Corrosion challenges facing utility companies

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By Wes Fawaz, Executive Officer, Australasian Corrosion Association (ACA)

My organisation often reports that the continuing challenge for utility companies is the management, mitigation and remediation of the corrosion of their assets. This is both costly and inconvenient to the companies themselves, their customers and, in many cases, the general public. During discussions with members of the ACA, I have learnt that there are common concerns for those rising to meet this challenge.

Many – like the effects on structures in aggressive, marine environments – have been known and studied for decades. Some, though, are surprising. Stray electrical current that leaks from the power systems of trains and industrial facilities can have an effect on other structures, such as buried pipelines, that are nowhere near to the source. There is also much research being carried out into the impact of bacteriological corrosion on materials; marine wharves submerged in shallow, often stagnant water or the ‘blue green water’ effect in copper piping.

Another area being extensively researched is the effects of hidden corrosion that occurs behind the insulating cladding of commercial buildings. Urban sprawl and the concentration of infrastructure in cities – both large and small – are also being studied. The latter two can interfere in a variety of ways with corrosion management and asset maintenance; not only the risk of construction work damaging existing buried services of all kinds, but also restriction of physical access to sites for maintenance work.

Much of the equipment and infrastructure owned and operated by utility companies is in these environments, in addition to some also being in remote and isolated locations. Monitoring and maintaining all this is an expensive exercise.

One challenge that is mentioned frequently is the need to have an asset management plan. Today, the utility industry has the capability to thoroughly assess the corrosion degradation of structures, such as pylons and pipelines, and implement an effective remediation and maintenance solution based upon detailed assessment of the cause and extent of the deterioration; it is no longer good enough to simply say “That looks to be OK; I can’t see any rust” and hope for the best.

Fortunately, experienced practitioners tell me that asset owners are today much more willing to build corrosion protection and management into a project at the design stage. Proactive management is becoming the norm for nearly all infrastructure and major construction projects.

Being unaware of the current condition of infrastructure may lead to the premature failure of the asset, leaving limited options to the asset owner with replacement being the most expensive option. Unforeseen failure of an asset provides major consequences that constitute a risk to business operations or potential loss to the organisation. It is therefore crucial to determine the remaining lifecycle of an asset and the capability of it to meet the designed performance and level of service requirements. This can be done by means of a thorough asset condition assessment and corrosion audit. Once this is completed we can then proceed to produce a complete maintenance program for the lifecycle of the structures.

The ACA has an ongoing program of technical seminars and training courses teaching effective and efficient management of corrosion. Knowledge and understanding of the latest corrosion technologies and processes is a key factor in managing the threat that corrosion poses.

I am proud to say that one of the key ACA events that facilitates the exchange of ideas and experience of the many hundreds of people working to manage corrosion is the annual Corrosion and Prevention conference and trade exhibition, that in 2017 will be held in Sydney.

Since its inception in the 1950s, this annual event has been the preeminent forum for all those working in the field.

Helping corrosion practitioners to achieve their goals is the implementation of the technological advances taking place in the areas of remote sensing, monitoring and control. The latest wireless data loggers allow real-time adjustments of parameters to equipment so that physical visits by technicians can be minimised. Similarly, drone technology today allows direct viewing of remote structures such as pipelines and transmission towers from a safe and secure location.

It has been estimated that the cost of corrosion each year is billions of dollars for organisations and governments around the world. There are continuing challenges facing utility industries, but by ongoing collaboration in research between practitioners and the ACA, as well as discussions and knowledge exchange at events such as Corrosion and Prevention 2017, we can all strive to improve the management of, and minimise the impact and cost of corrosion.

For more information or to register for Corrosion and Prevention 2017, please visit https://conference.corrosion.com.au/.

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