T.G. Mercer’s Old Fashioned Know-How, Newfangled Technology
By Bradley Kramer
If there’s no pipe, there’s no pipeline. That’s a simple enough rule. In actuality, though, getting the pipe to the jobsite is a logistical balancing act that requires the prediction of many variables that you might want to ask Nostradamus for a hint or two.
Companies that specialize in pipe transportation and stringing must provide their customers with up-to-date information to ensure contractors have the product on hand, where and when it’s needed. T.G. Mercer has been doing that since 1910, when the company hauled pipe to the East Texas oil fields with teams of mules. Based in Aledo, Texas, T.G. Mercer is a fourth generation family business that was started by Thomas Mercer. At one time, the company owned 1,000 head of mules. Now, the work is done by truck and rail — with a little help from technology.
T.G. Mercer operates primarily in the lower 48 states, but has worked for clients in Alaska, as well. The company moved all the pipe used in the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, along with much of the pipe used in the first phase of the Keystone Pipeline. Throughout the company’s 103 years of existence, it has overcome the challenges of weather, terrain, traffic, routing and other coordination hurdles to deliver pipe to the right-of-way. That means T.G. Mercer must keep tabs on where the pipe is at all times, from the time it leaves the mill to the time it’s laid in the ground.
Keeping track of pipe isn’t just a good idea for a company like T.G. Mercer, it’s become a matter of law. According to the 2011 Pipeline Safety Act, the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) requires pipeline owners to verify the location and safety of their systems. As a result of the San Bruno, Calif., incident, the government wants companies to know where the pipe is and where it was manufactured in case of a problem, according to Mack Mercer, vice-president of marketing for T.G. Mercer and great grandson of the company’s founder.
To help companies meet the needs of the Pipeline Safety Act, T.G. Mercer has developed a pipe tracking system, called SpreadBoss, which tracks the product using a barcode applied to the pipe wall. Each pipe joint has a unique number that can’t be duplicated. The information is loaded into a software program and can monitor where the pipe is and stores a detailed history of the joint, all the way back to the steel coil it came from when it was manufactured.
In addition to providing the pipeline owner with this valuable information, SpreadBoss also helps streamline T.G. Mercer’s operations, according to Bruce Munro, the company’s vice president of operations. The system improves efficiency.
“As the pipe is unloaded off the rail car, when we scan the barcode, we know exactly where it came off the car, the hour it came off, what’s in the stockpile and what needs to go to the right-of-way,” Munro says. “The SpreadBoss allows us to print that information so we know what pipe went out. Surveyors can then use that information in their as-built plans and know exactly where that joint is for GPS purposes.”
SpreadBoss gives the energy companies a portal where they can go into the system to see the pipe, where it is, where it came from and such information as the type of coatings used. As Munro says, “It gives them that traceability.”
T.G. Mercer began developing SpreadBoss four years ago and has since field-tested it on several projects before officially rolling it out about nine months ago, Mercer says. The system is comprised of military-grade hardware, a proprietary software program and barcodes developed in concert with 3M Corp. that are rugged enough to survive in the “heat of southern Louisiana and the cold of Colorado.”
“We saw need,” Mercer says. “Our clients were asking us for this information we use when hauling pipe. It wasn’t our job to track every piece of pipe, but they couldn’t get information on their pipe without an extensive phone tree, followed by a guy physically going to the site and then relaying the info back the way the request came — a process that could take two days.”
SpreadBoss incorporates barcodes that can be scanned to track the entire history of a pipe joint, from the coil from which it was milled to its location in the ground.
In the past, once the pipe departed the mill on a rail car, it could get lost or go to the wrong area. SpreadBoss changes that. In the course of tracing the pipe, the system becomes an inventory control tool. The pipeline owner can search for a particular piece of pipe and check whether it has been used. To avoid wasting materials, owners can take excess or surplus pipe and decide whether to move the pipe to another project where it’s needed or try to sell it.
T.G. Mercer provides SpreadBoss as another layer of service to its clients, Mercer says. The system can be tailored to an individual customer.
“It complements our logistics,” Mercer says. “When we get involved in a project, we provide consulting. Whether the project requires us to move pipe by barge, rail or truck, we provide an analysis. We look at the rail spurs, whether we’ll have lease infrastructure, we vet it from a safety standpoint and we build infrastructure if we need to. And now we can even track the pipe when necessary. It’s another menu of service and provides a wider range of service for the client.”
The automated system eliminates the need for inspectors to write down the information gathered by SpreadBoss, which in turn reduces human error.
Providing access to all of the data about a particular piece of pipe is valuable service to T.G. Mercer’s clients, but SpreadBoss also helps the company fulfill customer expectations related to the primary service of transporting and stringing pipe.
“Customers expect us, if the pipe is going by rail, to monitor railcars and make sure everything is moving as it should,” Munro explains. “When the pipe gets to the rail spur of the stock yard, we inspect the pipe for damage and circle any marks or scratches. … We maintain an inventory for them. The inventory includes what came in, what is considered prime pipe and what goes back out to the right-of-way.”
Managing pipe inventory is a crucial component to a successful pipeline project.
“A majority of energy companies won’t let contractors start working until a certain percentage of pipe is on the ground,” Munro says. “That way there are no back charges for down time from the contractor. Several different issues are major concerns to an energy company: traceability, the quality of pipe coming in and going out, and the timely issue of getting pipe to the right-of-way.”
In the process, T.G. Mercer must provide a chain of custody from the pipe mill to the pipe yard and eventually to the as-built designs, tracking coil number, heat number and joint number of the pipe. These numbers are unique identifiers for pipe when it comes from the pipe mill and are important in ensuring pipeline integrity.
“That’s how the pipe is kept track of,” Munro explains. “Ten years from now, if a joint from a certain coil goes bad, then the energy company needs to know where every joint from that coil is in that line, because it needs to be inspected. Those numbers are like the VIN number on an automobile. It’s how everybody keeps track of it.”
Expecting the Worst
Pipe isn’t the only thing T.G. Mercer has to keep track of when transporting it to a jobsite. The company also has to monitor a host of challenges and obstacles that could affect delivery times.
If the company is working in Colorado in the middle of winter, it has to contend with snow and ice. In the Gulf of Mexico, it could be hurricanes and other nasty storms. In other parts of the country, it could be flooding. Bad weather can wash out railroad lines, make roads impassable or thwart river traffic. All these factors could throw a monkey wrench into carefully planned logistics and require rerouting or other measures. So, what to do?
“We watch the weather 24 hours a day,” Munro says. “We have various websites, apps and other sources of information. It’s more than just the National Weather Service. We watch the weather constantly and deal with it the best we can. We have pretty sophisticated software that we can track storms, if there’s lightning, where the lightning is and rainfall per inch, per hour. We monitor all that information constantly.”
Despite constant monitoring of the weather, it still can be unpredictable. Munro says they deal with each circumstance as it comes.
T.G. Mercer employees help pipeline owners manage their inventory with sophisticated software to monitor the location and timing of a delivery.
“We try to gather as much information as we can gather, from everywhere you can gather it and try to figure out what will work best to get the pipe to the pipe yard,” Munro says. “It’s case by case, hour by hour and job by job.”
In addition to affecting the mode of transportation, weather also affects the pipe yard and project right-of-way.
If a hurricane comes through a pipe yard in Baton Rouge, La., T.G. Mercer may have to haul out its equipment or build earthen walls to protect its assets. The same can happen during spring thaw in colder climates. For this reason, most pipe yards are designed for all weather.
“When we go in to build a yard, we take all that into consideration so that we’re not trying to jump through hoops when bad weather happens,” Munro says. “We try to estimate what is the worst-case scenario and prepare ahead of time.”
“We try to gather as much information as we can gather, from everywhere you can gather it and try to figure out what will work best to get the pipe to the pipe yard. It’s case by case, hour by hour and job by job.”
—Bruce Munro, T.G. Mercer’s
vice president of operations
If bad weather hits a pipeline project right-of-way, it could be shut down because of too much moisture, which can slow down production, damage pipe and impede trucks from entering.
On top of hauling pipe and tracking its every stop along the way, through any logistical challenge, T.G. Mercer serves one other duty to the pipeline industry — good corporate citizenship.
“We’re representing the energy company,” Munro says. “That pipeline right-of-way will be there forever. The energy company will constantly have people on the right-of-way for maintenance long after the pipeline is built. We can’t do anything to jeopardize the relationship between the landowner and the company. When we leave, we want the landowner to say, ‘Hey, they’re all right. Our concerns became their concerns. They answered concerns in the way we wanted them answered.’”
For every project, Munro says, representatives from T.G. Mercer visit the jobsite to study the terrain and talk to the landowners and townspeople about their needs. That means following the rules, whether it’s a posted speed limit or personal request from a farmer.
“You can’t just do something and beg for forgiveness later,” Munro says. “That doesn’t work very well. We’re very strict on how our truck drivers drive and how they treat others on the highway.”
He says that T.G. Mercer doesn’t stand for bad driver behaviors, such as littering, laying on the horn, flashing headlights or riding other drivers’ bumpers.
“There’s a lot more to moving pipe than just going from Point A to B,” Munro says. With historic experience in the business and futuristic tools at the ready, T.G. Mercer provides that something more.
Bradley Kramer is the associate editor of North American Oil & Gas
Pipelines. Contact him at email@example.com.