Let me tell you a bit about a particularly odorous petroleum product called condensate. Consider a large pail that contains one hundred rotten, putrid eggs then add about two pounds of stale, mashed garlic; mix it thoroughly, pour it on the floor of a four metre by four metre room, put a chair in the middle, close the door and sit on the chair. Now, take in that odour. Got it? Good. Now, let me tell you a story.
Back in my formative years as a young engineer, I worked for a small consulting company that provided design and construction services for various small oil companies in western Canada. My role in the company was to design, instal, and commission electrical and instrumentation systems. From time to time, I helped others in the company to perform various tasks in the office and the field.
One winter, I was on a day trip doing some maintenance and troubleshooting of a control system problem, at a remote liquids metering station north of Edmonton. I had been driven there by one of the older, experienced technicians in our company, one for whom I had great respect.
When he dropped me off at the station with my test equipment he asked, “How long do you think you’ll be, Jack?”
“Oh, about two hours should do it, Dave. What’s up?”
“I’ve got to replace a small pressure gauge on the condensate line and I could use your help. First I have to go and talk to operations and make sure the line is shut down before we remove the old gauge.”
“OK. I can help you with that. I’ll see you in a couple of hours.”
Dave thanked me, then drove off to talk to the operations people at another site.
The temperature outside was below freezing, although I didn’t feel very cold. There was snow on the ground, and with the brilliant sun the countryside looked like a Christmas card scene. The equipment I was tending to was completely indoors at the station, so I took off my coat and dirty boots, and got to work.
I finished making the changes to the equipment, tested the result and phoned the central operator to let him know everything was running well again. We did a little testing while he was online and he was happy with the results. I then set about cleaning up and getting ready to leave.
Dave took longer than I expected to return, but he finally arrived.
“All set Jack?” he shouted from the car.
“Yep. Ready to leave any time you are.”
We were not in a terrible rush, because the company airplane was not going to pick us up for another three or four hours. Still, we wanted to be finished our work in time to get a supper at the restaurant near the air strip.
Dave drove along the pipeline which angled away from the main station road and off into the backwoods. We arrived at a junction where a smaller line connected into the mainline. This was a pipeline transporting petroleum condensate from a small gas separating plant to the pipeline company so it could be used as an interface between different products that were shipped down the pipeline.
Dave said the line had been shut down, that is to say the pumps were stopped. Sure enough, the pressure gauge indicated zero pressure in the line. It is about at this point that my engineering mind switched off and I was only focussed on helping Dave get the task done so we could get off for supper.
Condensate is volatile, so we had to be careful to ensure we had no metals touching each other that could produce a spark. That done, we proceeded to unthread the existing pressure gauge which had been installed on the cheap, without an isolation valve. As we got to the last few threads, condensate started leaking out of the joint, which seemed like normal drainage However, the next moment the gauge came off and condensate spewed out at all angles, covering us from head to toe. Dave quickly tried to push the new valve on and tighten it, but the pressure from the outpouring condensate made it almost impossible to see what he was doing and the new gauge fitting didn’t seem to be the right thread.
“Quick,” Dave said. “Give me the old gauge and I’ll stick it back on to stop this mess.”
I looked around to see where he had thrown it, couldn’t see it immediately, but then I spotted in about ten feet behind him. I grabbed that and helped him to push it up to the joint on the main pipe, push it into place and then he screwed it back on. The spillage stopped, but the damage was done. Dave and I were covered in condensate and had taken on that stink that I described at the start of this story.
After we had both uttered about every swear word we knew, Dave said, “We’ve got to get these clothes off and wipe ourselves down to get as much of this stuff off our bodies as possible. Let’s use some snow and the water out of the drinking barrel in the metering building.” We went into the building, took off as many clothes as we could and washed ourselves down with the freezing snow and the cold drinking water. That was an experience in itself.
Dave then had an idea. “I know, I’ve got a change of clothes in my car and you don’t have any. I’ll change, then take our clothes into town and throw them in the washing machine at the coin laundry, then bring them back here. You wait in the metering building. At least it is a bit warm in there. He got me a couple of magazines out of his car and then left, leaving me huddled in the warmest corner I could find, wearing only my underwear briefs. I wasn’t concerned as this was one of the most out of the way metering stations on the pipeline; besides, I hadn’t seen anyone in all the time I’d been there.
After about and hour and a half, I started wondering what Dave had gotten up to. Did he have a breakdown? Couldn’t he get into the laundry? Given what had happened so far, I started to think the worst, such as having to try to get hold of someone to come and pick me up. How would I introduce myself as I walked out of the meter station? The shock of that probably would have been enough to cause the person to immediately turn around and drive off without me.
I heard a vehicle driving up outside and felt some relief thinking that Dave was back. However, when the door opened, in walked two burly men from the pipeline company who had come to read the meters. We looked at each other across the floor, I nodded, and they said nothing. They just stared at me for a bit then went about their work, leaving soon afterward. I didn’t even try to explain myself and my condition. Who would have believed it?
Finally, about two and half hours after they left, Dave was back, washed clothes in hand.
“I couldn’t get all of the smell out of them, Jack, but I got the chemical out so at least your skin won’t be irritated.”
“Dave, do we still have time for supper before the plane arrives? I’m starving.”
“Oh yeah. Lots of time. That is one of the reasons I’m a bit late, I telephoned the pilot and he told me he is a bit delayed. We’ll have time for a good meal.”
We drove back to the nearby town and into the one and only restaurant in the place. We settled on stools at the counter and ordered our meal.
After about fifteen minutes I noticed a lot of activity in front of the grill where the cook was working. Also, people were quickly moving in and out of the back food preparation area. I was concentrating on the newspaper I was reading, so I didn’t pay much attention.
Our food came, and Dave and I ate, chatting about the day and other work planned for later in the week. We both wanted some desert and tried, without much luck, to get the attention of the server behind the counter. He finally attended to us and as he put down the desert menu he turned to another server and said, “I can still smell it. It seems to be getting stronger.”
The other person responded, “But I’ve checked every appliance and all the burners are either in use or shutdown. We must have gas leak somewhere in the piping. I wonder why?”
Dave and I looked at each other, trying to mask our anxiety. He whispered, “I think it is us they’re smelling. Let’s get the hell out of here before they shut the place down.” We paid up, left a good tip and went out to our car to sit and wile away an hour or so waiting for the airplane to arrive. We couldn’t contain ourselves as we watched people running around inside the restaurant. We got into a laughing jag that we couldn’t stop. By the time the plane arrived my sides were sore.
Meeting the pilot and getting in the small plane was another awkward moment. When the pilot closed the door he exclaimed, “Good grief you guys, what the heck is that stink coming off of you?”
We explained what happened. He then opened every vent that he could and we flew home at a lower altitude so we didn’t get too cold.
As soon as I got home I put all my clothes in a couple of plastic bags and took them out to a dumpster behind the apartment I was living in. I went and bought some strong deodorant soap and washed myself down in the shower for a good half hour. Regardless, it took about three days and about five showers to get to a point where I couldn’t smell the condensate any more.
What Happened - an Engineering View
Even though the gauge read zero, the low pressure created by the height of the condensate in the pipe plus the slight elevation gain upstream was enough to shoot out a stream of it through the small fitting for the gauge. If we had thought for a minute we also would have realised that the scale on the gauge was for a high pressure, so 15 or so pound of pressure would have looked like zero on the gauge. If I had kept my engineering sense about me before we took the gauge off, I could have saved us the mess we got into. In my many years of design after that, I never had a pressure gauge installation done without having an isolating valve on the pipe tap for the gauge.
We never told anyone about our misadventure that day, but I’m sure those guys who came across me huddled in the corner in the meter station wearing only my underwear had a few stories to tell their friends in the bar and, when they got home, their families, about the ‘crazy’ nude guy in the meter station. Thank goodness none of them knew my name.