Technical Advances Can Turn Utility Costs Into Savings

From steam generation to compressors to motor drives, inefficiencies in plant utilities can drive up costs and sap profitability. Technology that flips the equation can introduce needed change.

By Kevin T. Higgins, Managing Editor

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ProPress describes fittings for copper tubing and stainless steel, with MegaPress the brand name for carbon steel, explains Derek Bower, new products director for Viega LLC (, Wichita, Kan. Branding aside, the correct O ring to seal fittings and joints is important. Some O rings can withstand pressures up to 200 psi, others are appropriate for temperatures of 200°, but no single sealing element is appropriate for multiple applications.

Five-plus years of proven performance is demanded by most contractors before they will consider specifying a new product, Bower says. While Viega’s German technology has been available in North America longer than that, plant owners often are reluctant to shift from what’s working to what’s new. The exception is craft brewers. “They seem to be very open-minded and exploratory,” he says.

Rhett Keisler, co-owner of Revolver Brewing in Granbury, Texas, took a DIY approach when installing copper lines to carry glycol to cool beer fermenting in nine new 240-barrel vessels. Using a jaw-equipped power tool that resembles a drill, in-house maintenance workers were able to complete the installation in half the time soldering would have taken. “They gave us a solution that was quick, easy and affordable,” Keisler says, “and being able to do it right and by ourselves is great.”

When a valve began to leak, the brewery’s maintenance workers were able to swap it out under full pressure.

MRO experiences like that are a key to building trust for pressed-in fittings, Bower observes. “Once plant personnel start using it for repairs, they see how quick and easy it is.” The technology has limitations — it wouldn’t work for dairy sanitary valves that need to be cleaned and opened for visual inspection, for example — but he believes it has wide application with utility lines.

Regenerative drives

Electricity may be the most neglected utility, at least in terms of improving the efficiency of use. Low utility costs in North America discourage investment in energy efficiency. Another factor is gradual transition taking place from mechanical to electronics-based machinery that can leverage energy-efficient technology.

A case in point is AC regenerative drives. These servo-based drives transfer braking power when a machine stops or slows and feeds it back to where there is demand. “The target machinery for the technology continues to be machines with higher loads and longer stop cycles,” explains Dave Cameron, director-EDC sales at Bosch Rexroth’s electric drives and controls division in Hoffman Estates, Ill. (

Robotic palletizers and case-packing machines are fertile ground for regenerative drives, but the technology also can be applied to primary packaging, provided the load is sufficient. An example is meat-wrapping machines fabricated by CP Packaging, an Appleton, Wis., OEM that debuted the technology eight years ago. The drives feed back electricity from deceleration, producing energy savings of 20-35 percent when energy is transferred on a common DC bus between driving and generating motors. Domestic manufacturers slowly are adopting the technology, says Cameron, but CP also exports machines to Europe, where energy efficiency is a priority.

Since introducing the integrated motor drive in 2007, Rexroth has made multiple upgrades. The most recent was last year’s “cabinet-free solution,” an IP65 power supply that mounts servos and power supplies on the machine frame, obsolescing electrical cabinets, says Cameron. Long gone are resistors to store energy, an approach tantamount to “throwing away power” because of the cooling they require. Cabinet-free design also reduces wiring to a fraction of what typically is required for power supply and communication.

Electric motors account for almost two-thirds of U.S. industrial power demand. Chillers and compressors can draw a big chunk of the remaining third. Collectively, they represent a golden opportunity to take command of plant utilities and drive down production costs.

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