on-site engineer and we work with them on a day-to-day basis to determine the best course of action. We utilize what they have to offer to solve the problem, evaluate the results, and then work to implement those same things in other areas of the facility.”

Despite the challenges that can come with industrial pumps, Heberer finds them enjoyable to work with. “I like watching chronic problems become a thing of the past. I like the satisfaction of identifying a problem and then coming up with a solution. Seeing solutions that work is pretty gratifying,” said Heberer. “Although it is a lot of individual effort, all of the engineers in our group collaborate and feed off of each other. We know what each person is doing, and we solicit input and advice from one another,” he continued. “We are also able to contact other facilities to check if others have faced the same kind of pump challenges we are facing. It is good to know that other engineers in our corporate machinery network are there for support if needed.”

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A Wide Variety of Pumps

As Heberer has spent a large part of his career working in the chemical industry, he has had the opportunity to interact with a wide array of pumps that deal with a variety of different fluids. “In the chemical world, corrosiveness and toxicity comes into play much more frequently with pumps, which often requires either non-metallic or very expensive alloys,” said Heberer. “With chemicals, you also may have to deal with slurry and chemical solvents, so you can be pumping solids and liquids at the same time. You see less of that in a petroleum refinery.” As the liquids and slurries being moved in chemical refineries tend to have a wide variety of physical properties, maintaining the integrity of pump seals can be quite a challenge.

Molten products found in many chemical processes come with their own ‘special’ challenges. “Molten products may freeze and become solid at very high temperatures,” explained Heberer. “Let us say, for example, that a product freezes at 350°F. Pumping must take place at temperatures higher than 350°F to make sure it does not become solid. This means that the piping, the pump case, and sealing chamber have to be hot at all times. Lapses in insulation will cause the product to freeze and become solid, wreaking havoc on the mechanical seals,” stated Heberer. Mechanical seals need fluid to stay lubricated, and when molten product becomes solid it tends to lift the seal faces rather than lubricate them. The seals may then overheat or lift and start leaking more rapidly, and the seal will fail.

A Pump Without Seals

One of the biggest challenges Heberer has seen, when it comes to chemical pumps, is ensuring the integrity of the seal. “Unfortunately, it is the most frequent form of failure that the chemical and oil industries have in their pumps,” said Heberer. Recently, there have been engineering developments in the world of pumps whereby there is no seal. “We have installed a number of new pumps that do not have seals avoid the typical problems we have with mechanical seals,” Heberer continued. Magnetically driven sealless pumps have proven to work very well in caustic and acids. Having no seals eliminates the most prevalent failure mode in pumping systems, and the results thus far have been positive.

For example, Heberer has recently experienced a lot of success with sealless canned motor pumps. “In this type of pump, the motor is immersed in and cooled by the liquid that is being pumped. The fluid therefore needs to be constantly flowing around the motor windings and through the bearings. These pumps have worked out quite well, and there are some very good designs for these pumps coming into the market now,” Heberer explained.

Past Pump Projects

Heberer has worked on many different pump projects throughout his career, and with each he learned a little more about rotating equipment. In one project, he was working with vertical multi-stage turbine pumps. The pumps were designed with 3,600 RPM motors to reduce the number of stages and the cost of the pumps, but the pumps frequently failed motor bearings and seals. The Mean Time Between Failure (MTBF) for these pumps was less than six months. “We discovered that if we took these pumps and slowed them down to 1,800 RPM, and added more stages, we eliminated the motor bearing and seal failures, which increased the MTBF to 10 years,” relayed Heberer.

New Technologies

On the topic of new technology in the industry is in the area of condition monitoring. “Through wireless technology, we can monitor so many things remotely and it has made a huge difference in the industry. With wireless technology, engineers can monitor vibration, pressures, and temperatures of the bearings and other components as needed,” Heberer continued. “With this information, we are able to anticipate problems much earlier on than we could before, which is what predictive maintenance is all about.”

Advice for the Future

As technology is such a major focus for newer generations, Heberer believes that it is harder to get people motivated about machines and the machinery side of engineering. “Kids are growing up now with so much technology that they are losing out on a part of childhood that I had. They have cellphones in their hands constantly taking their attention. Previous generations spent their time taking things apart and learning how all the parts worked together,” Heberer related. “If young people got back to tinkering with machinery, even simple things like bicycles and lawn mower engines, then maybe we will have more engineers interested in machines.” Another example that Heberer supplied was learning to change the oil and replace brake pads on a car. “Most people my age were taught how to do these things when we were young. I made sure to teach my sons and daughter to do these things, because basic mechanical abilities and being able to do things like that for yourself are important qualities,” said Heberer.

If Heberer could recommend anything to the new engineers graduating from school, it would be to get out of their offices and spend time in the field. “Go, see and assess – these are the very first steps of solving every problem that comes your way. There are problems to be solved and you cannot always solve them from behind your desk. You need to go out and look at them with your own eyes—that is how you make progress and that is how you find a solution to the problem,” he said.

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