Should You Install Automated Valves Along Your Pipeline?

In a recent interview about pipeline safety, senior health and safety advisor Dale Gross recommended installing remote-actuated valves because they can be controlled from a central location, rather than requiring a technician to drive out and adjust them. This allows operators to respond much faster in case of an incident.

The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) recommends that pipeline operators with pipelines in high-consequence areas (i.e., highly populated and environmentally sensitive) consider installing automated valves. An automated valve is any valve that can be controlled without a person physically at the valve location. That includes remote-actuated valves, which an operator controls from a central control room, as well as automatic-shutoff valves, which are controlled by an automated control system without requiring human intervention.

In 2013, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) conducted a study that looked at the advantages and disadvantages of automated valves and how operators were determining which valves to use. Let’s look at what they found.

Advantages and disadvantages of automated valves

The main advantage of automated valves is clear. As the GAO puts it, “The primary advantage of installing automated valves is that operators can respond quickly to isolate the affected pipeline segment and reduce the amount of product released.” Most fatalities and damage occur within the first few minutes after a pipeline rupture, so a fast response is the best way to limit the subsequent human and environmental impact of an incident.

Automated valves also have some disadvantages, namely:

  • The potential for accidental closures, which can result in loss of service or even cause a pipeline rupture, and
  • Monetary costs, which include equipment, installation, maintenance, and training.

Are automated valves right for you?

There is no blanket answer to this question. Whether the advantages outweighs the disadvantages, or vice versa, needs to be decided on a case-by-case basis. Here are some factors to consider:

  • Valve location
  • Existing shutdown capabilities
  • Proximity of personnel to the valve location
  • Likelihood of an ignition
  • Type of product being transported
  • Operating pressure
  • Topography
  • Pipeline diameter

For example, if a valve is in an area where human operators are permanently stationed, automation likely won’t provide a significant reduction in incident response time. Automated valves can, however, reduce fatalities and injuries when a rupture occurs in areas that can’t be easily evacuated.

The GAO interviewed eight pipeline operators about how they decide whether to install automated valves. The survey revealed a number of different approaches:

  • One installed automatic-shutoff valves across the entire pipeline system so that control room staff would not need to make judgment calls.
  • Two used a decision tree analysis to determine whether automated valves would improve response time to less than an hour in highly populated areas.
  • Others used computer modeling software to determine whether installing an automated valve would significantly reduce how much product would be released if an incident occurred.

Ultimately, what type of valve is right for you depends on the specifics of your pipeline. For industry guidance and other resources, visit the PHMSA website. To learn more about the available valve options, contact us.

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