Should you use a crane to replace flare tips in petrochemical plants?


During shutdowns or turnarounds on chemical and petrochemical plants, the works to the flare are often regarded as high risk. Both safety as well as project risks are identified. Planning the activities in the flares is done meticulously. It is not surprising that specialist advice is requested.

The flare is often the last system to get out of operation and the first to get online again. The flare tip replacement is, therefore, often regarded as being critical. It is better to be prepared for the worst to make sure the small flare tip influences the success of the shutdown.

In the last two weeks, I have been attending four client meetings relating to the replacement of flare tips at relatively low altitudes. In this article, I will be summarizing his arguments for choosing, or NOT choosing a mechanical handling solution.

The choice

The choice for using flares not exceeding 100 meters at an onshore facility is to use mobile cranes or a mechanical handling option. Nowadays, the choice is made during the EPC phase of the flare and is dictated by the future operator. The operator wants to keep both options available for future replacement requirements.

Why does the operator want to keep the replacement options open?

I am not sure. He might be under the impression that cranes will evaporate from the face of the earth, that somehow the existing cranes cannot be used, or the cranes are too expensive. The operator might want to force the handling method to be part of the CAPEX decision to overcome future operational expenditures.

Before breaking the choice down into its essentials, I will explain the mechanical handling method and the sub choices to be made

Mechanical handling

The process of replacing flare tips using a mechanical handling method is based on small lifting structures. These lifting structures are either permanently installed, removable, or retractable. All of the mechanical handling options have different pros and cons.

The permanently installed system requires the least number of mechanical parts. The system is always exposed to the environment and to the heat of the flare tips.

The removable handling system is stored in warehouse conditions. It can be tested prior to the shutdown and assembled at the flare tip access platform during the shutdown. Conbit shows many examples on their website using davit and gantry type systems.

The retractable system is located below a heat shield, which is typically installed at the flare tip access platform. The system is erected once the shutdown has started.

All systems allow keeping the lifting winch at ground level. The winch will be fixed to a foundation and the winch wire will be reeved to the lifting system at the top.

The permanently installed and the retractable systems are often of the davit type. They are both exposed to weather conditions. The retractable system is less exposed to heat radiation.

All mechanical handling systems will require a load test in their operating condition. If the load test fails, the system needs to be rectified before the actual lift can take place.

As a rule of thumb, all the items installed permanently at the top of a flare tower need to be load tested and provide a risk to your shutdown or turnaround planning. In case the component fails, you will need to conduct corrective maintenance, which is taking place at a very remote location. 

Crane versus mechanical handling method

There are many factors influencing the decision to replace flare tips with either a crane or with a mechanical handling system.

First of all, the elevation and the location of the flare structure are important. For onshore flares below 100 meters, a crane is often available that can reach the flare structure relatively easily.

Secondly, the availability of cranes is not the same in many parts of the world. For a maximum of 100-meter-tall flares, we have noticed that there are always cranes available near chemical and petrochemical sites.

Thirdly, the number of shutdown days should be considered for the selection of the method. If the asset owner is planning long shutdowns, he might consider installing a permanently installed or retractable lifting system. In the event the lifting system fails the inspections, there is sufficient time to rectify it within the duration of the shutdown.

Another reason is of an investment nature. In some projects, the future asset owner will require as much of the costs in its CAPEX investment, rather than having all kinds of operational costs during the lifetime of the asset. In that case, the lifting system will be part of the EPC contract for the construction of the flare.

The last and the most influencing factor is cost effectiveness. The use of mobile cranes is almost always more attractive for flares below the elevation of 100 meters.  

Project approach

When using a crane,  the following are required:

  • A lift plan
  • Solid ground conditions
  • Access to the flange of the flare tip (2 persons)
  • Rigger / signaler at ground level
  • Crane and crane driver


When using a mechanical handling system, the following are required:

  • Extensive engineering
  • Dedicated inspection and test regime
  • Access to the flare tip access platform (3-4 persons)
  • Winch + foundation at ground level
  • Load test before use of lift system
  • The crew of 4-5 persons


To compare duration for both options:

 CraneMechanical handling system
Mobilization2 weeks3 days
Lifting operation in shutdown2 days5-6 days
Demobilization1 week2 days


The duration does not include the engineering and project preparation. For the mechanical handling system, the engineering time is between 4-6 months. The engineering for a crane operation is limited to one week.

We have studied the budget requirements for both alternatives and can share the results of this study with our clients. Please invite us to be part of your internal discussions.

Conclusion

Conbit is working in the field of mechanical handling of flare tips. We have replaced flare tips on different elevations. Over the years, we have found that, for onshore flare tips below 100 meters, a mechanical handling method is almost never the preferred option. Globally, there are suitable cranes near chemical and petrochemical plants available, which are always more cost-effective than a mechanical handling method.


Conbit advise

Conbit has been performing many flare tip replacements. For shorter flares in onshore facilities, they will most likely be advised to rely on mobile cranes because of the following reasons:

  • The cranes are used every day and risks are known.
  • The inspection of the crane is routine work and the owner of the flare does not need to organize.
  • The budget required for the operation is less than with a mechanical handling method.
  • The CAPEX can be reduced because no lifting provisions are required to be installed on the flare structure.
  • No permanent components that are used for lifting are exposed to weather and heat radiation.
  • The engineering and project preparation required very limited.



By Adityo Utomo who is a lifting specialist. He is a trusted advisor to maintenance and inspection managers of chemical and petrochemical facilities. He is one of those young professionals who really want to make a difference for his clients. Adityo is working from the Jakarta sales office to be close to Conbit’s clients in the region.

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