StoneAge Tube Cleaners Handle High-Pressure Industrial Jobs Without the Worker Risk

Robotic tube cleaners boost productivity and operator safety on challenging industrial jobs

StoneAge Tube Cleaners Handle High-Pressure Industrial Jobs Without the Worker Risk

One of the benefits is a reduction in manpower. It takes only one or two people to run the machines, which can be set up in about 15 minutes by experienced workers.

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Only three months after Ian Stewart purchased a ProPositioner lance tube cleaner in 2019, he ordered a second machine. And roughly six months later, he invested in yet another one.

That’s a powerful testament to the benefits provided by the robotic machines made by StoneAge. The high-tech workhorses tick off a lot of boxes, including significantly reduced labor requirements, dramatically safer working conditions, better and more consistent tube cleaning, and substantial increases in productivity and profitability, says Stewart, who co-owns ESP&P Industrial Services in Kingsport, Tennessee, with his brother, Stuart. Their father, Ed, established the company in 1986.

“They also make it easier to hire people and keep them on board,” Stewart says. “We used to run these tubes by hand and if guys are eating dirt and water every day, they’re much less apt to stick around. If someone can find an easier job, they’ll take it.

“Labor is difficult to find, but you can always find someone interested in working with technology. You can run these things with a cellphone. Some of our guys who have been doing this for years always tell me, ‘Man, I wish they would’ve had these 15 or 20 years ago.’”

ESP&P Industrial Services employs 28 people and serves customers throughout eastern Tennessee, North and South Carolina, Virginia, Kentucky and Georgia. Its primary service is industrial cleaning.

The ProPositioner (now called the Compass Positioner) is used to robotically clean bundles of clogged tubes in heat exchangers as well as process pipes filled with hard deposits, Stewart says.

“You can either mount it on a single pipe or use the positioner to attach it to a heat exchanger, where it traverses the face, cleaning tube by tube,” he explains. 


The ProPositioners also reduce manpower needs, which allows the company to do significantly more jobs per day than it otherwise could. It now takes only one or two people to run the machines, which can be set up in about 15 minutes by experienced workers, compared to a crew of eight to 10 people previously, Stewart says.

“It used to take a small army of people and a lot of skill to clean heat exchangers,” he notes. “But these machines have largely taken labor out of the equation, which gives the ability to knock out more jobs at one time. I’d say that initially we saw at least a 50% increase in revenue in this particular line of work because we could put more people on other jobs.”

Furthermore, employees no longer perform the risky task of jetting the tubes manually. It’s dangerous work, given that the NLB Jetstream and Hammelmann hydroblaster water pumps the company uses with the ProPositioners can generate pressure of up to 43,000 psi and flow as high as 40 gpm.

“That lance can blow out back into you when you hit something really hard, so that safety aspect is huge,” Stewart says. “Plus doing it manually just wears people out. But the machines never get tired — it’s a really great thing.”

The positioning system is run by air pressure; ESP&P Industrial Services uses Atlas Copco air compressors.


The ProPositioners also clean at an even rate of speed that workers can’t achieve while grappling with a high-pressure device.

“Humans just can’t clean tubes at a specific rate like these machines can,” Stewart says. “It’s just very difficult to stay consistent. And customers really appreciate it when you can give them a better and more thorough cleaning all the way to the end of a tube — from tip to tip.”

Stewart recalls one heat exchanger the company cleans regularly that has 500 tubes clogged with rock-hard calcium, which he says is a “real bear” to clean.

“We used to have to fight that thing so bad, and the fear of that lance jumping back out at them made our guys work it really slow,” he explains. “That job used to take us about a week.”

But using the ProPositioners shaved the cleaning time down to about 24 hours.

“You talk about a cost savings for customers,” Stewart says. “But the people who really appreciate the ProPositioners the most are the guys who used to operate tube lance machines by hand. They treat these machines like they’re babies.”


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