Building A New Cylinder Fill Plant

Plan properly and follow these steps.

New FacilityIt is never too early to start the planning process for a new cylinder fill plant. How much space you will need for the fill process and the kind of layout that will be best for your business are critical concerns.

The entire building should be designed first around the fill plant to make sure the fill plant will be as efficient as possible. All other uses of the building, such as warehouse, administration, sales offices, welding demo, etc., should then be worked into the plans. If a store is to be included, the frontage of the store and customer accessibility are important in this planning.

Planning Process Step by Step
The first step of the planning process is to determine accurate numbers regarding the volume of gas to be compressed in the new facility. Current production numbers should be analyzed, where the growth has been, and what kind of increases in sales are anticipated over the next five years. All current and future capabilities of the plant should be looked at. If you are going to add to the operations in a few years, you want to be able to fit that addition in at a later date without making drastic changes.

These numbers determine how many manifolds for each type of filling will be required to meet the daily production rate based upon the number of shifts you plan on operating. This will help determine the size of bulk tanks, the pumps required and their capacity, the size of vaporizers, the number of control panels, the size and number of vacuum pumps, and so on. With this list of equipment, the floor plan can be laid out, which will determine the amount of space needed for the fill plant.

Of course, this is a very simplified version of the planning process, as numerous other issues come into play. For example, distribution—whether or not you have a pallet system, the size of the business, number of branches and the geographical area of coverage all play a role in the decision.

newFacility2An architect should get involved in the process after all the planning is complete. Otherwise, you could spend extra money to have your architect make changes to all of his drawings. Once the architect has the necessary drawings completed, it is time to sit down with the city officials.

This is where the process is no longer in your hands and can become uncontrollable. Every city or township receives and reacts differently to submitted plans. You are dealing with personalities, and the level of understanding of our industry and industrial gases varies greatly. Having a list of reference materials, drawings, specifications and photos that can be given to the local officials, or architect, to help educate them regarding our industry—and your plant in particular—can go a long way toward getting approvals without unnecessary stipulations due to ignorance. Regardless of whether the codes or regulations require the stipulations or not, local officials can still require them as a part of getting approval. Remember, the local authorities have final jurisdiction on what will be or will not be required for your fill plant.

newFacility3Regulatory Authorities
An issue that has made it harder to get permits and occupancy of a building is the new uniform building codes issued in 2003 called the IBC (International Building Code). Although the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) still does not recognize oxygen as a hazardous gas, IBC now includes oxygen in its hazardous categories. (Section 307.5 categorizes oxidizing gas as a high hazard group H-3.) In the past, it was not a requirement to have an oxygen fill room sprinkler system; now it is. The new codes also may limit the amount of space for the oxygen fill room and, if exceeded, require additional fire walls to separate the filling. The set back of the building from property lines or roads is greater. Also, in an emergency, all oxygen feed lines into the building must have emergency shut-down isolation valves to stop the flow.

These new regulations have had a big impact on the process of getting occupancy permits. We had one customer who made the mistake of purchasing an existing building to turn into a fill plant, prior to getting all of the permits. Later, he found out that the city was going to require him to put a firewall right down the middle of the building. This would have restricted the efficient flow of cylinder operations so much that the customer had to abandon his plans for the building. This was a tough lesson to learn.

helpfulTipsAnother customer thought he had all of the approvals for his fill plant and was well on his way to getting the plant completed. Unfortunately, late in the permit process, it was discovered that the property did not have the proper water supply to feed the sprinkler system in the fill plant in case of a fire. The cost to have the utility company come in and install a properly sized water main and fire hydrants ran approximately $250,000. Because the customer was so far along with the fill plant, he had no choice but to spend the money. If this was something that was known up front, it may have changed the decision to use this property for a fill plant. Another consideration is that we live in an age of instant information. Anytime any incident happens at any industrial fill plant around the world, it is immediately on television and the Internet. At a recent township planning committee meeting for a distributor trying to get approval for a new fill plant, a video of a recent plant fire was produced. This had negative effects on the approval process. Other incidents were brought up that had to do with the chemical industry, which in the planning committee’s minds we were all one and the same. There was no good reply that could be made to put a positive spin on the effects of these incidents to calm down concerns.

Other Considerations
Certain gases have greater requirements. If you are considering filling hydrogen or other flammable gases, you probably don’t want to consider filling these gases inside of a building. Because of an H-2 category, this would invoke many other codes and requirements that would drive the cost of the fill room to an expensive proposition. Such items as firewalls, explosion venting, a gas detection system, fire alarms and rated electrical for a hazardous location all come into play.

The IBC in Section 414.1.3 requires that you report the maximum expected quantities of each hazardous material to be stored and the hazard classification group. The methods of protection from such hazards shall be indicated on the report and on the construction documents. This report and opinion should be prepared by a qualified person or firm that is recognized by the city. The person or firm you use to do this report is the key to how your building will be categorized and what the regulations will be for the construction of your building.
Carefully consider all gases you want to include in this report. Don’t start listing toxic and corrosive gases that you may not handle just to have yourself covered. The maximum limits of some of these gases are very low and could lead to further hazardous classifications and thus, requirements that quickly can become very costly.

newFacility4Keep in mind that even if a state has adopted the IBC as its primary building codes, the state may have adopted additional admendments to the codes. Also the IBC will refer to the other uniform codes that apply, such as UMC (Uniform Mechanical Code), UPC (Uniform Plumbing Code), NEC (National Electric Code) and, of course, the IFC (International Fire Code). Each state and locality may have additional regulatory agencies that can have an impact on the permit process. You can’t go into the process with certain expectations of what will be required.

Once you have successfully acquired your permits, you can begin the construction of the building. If you are installing the fill plant equipment yourself, don’t be surprised at the cost of the materials to do so. The costs of piping and components have shot up just like bulk tanks and anything affected by metal prices. Pay special attention to the electrical contractor doing the wiring installation for the fill plant equipment. Do yourself a favor and hire an electrical contractor with industrial process control experience. Don’t just use the general contractor’s electrician; they typically just do commercial wiring.

It’s Not Over Till It’s Over
Finally, you reach the point of completion and are ready to have the city officials perform their inspection in order to get an occupancy permit for the building. They can still come up with new demands during the inspection, knowing that once they issue the permit they lose that control. Remember, until they issue you the occupancy permit, they literally control the situation.

While this may all seem overwhelming, it doesn’t have to be. Take the right measures and you will be in the best possible position to successfully build your fill plant. 

Gases and Welding Distributors Association
Don Renner Meet the Author
Don Renner is sales manager at Weldcoa, headquartered in Aurora, Illinois, and on the Web at