A Simple Way to Swap Valves

California utility finds a faster — and safer — way to replace old valves.

A Simple Way to Swap Valves

Two jack bolts connected to each of the spreader plates exert about 10 tons of pressure to pull apart the flanges on either side of a valve, allowing workers to easily slide out a damaged valve and replace it.

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Prying apart flanges to replace leaking valves can be a time-consuming and risky procedure. But that’s not the case at the Regional Water Quality Control Plant in the city of Palo Alto, California, thanks to an investment in a Valve-Out flange-spreading tool made by Specialty Maintenance Products.

“I saw it online and thought it was pretty cool because of the way it saves you all the time and hassle of prying flanges apart,” says Aaron Miller, a senior mechanic at the plant. “I’d say we’re about 75% more productive than we were before.

“The first time we used it, the guys were saying, ‘This is amazing,’” he adds. “The idea is pure genius.”

Full access

The city of Palo Alto is about 33 miles southeast of San Francisco in Silicon Valley. The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission supplies water for the city, but wastewater treatment is handled in-house. The Regional Water Quality Control Plant, which handles 20-30 million gallons of wastewater per day for several surrounding communities, purchased the tool in early 2019. It’s primarily used to replace plug, butterfly and gate valves.

Made from cold-rolled steel, the tool consists of three basic components: four spreader plates; eight bolt-hole pins (two for each spreader plate) that come in various diameters and fit into the flange bolt holes; and two spacer bars, which connect the pairs of spreader plates.

“Whether it’s a 20-bolt flange or an eight-bolt flange, the butterflying spreader plates can accommodate it,” says Tyler Hemann, director of operations at Houston-based SMP.

Two jack bolts that connect to each of the spreader plates exert about 10 tons of pressure to pull apart the flanges on either side of a valve. This allows workers to easily slide out a damaged valve and replace it, along with any gaskets, if needed.

“You can hammer in wedges to spread the flanges, but the problem is that the wedges are then in the way,” Hemann says. “This is cool because it pulls apart the flanges from the outside, leaving full access for easily swapping out the valve and replacing the gaskets without any interference. It works even in zero-gap situations.”

In one instance, it took a crew at a chemical company 20 man-hours (five employees working for four hours each) to swap out a control valve. But the new valve didn’t work, so the crew put in another valve, this time using the Valve-Out tool. Total job time: about 15 minutes, he says.

Power play

After removing all of the flange bolts, crews select the appropriate-size bolt-hole pins and slide them through the spreading plates, which are essentially two pivoting arms that butterfly out to fit various bolt-hole patterns. The spreader plates are installed in pairs, one pair at the 9-o’clock position on one side of the flanges and the other pair at the 3-o’clock position.

Two bolt-hole pins secure each of the spreader plates to the flanges. The pins, which come in a variety of diameters, are secured by pushing them through the spreader plates and then into the flange bolt holes.

Spacer bars connect each pair of spreader plates at their pivot points. The spacer bars come assembled at a total length of 11 1/2 inches, which will accommodate a 12-inch valve lay length. But the various sizes of the spacer bars — available in 2-, 4- and 6-inch lengths — allow the tool to adjust to different lay lengths.

After each of the four spreader plates is affixed to the flanges and connected by the spacer bars, the tool operator (or operators, depending on the pipe diameter) simultaneously tightens two jack bolts, one attached to each pair of spreader plates via the threaded ends of the two spacer bars. As the jack bolts turn, they slowly expand the length of the spreader bars, which in turn forces the bolted-on spreader plates to spread the flanges apart, Hemann explains.

“Some guys use a come-along (a ratcheting chain strap) to pull the flanges part,” he says. “But when you do that, the flanges can go in different directions, which makes it hard to line up those bolt holes again. But our tool holds the flanges in a fixed position that maintains the bolt-hole alignments in a controlled way.”

There’s no need to worry about damaging the flanges; Hemann says no customer has ever reported bending a flange while using the tool.

The Valve-Out system comes in three kits. The VOC 1 kit is designed to handle any flanges with 3/4-, 7/8- and 1-inch-diameter bolt holes. Aimed at bigger pipes, the VOC 2 kit is designed to handle flanges with 1 1/8-, 1-1/4- and 1 3/8-inch-diameter bolt holes. The VOC 1-2 kit includes all six of the previously mentioned bolt-hole pins.

SMP sells extra spacer bars separately to accommodate valve lay-lengths of more than 12 inches.

Faster and safer

The Valve-Out system is especially useful in situations where there’s no relief joint near the valve that can be opened to create enough space to insert a gasket. “The key to the whole thing is that the tool is not in the way when you’re trying to install gaskets because it’s grabbing the flanges and spreading them apart evenly from the outside (of the flanges),” Miller explains. “It takes a lot of the struggle out of the equation.”

The tool’s simplistic design makes it easy to use. Miller estimates he can teach someone to use it in about 10 minutes. Moreover, it improves employee safety because the tool does the strenuous work instead of employees.

“It’s easy to get a finger pinched or strain your back when you change out valves and gaskets,” he says.

The tool also reduces the number of people required to swap out valves and gaskets, which enables the division to be more productive through more efficient allocation of manpower. “Guys could even change out a valve by themselves if they had the right rigging (to lower the bad valve and raise a new one in place),” Miller says.

The largest valve Miller has replaced with the Valve-Out system was a frozen 12-inch-diameter butterfly valve in a water-backwash supply pipe. The job went off without a hitch, despite the fact that there was no relief joint in the pipes.

“Without this tool, the job would’ve taken several hours longer than it did, not to mention all the struggling,” Miller says. “We would have had to pull it from one side with a come-along, which puts a side-strain on the pipe. And putting in the new valve would’ve involved a lot of challenging prying and pushing.

“We use the Valve-Out tool every couple weeks or so. It turns jobs that used to be a struggle into straight-forward procedures. It’s a great timesaver.” 


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