Eastern Saudi Arabia is not Hannibal, Missouri by a long shot, but until just recently Tom Sawyer would have felt right at home there. He would have reveled at the sight of hundreds of workers applying whitewash with brushes to a surface which continued out to the edge of the horizon.
Running over Aramco's widespread area of operations in Eastern Saudi Arabia are more than 1,500 miles of pipelines, ranging from 10 to 42 inches in diameter, which transport crude oil from source to delivery points. The oil inside the pipelines gets so warm in that part of the world during the lengthy hot-weather season that it tends to foam. Foam in oil not only occupies unwanted space inside a pipeline but has a deleterious effect when the crude is stored in huge, floating-roof tanks. Oilmen long ago discovered that the heat problem can be minimized by covering pipelines with whitewash that deflects some of the heat from the scorching sunlight.
Application of that whitewash had always been carried out by the traditional, immensely time-consuming hand method. To cover one 30-mile length of 42-inch pipeline running from Khursaniyah to Ras Tanura, for instance, took 158 men about three months. A veteran machinist named Larry Norton began wondering why this essential chore could not be carried out by mechanical means. After pondering the possibility for a while and consulting with Equipment Services Superintendent Ahmed Humaid, he went quietly to work.
The result of Norton's tinkering and experimentation is a contrivance in the Rube Goldberg tradition which he has dubbed a "spider sprayer." It consists of a metal frame bent into the shape of an arc to conform to the contour of the pipe itself. The frame rides on top of the pipe on small rubber-tired wheels in the maViner of a railroad handcar. A sideboom operating alongside the pipeline at about the speed a man can walk supports the weight of the spider sprayer and provides its means of movement above the top of the pipe.
Over the rear component of the frame Norton welded a small pipe to which are attached at intervals five ordinary lawn sprinklers of a type available in the local market for about 80 cents. Whitewash is pumped through a hose to the sprinklers, which spray every area of the pipeline needing covering. As the sideboom crawls along beside the pipeline it tows a small trailer carrying a supply of whitewash in a 600-gallon tank. An agitating mechanism keeps the whitewash in necessary suspension until it is sprayed on.
The main challenge has been finding some means of providing sufficient amounts of whitewash to keep up with the speed of the machine putting it on. But when that problem is licked Norton figures that the same 30-mile stretch of KRT line which has been requiring so many man-hours and time to cover can be whitewashed by two men in about two weeks. Putting it another way, a smoothly functioning spider-sprayer has the potential of saving 99 percent in manpower and cutting the time required to accomplish its objective by 83 percent.
Brainerd S. Bates is a regular contributor to Aramco World Magazine.