The electrical gas engineers up close and personal It's alright for him to be going on about amperes, volts and millivolts... Rudy works at Sibelga's Gas Operations department. Together with his team, he makes sure the steel gas pipes are properly maintained… by resorting to electricity.
For the mere mortals among us, electricity and gas do not make good bedfellows. One thing that is true is that you need to avoid any kind of sparks in the vicinity of gas. Yet, if the steel gas pipes buried in the ground had no current applied to them, they would not last very long.
Left to its own devices in the ground, a steel pipe can quickly deteriorate. This is what is known as corrosion. As a result of an electrochemical reaction caused by the presence of metal alongside the currents and the elements in the ground, the piping is literally eaten away. This is a phenomenon which not only has an impact on how the pipes look like on the outside – which is invisible to us anyway as the pipes are buried underground – but which can also drastically reduce their service life and pose a safety risk (gas leaks).
"You need to know", Rudy explains, "that if we don't do anything, a single ampere will eat away some 9.6 kilograms of steel a year. That is 1.90 metres of 2-inch piping. " And replacing pipes is a costly affair. This explains why Sibelga makes every effort to ensure that the pipes enjoy the longest possible service life and comply with the statutory obligation that requires medium pressure gas pipes to be duly protected.
As corrosion is an electrochemical phenomenon, we are able to counter the oxidisation that releases electrons, with the aid of … electricity. Injecting a current into the pipes makes corrosion impossible.
"It's a bit like having a glass with an ice cube. Left to stand there, the ice cube will slowly melt. To prevent this from happening, we would need to be able to inject a negative temperature into the ice cube. This is more or less what we do when we inject current into the gas pipes. ", Rudy goes on to explain.
This current injection is performed at dedicated installations, known as off-take stations, dotted around at various locations around the grid.
As such, the cathodic protection team – headed up by foreman Rudy – is tasked with this delicate and crucial assignment. The team is called in when new piping is being laid: "We need to ensure perfect isolation of the base of the pipe to avoid loss of electricity", Rudy explains.
The team also performs annual inspections of the entire Brussels gas grid. 6,000 measuring points enable us to check if the whole thing is operating properly.
"Not many people know what we do, not even people in the industry", Rudy says. So spare a thought for Rudy and his team next time you turn on the heating!