Container In Halle

Groninger delivers its tank wash technology to North America

April 5, 2021
Already widespread internationally, Rotterdam-based supplier's automated systems boast faster, more consistent cleans

Many tank wash operators have a hard time wrapping their heads around what Garth Belue is telling them.

He can empathize. It was confounding for him, too.

A system exists that can clean tanks more thoroughly, consistently and efficiently than previously thought possible in the United States, while also saving users money and taking half the time of a standard clean?

The pitch certainly seems far-fetched. Still, he insists, utilizing Groninger Cleaning Systems’ transformative tank cleaning technology, it’s true.

“It’s going to catch on,” Belue said. “I’m not worried about that at all, because the proof’s in the pudding. Tanks are being cleaned better, and more efficiently, and the OPEX (operating expense) is lower, so everything’s a winner.

“It’s more just changing the mindset of the industry to stop looking at recirculation and look at one pass. That’s the biggest hurdle to overcome.”

When words won’t suffice, a parking-lot demonstration typically does the trick.

Quala, North America’s largest independent tank wash operator, was the first U.S.-based company to adopt the technology for its FastTrax bays in La Porte, Texas, and Rahway, New Jersey, with more coming soon; and Belue said he is close to announcing two new deals with major players in the bulk transportation industry after tirelessly working the phones during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Everybody’s been impressed,” he said.

“Our biggest customer so far has cleaned more than 10,000 tanks without a single rejection.”

Sinner’s Circle

Belue, a Houston native, has a background in tank equipment. He was president and CEO of parts manufacturer Pelican Worldwide, where he spent 16 years, until 2015; and founded Tank Parts Direct the same year.

He embarked on a joint venture between himself and Rotterdam, Netherlands-based Groninger in 2018 after traveling overseas to meet with industry associates, then touring several Groninger-equipped facilities in Europe—and learning more about tank cleaning from a guy in a bay than he’d absorbed in nearly 20 years back home.

Most informatively, he learned about Sinner’s Circle.

The concept, which is at the heart of Groninger’s approach to tank cleaning, was created by Dr. Herbert Sinner in 1959, when the noted chemical engineer was the head of detergent development for German chemical manufacturer Henkel. It defines the four universal factors that determine the success of any wash cycle: Time, action (in this case, the cleaning coverage and pressures delivered by Groninger’s spreaders and spinners), chemistry and temperature, or TACT for short.

According to Sinner’s Circle, any product can be cleaned off any surface with the right combination of those ingredients.

“That really amazed me,” Belue said. “Basically, if you have a certain product that needs to be cleaned, that’s really aggressive, you can use more chemistry (i.e., detergent) or more pressure. Or if you have lighter stuff, you can use less chemistry. So it’s all relative to the product that you’ve got to clean.”

Superior system

Groninger’s high-pressure, low-volume system combines innovations in engineering and automation that make Sinner’s cleaning concept a repeatable and cost-effective reality for tank wash operators.

Plunger pumps and electric motors with variable frequency drives (VFDs) enable premium Groninger spinners to achieve multiple cleaning pressures, which, depending on the size of the pump, range from 40 pounds per square inch (psi) all the way up to 18,000 psi—an ultra-high pressure rarely required by the average tank wash, outside of cleaning isocyanides that must be hydro-blasted off a surface.

The standard operating range for U.S. tank washes today is 75 to 200 psi.

“We have the option of running 11K- up to 18K-psi equipment, but in our experience most tank washes are perfectly serviced with a 1,500 to 3,000 range,” said project manager Robert Vijlbrief. “We use VFD-controlled motors so we can vary pressures very accurately. If you have a lime trailer, we can accommodate that, so you don’t have only have one type of tank you can use it on.”

Higher pressures allow Groninger’s systems to consume less water to achieve an effective clean. Vijlbrief, who relocated here from the Netherlands in 2019 to help grow the brand in the United States—Groninger boasts more than 300 systems spread across five continents—estimates the average pump moves 200 gallons per minute at 200 psi. “Our baseline would be 1,500 psi, and for a tank trailer we find that 52 gallons a minute gives us a good result in a short amount of time,” he said. “And for ISO containers, that drops down to 26 gallons a minute, because there’s less surface, so we don’t need all that water. That produces a significant water savings for our customers.”

One spinner is sufficient for an ISO tank. To clean tank trailers effectively, Groninger systems use patent-pending “spreaders” with two spinner arms that extend toward the head on each end, allowing them to clean the entire interior surface without flooding the tank, for further water savings.

“It drops in through the center manhole and, in essence, divides the tank in half,” Belue said. “So it takes a 44-foot DOT 407 trailer and cuts it into two 22-foot tanks, and you have a spinner right in the middle of each half. So if one spinner can clean an ISO tank really well, at 20 feet, with an 8-foot diameter, imagine what it can do with a 22-foot-long half, with only a 4- or 5-foot diameter.”

Programmable logic controllers (PLCs), which are industrialized digital computers, tie the system together, making it user friendly and ensuring consistent cleans by operators in multiple locations. “The way we control the installation is what makes it unique,” Vijlbrief said. “We have a high level of repeatability with this setup. With our controls and design, you can get the same result you achieved five years ago today. So you know once you plug a process in, it’s going to happen the way you want it to happen every time. The PLC, the brains of the system, is a gamechanger in the industry.”

Utilizing telemetry from equipment sensors, the PLC automates wash processes and monitors critical inputs, like temperature, pressure and flow. Readings are collected in the system’s “brain,” converted into relevant data and outputted as visual cues on a digital touchscreen that displays any errors or product shortages—and gives operators the best chance of doing their job correctly.

“Sensors don’t go to sleep, and they don’t take a break,” Vijlbrief said. “They watch the system and let you know what’s going on.”

Groninger systems also feature high-volume blowers with steam heat exchangers that enable them to produce ambient or heated air. As with switching a hair dryer from cool to hot, warmer air dries tanks faster. Larger motors also allow operators to control up to six blowers with one motor, with air flow regulated by PLC-controlled valves, ensuring air only is flowing where it’s needed.

Vijlbrief said Groninger blowers dry most tanks in 5-10 minutes, compared to 20 minutes with conventional systems.

“This might be the single biggest payback in the industry,” Belue insisted. “They just haven’t caught on yet. Let’s say the average depot has four bays that they’re cleaning out of, if they’ll just go spend $100,000, and install the system in those bays, they will gain 10 minutes a clean, times probably, on average, 50 tanks a day. That’s 500 minutes a day. That adds up to eight more tanks cleaned a day, times $200 for each clean—that’s $1,600 a day in additional revenue.

“At those margins, it’s a six-month payback. It’s a no-brainer.”

Irreproachable results

Total cleaning time with Groninger’s system is more eye-opening—and harder for the average U.S. tank wash operator, who Belue says is accustomed to waiting up to two hours for completion, to believe. “We always say that, on average, a tank should be in and out of the bay in 45 minutes,” Vijlbrief contended.

The most common refrain from stateside skeptics is those times must have been achieved cleaning different products than tank wash operators see here. Belue insists that’s simply not the case. “The same nasty lube oil additive that’s cleaned here is cleaned in Rotterdam and Moerdijk,” he said.

“We see the same products all over the world.”

Still, Belue says he sees the same biases in many U.S. operators, who must overcome prior learning to adopt the new, non-recirculating method he’s selling. “For the last 30 or 40 years in the United States, it’s been recirculation, vat systems, low pressure and high volume,” he said. “So they have two or three different vats, with several predefined cleaning chemistries, and hot water. And depending on what they’re cleaning, they pump that into the spinner head at low pressure, roughly 200 psi, and then recirculate. So they keep cleaning the tank with the same water that’s been chemically treated, and keep recirculating it in a closed loop to clean these tanks.”

Groninger systems use only fresh water. Combined with high-pressure impingement, they frequently reveal “spider webs” of like-new surface in tanks customers only thought were clean before. And a more thorough wash reduces the need to enter the tank for final cleanup, promoting safety. “There might still be really old stuff caked on, that’s going to take two or three times through the cleaning cycle to get, but that tank is truly being cleaned, really for the first time,” Belue said.

Belue’s team supports customers with remote monitoring. Using a display in the Houston office, they can see what an employee sees in the bay, including run time, starts and stops, and error messages; and track pump performance, oil consumption, and more. And Groninger’s Service Beyond Cleaning program provides routine maintenance for a monthly fee, which includes remote problem-solving and one full day a month with a tech on site for “predictive” maintenance.

“I can go back several months in the log, and see errors that occurred or in what instances something happened; and I can see which spinner is being used, what pressure is it running at, and what frequency the pump is using,” Vijlbrief said. “All those tools allow me to help people remotely if they have an issue.”

Users also can order parts on the system’s touchscreen. Groninger stocks most high-wear components at its full-service Houston warehousing and manufacturing location, and often can send parts out the same day. “Or let’s say a sensor fails, and the system won’t run,” Vijlbrief said. “With our maintenance access, we can temporarily bridge that sensor so operations can continue, and then send out a new sensor.”

Catching up

With PLC automation and remote access—and regular maintenance—Groninger’s plug-and-play systems will run up to 25 years. “We’ve seen this in Europe, where we’re getting into a round of modernizations for clients who’ve had our systems in their facilities for 20 to 25 years, and now they’re starting to update them, just because technology changes and improves over time,” Vijlbrief said.

Now that they’ve had time to rethink processes during the pandemic, U.S. tank wash operators are coming around, too. Belue said his 2021 order book almost is full. He’s set to install a system for a tank container operator with a Houston facility; and he has finalized a deal with a bulk carrier that runs one of North America’s largest third-party tank cleaning businesses. Their first install begins in April.

A typical job takes 10-20 weeks, from conception, to design and delivery; and installs, performed by three Groninger technicians and a project manager, usually take three to four weeks to complete.

Belue’s goal is to capture 10% of the North American market within the next 10 years, which, with upward of 500 wash racks on the continent, would equate to 40-50 facilities with Groninger systems—and transform tank cleaning here into the “drive-through” affair already enjoyed in Europe.

“Today, carriers are saying, ‘If we’re going to clean our tanks with you, we’ve got to be able to store 100 tanks at your facility,’” Belue said. “With drive-through technology, the driver is in and out in 30 minutes, and on to his next load and making money … and the cleaning can be priced accordingly. With this kind of thinking, a typical fleet that might have 500 trailers in the region now can operate and be equally effective with 350 trailers. That’s $100,000 times 150 trailers in savings.”