The manipulation of large and bulky objects is of near constant concern to engineers operating in epicenters of the U.S. energy market.

Material handling can be expensive, but the hard costs associated with loading, offloading and staging steel pipe can be exaggerated significantly beyond the initial price of labor and equipment if safety becomes an issue or the reoccurring potential for damage to products exists.

In the western Gulf of Mexico, Texas-based Austin Engineering Co. Inc. recently managed the installation a 20-in. coated steel water transmission pipeline on behalf of the Port of Corpus Christi. The line is used by Nueces County Water Control & Improvement District #4 to carry drinking water to the city of Port Aransas, on the northern end of Mustang Island, from Aransas Pass on the mainland side.

The Corpus Christi Ship Channel (CCSC) is an important stopping ground that provides deep-water access from the Gulf of Mexico to the Port of Corpus Christi via Port Aransas, Redfish Bay and Corpus Christi Bay. It is in and around such major hubs of energy infrastructure — major ports and mega terminals — that the stakes for safe and efficient lifting and handling can be even higher.

Building Pipe

Austin Engineering’s role as general contractor on the Port Aransas water line installation included performing integral open-cut connections and testing while overseeing all project work to replace an aging pipeline laid below the channel-bottom.

The port authority and its engineers opted for the use of coated steel pipe in lieu of high-density polyethylene (HDPE), out of precaution and to mitigate any possible adverse reaction with HDPE over long periods of time due to the potential presence of hydrocarbons in the soil. Isaacks Directional Drilling, a key Austin Engineering trade partner based in Aransas Pass, was retained as part of the intercostal horizontal directional drilling (HDD) operation to install the pipe under the channel bottom.

Vacuum lifting over the past 20 years has found recognition among pipe handlers in energy attuned sectors who have turned toward technologies centered on producing safer, less labor-intensive lifts. It has been embraced widely and in tandem with the evolution of the corrosion-resistant bonded pipeline coatings used commonly to protect products in the pipeline construction trades.

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Austin Engineering is a 75-year-old civil and mechanical engineering general contractor — a third-generation, family-owned and operated outfit specializing in both gas and electric distribution lines and water and wastewater distribution systems. The company is involved heavily with earthwork, as well as the development of private arena residential subdivisions and commercial sites.

Austin Engineering vice president of sales John Fenley said they had been considering some type of magnetic apparatus prior to tracking down a Vacuworx lifting unit through the firm’s Komatsu representative — later acquiring their own leased RC Series lifter and carrier equipment and deploying the system in Aransas Pass.

Vacuworx Austin Engineering

“It took them about three to four weeks to ream the hole to the proper size in preparation for pulling the pipe in,” Fenley said. “After Isaacks ran its pilot (bore) and came across with their ream passes they pulled the pipe into position, and we ran a hydrostatic test, and we chlorinated and completed Bac-T testing before cleaning and putting into service.”

“Our concern with handling the (coated steel pipe) was finding a device that would not damage the exterior coating,” Fenley continued.

“We used a Vacuworx RC 10 and Komatsu 360 excavator to unload the trucks and string the pipe on rollers. Our install was to place this line 140 ft below sea level. We had third-party monitoring, all of that. Had there been any damage, we would have had to reapply the coating. It is a time-consuming process.

“This allowed us to use just an excavator, an operator and a vacuum attachment — a reliable mechanism.”

Vacuworx Austin Engineering

Mitigating Damage

The energy infrastructure landscape is comprised of all sorts of pipes. Pipes designed for everything from carrying oil, natural gas and water to mining and drilling, energy exploration, carbon sequestration and HDD applications.

Austin Engineering was responsible for handling 87 pipe joints; nearly all 40-ft DRLs weighing about 3,800 lbs each, to develop an underwater, underground transmission line spanning approximately 3,500 lf ft.

Compatible with an array of different carriers, Vacuworx lifting systems are commonly found working in conjunction with equipment such as cranes, excavators, loaders and skid steers. RC Series lifters feature wireless remote operation and 360-degree rotation at the actuator, allowing for precision handling with less manual inputs and fewer working parts. The units have a lifting capacity that ranges up to 55,000 lbs or customized to handle up to 100,000 lbs.

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“The key component to us with using steel was we wanted to make sure the pipe was protected once it was pulled into the directional drill,” Fenley said. “From a practical standpoint, it worked just fine; the efficiency of having just the excavator and not one or two other men (working with cables and slings) on the ground. Even more important was the safety aspect.”

All Vacuworx lifters and pads are built in line with safety factors expressed by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) BTH-1-2011 and B30.20 standards. A specially formulated pad seal is used in Vacuworx vacuum pads to eliminate metal contact with the material being lifted, reducing the chance for damage. Pad assemblies on RC Series lifters can accommodate pipe diameters starting at 4 in. and up with no limitations on maximum size.

Randy Hayes, Vacuworx vice president of business development, touched on calls for versatile solutions in sectors such as energy and pipeline construction where crossover could be important.

“We see are more calls for diverse, turnkey solutions that are supported, require fewer hands to operate, can be placed into service for various applications or go to work for an entire industry,” he said. “We’re hearing from more material handlers looking to run lean in energy oriented spaces but are unwilling to sacrifice safety, performance, the satisfaction of their customers or overall adaptability.”

Major Channel

The Port of Corpus Christi and South Texas Coastal Bend area has seen more than $55 billion in private industrial investments over the past five years. The channel spans 36 miles — counted among the largest ports, in terms of size and total revenue tonnage, in the United States. The new 20-in. water transmission main represents another improved piece of critical infrastructure — carrying water under the ship channel to the Ferry Landing PS in the City of Port Aransas.

“I am not going to do a permanent install with any concerns with the coating or welds,” Fenley said. “Before we pull (the pipe), we completely test the line including a third-party inspection of all the welds. We also did pre-pull hydrostatic test. So, before we pull, we know it is perfect. Final testing occurs when the pipe is installed under the ship channel, and we test from both the entry and exit sites.”

Todd Razor is the president of Three Razors Media.