I Used To Build Heat Exchangers

Kevin Felts, fitter and welderIf you do not know what a heat exchanger is, they are like radiators for chemical and oil refineries.  “Radiator” is not a good term, because heat exchangers can heat or cool, depending on what needs to be done.

It was around August of 1987, I left a hell hole of a company where the owner exploited and ass raped the employees every chance he got, to a company that worked its employees into the ground.

I do not want to name names, as I do not want to get sued for saying stuff the company may not like.

Heat exchanger companies are there to serve the petrochemical industry.  If some oil company needs an exchanger striped and retubed, the human cattle work 12 hours a day, 7 days a week until the job is finished.

I worked so many hours, there were times when I had to ask people what day it was.  Time just blurred together.

I saw my kids maybe 2 or 3 hours a day,,, if that.  When I was working night shift, I would wake up around 12 noon, or 1 pm, eat lunch, then have to leave at 2:30 to be at the job by 3:30pm.  Good thing my kids were little and not in school.  If they were in school, I would not have seen them for 4 – 6 weeks at a time.

The shift rotation was absolutely terrible.  2 weeks on days, 2 weeks on nights, 2 weeks on days,,,,.  If we were working 7 / 12s, the shift rotation was suspended and you just stayed on whatever shift you were on.

The dumb-asses in management could not arrange the shift rotation on the weekends off.  There were times when people had to leave at 8pm or 10 pm, and be back at work at 5am.

For some reason we could not work shifts like police do and get a 7 day break on our rotation.  It was like the upper management loved to ass rape the employees every chance they got.

Terrible Benefits

Just about all of the companies I worked for offered TERRIBLE benefits packages.  If you were lucky you got 1 week of vacation after 1 year of service.  After about 3 or 5 years, you might get 2 weeks of vacation.  No dental, no 401-k, no vision insurance, no stock options, no sick time,,,.  Nothing but a paycheck until your back gives out, then a kick in the butt when you are too broken to work anymore. If you work almost twice the time as the average person, you should get almost twice the benefits.

Lets say you work an average of 60 hours a week for a year, then you should get 1.5X the benefits of the average U.S worker. I think that is fair.

The rotating shifts and excessive hours made sure the employees could not go to college.

Once you enter into the heat exchanger field, the company puts its heel on your head.

A lot of shops work two weeks on day, two weeks on night, two weeks on day, two weeks on nights. Just about the time you get used to a schedule, you have to change again. Your internal clock never has a chance to stabilize.

The lucky few to get out are hired by a chemical plant, while others just have to walk out.  When you are working at least 50 hours a week, with 70 – 80 hours being more like it, who has time to look for another job?

Building an Exchanger

Building heat exchangers is a rather specialized job.  Its not like pipe fitting where you can go to work for various construction companies and make some good money.

The bundle shop probably has one of the most physically demanding jobs out there. Lets say that an exchanger has 800 tubes. Each tube has to be pushed in by hand, then the tube has to be expanded with a special air powered tool. The tie rods have to be cut and threaded, the spacers have to be cut and deburred, the bundle frame has to be assembled, the tubes inserted, ends rolled, hydro-tested.

To hydro-test the bundle you have to use a disk with an o-ring seal. The ring is held against the tubesheet with these huge ass clamps that are tightened with air driven impacts.

The machine shop might have the most dangerous job. You never know when a channel is going to come flying out of the King mill.

Weld shop probably has the most miserable job. Just imagine heating a piece of pipe to 400 degree before you can weld on it.

To get out of heat exchangers, I had to walk out and look for another job.  I bounced around a few welding shops until I landed at Allied Fabrication in Rose City.  I liked working at Allied, they were a small family owned business that treated their employees well.

Dangerous Chemicals

One of the worse things about working with heat exchangers, you never know what was run through them.  As for an MSDS sheet and the shop foreman makes a big deal out of it “we aint got time to be looking for an MSDS sheet”.  A lot of times the MSDS sheet was not even sent with the exchanger.

I do not know how many times I was gouging off a fixed tube sheet, when some liquid started dripping out of the exchanger, holy crap what is this?  Hey, weld shop foreman, whats this dripping out of the exchanger?
Shop foreman – its safe, if it was dangerous the refinery would have told us.
Me – oh really? Where is the MSDS?
Shop foreman – we do not have an MSDS, just gouge the tube sheet off already.
Me – can I at least have a dust mask?
Shop forearm – if you have to have one, I guess so,,, makes a big deal out of a $1 dustmask.

How do I know the chemical does not cause cancer in 10 years? There were lots of times when the MSDS sheet listed the chemical as a carcinogen. Were we supplied protective clothing? Nope. The supervisor was like, its not going to hurt you any more then gassing up your car (referring to benzine in the gasoline).

If I “had” to go back into heat exchangers I would. I can say one thing about it, the work is steady.

In all, I have 15 years experience building ASME certified heat exchangers and pressure vessels.  If I had to do that line of work again to provide for my family, I would.