Quala out to revolutionize tank container cleaning

March 30, 2020
New FastTrax system automates processes for faster, safer, more consistent cleans

Jeff Noble and his team were looking for a way to improve upon the traditional tank cleaning process, and somehow find a way to add value for Quala and its customers, while also making an inherently dangerous job safer.

They found it on a trip to Europe—but not by listening to owners or vendors.

It wasn’t until consulting with the everyday operators using tank cleaning equipment and processes previously unseen in North America that company leaders were convinced—here was the investment they were seeking to lead their nationwide network of wash facilities, and the cleaning industry, into the future.

 “We spent a full week going to different operations and talking with their folks, and we were really impressed walking away,” said Noble, Quala’s executive vice president of operations. “The team that I took in was skeptical, because you hear all the pros of the system—and we’re used to a traditional cleaning system—but once we were there, before the end of the first day, we were sold.”

Crossing the pond

Noble says Quala learned of its new Netherlands-based equipment vendor, which has manufactured tank cleaning systems for more than 50 years, through its ongoing expansion efforts. Company leaders began talking, leading to the Europe visit and, eventually, an exclusive agreement to use the vendor’s systems in the United States, where it previously didn’t have a presence.

“What really impressed us over there … was we really liked the fact that the operators didn’t have to go in the tanks,” Noble said. “Because of the consistency of the system and the cleaning performance, there really wasn’t a need to go in the tanks, and for us as a company, as we grow (now 70-plus US locations), we really needed to look at that technology, and reduce the risk for our technicians.”

Quala’s first installation of this new technology, now dubbed FastTrax, was at its Rahway, New Jersey, location, which started turning out clean tank trailers—with cycle times improved by 65% on average—in the first half of 2019, and Quala celebrated its newest FastTrax bays with an open house Nov 13 in La Porte, Texas.

Noble said they launched the service in Rahway and La Porte to alleviate capacity constraints in bustling markets.

Bringing FastTrax to the US is a significant endeavor for Quala. Noble said each system is a seven-figure investment, and the company wants to install FastTrax bays at up to 18 more locations in the next three to four years. But the very real capital expenditure pales in comparison to their investment in safety.

Key benefits of the FastTrax system for technicians include limiting fatigue and operational efficiency. A traditional spinner is raised and lowered manually by pulley. FastTrax spinners are controlled by air-actuated levers. The system’s streamlined functions also mean less overall bending, pulling, lifting, reaching, etc, and because techs can accomplish more work in less time, with less effort, they’re less likely to need to stay late, or finish a job by hand with a brush or scraper.

“Quite honestly, in the places where we have this system, we have guys fighting to run these bays vs their old bays,” Noble said.

FastTrax cleaning systems, which are pre-fabricated in Rotterdam, shipped to the US and assembled on site, have been widely used for many years in Europe, and only are new to the US market by way of Quala. And while they’re widely available elsewhere, only Quala has them here for the next four years.

“We have a long-term partnership with our systems provider,” Noble said. “They’ve proven to be a good partner, and we look to continue to grow, not just domestically but internationally, and they’re well-positioned to help.”

Consistently cleaner, faster

A visit to the four new FastTrax bays in La Porte starts in the ticket office, where customers either email in wash requests or walk in without a reservation, a luxury that wasn’t available with the much longer wait times associated with traditional wash systems, requiring fleets to drop off their equipment. But Quala has plenty of room to accommodate both types of customers after a recent expansion added 8 acres of parking.

After the trailer is checked in, with the proper paperwork and services requested, the information is entered into the FastTrax system, a cleaning plan formulated by staff chemists is selected, and the equipment is scheduled for cleaning.

FastTrax features stainless steel machinery in the bay and adjoining control room, and all pumps and associated systems are driven by PLC (programmable logic controller) software that precisely controls the amounts of cleaning solutions and the timing of processes.

Siemens Simatic HMI panels with digital touch-screen displays in the control room and bays provide easy access to key information, including solution levels, pressures and error messages. If a critical part, like a valve or sensor, malfunctions, an operator can order a new one from the panel.

The La Porte control room also houses a high-velocity ventilation system, two 300-gallon cleaning solution tanks with virgin product—FastTrax is a single-pass system, so no products or water are reused—and a softening system that treats water held in two 6,200-gallon tank containers stacked outside.

Inside the bay is the system’s most important tool—a unique air-actuated spreader unit developed by Quala and its design team that is lowered by lever into the tank, where the unit’s arms extend the length of the trailer, deploying spinners at each end that blast the tank with water and solution at up to 1,450 psi.

“A traditional system is somewhere between 200 to 250 psi and only goes in the center, and you lose pressure when you get farther away,” Noble said.

“With cleaning pressures that are five times higher than traditional systems, and special spinner configurations, we’re able to cover more of the tank interior, including corners around the front and rear heads.”

The control panel in each FastTrax bay visually tracks the system’s progress through every step of the wash, including the initial flush of residual material, high-pressure cleaning, rinsing and drying, and provides real-time alerts that allow operators to address any issues before they’re bigger problems.

When the cleaning and rinse process is complete, the spreader is pulled out of the tank and a blower unit is lowered through the manhole. Traditional blower systems typically reach up to 1,000 cfm and take 15-20 minutes to dry a tank. FastTrax blowers operate at a much higher velocity, which reduces wait time while providing a consistently drier unit.

Because the system is non-recirculating, fresh water and cleaning solutions used in the cleaning process are stored in newly constructed on-site storage tanks.

Versatile cleaning

FastTrax can handle most ISO tank containers and over-the-road chemical containers, and most products, including slurries, which typically are a hard clean for traditional wash systems. However, the most difficult to clean products, like many resins and latexes, still need the right combination of time, heat and cleaning solution best provided in one of four recirculating bays in La Porte, where Quala also does limited dry bulk tank cleaning but does not handle food-grade containers.

In total, the company has more than 17,000 chemicals in its database, with a chemist-written procedure for each one in the system, which automatically pulls up the plan for each wash request typically falling into one of seven categories, including water wash, steam and detergent, or detergent and caustic.

“It’s a new system, so it’s like anything, when you get a new toy or new four-wheeler, or whatever, you see what you can do with it,” Noble said. “So we’ve done that, and taken some of the products we considered incompatible with the system, initially, before we put it in, tried them and had success.

“Quala has pre-determined wash plans, and we can write our own plans, too, so we’ve done that, and we’ve been successful.”

Noble said Quala cleaned nearly 3,000 trailers with FastTrax in the first nine months between Rahway and La Porte. 

Win-win-win

Noble said a key advantage of the FastTrax system for customers is the speed of the wash. Not only does it turn tanks out faster, significantly decreasing downtime, it also enables carriers to keep less equipment on hand, because fewer tanks are sitting idle, waiting for their turn to enter the wash.

“If they’re in this market, or in a market with a FastTrax system, they really don’t need as many assets, meaning trailers, sitting on site,” he said. “In today’s world, because (carriers) can’t hold up their drivers … it’s a necessity to have a pool of trailers. Depending on the amount of business you do within a market, it may be a couple trailers, it may be 20 trailers, and they’re always sitting, so a driver can come in, drop his trailer and move on. 

“With this system, we can typically pull the driver right in … (so he’s) not dropping a trailer.”

And while drivers are waiting, they can relax in a new driver lounge that boasts a big-screen TV with theater-style seating, popcorn machine, pool table, exercise bike, washer/dryer, and his and her showers.

FastTrax also enables Quala to better serve the busy Houston market, without the capacity constraints of relying solely on more time-consuming traditional washes. Now the company is free to develop new relationships with carriers it previously wasn’t able to serve, Noble maintained.

And for operators, it means FastTrax provides a safer clean that’s easier to use, McKinney said. Quala also has two dedicated FastTrax trainers who provide support and training for employees at current and future locations.

“It’s different,” said Henry McKinney, general manager in La Porte. “You have to change the way tank cleaners think about cleaning a tank. You do it for so long a certain way and then you completely change it. But it definitely has aided in our capacity. Washes that may have taken two-plus hours previously are much shorter now, because the technology significantly improved the turnaround time to get our customer’s equipment back on the road.

“But getting used to operating that way is different.”

Most importantly, FastTrax helps improve the technicians’ work environment, which helps makes the job more attractive.

“It’s hard to hire around here, so anything you can do to make it a better job for somebody cleaning a tank, or an easier job with more technology that appeals to younger people coming up, really helps,” said Erik Leto, Quala’s chief operating officer.

Moving forward

Noble said Quala picked its first two FastTrax locations simultaneously, primarily based on where they would make the biggest impact capacity-wise, and up to 18 more sites are planned for the future. It’s currently scouting upcoming locations, bringing out architects and designing facility setups.

“We wish it was as simple as taking a system and sliding it in, but there’s a lot of pre-work before that can happen,” Noble said. “So we’ve got a number of sites (in mind). Right now, the next sites we’re looking at are in Chicago, Cincinnati, potentially Atlanta, and maybe even Oakville, Ontario.”

Quala also is looking to grow its services globally, with the goal of moving into Europe or South America this year, while continuing to develop the FastTrax system company leaders see as an essential investment in Quala’s future success abroad, and at home.

“When you look at the long term, like I do, it’s very important,” Leto said. “We’ve got 70-plus locations, and we probably won’t get them in every location, but as we look at it, this is the way we’ve got to do things in the future. Everything’s about digitization, where we can be very exact on how we do something, and not rely on tribal knowledge.”