Get a Load of That Sand

By Rick Zettler

For 30 years, Equalizer Inc. has built a successful business storing and distributing both liquid and dry bulk fertilizer for the agriculture industry. While business was strong, there was one downside. “The fertilizer business is very cyclical,” said Doug Stevens, CEO and owner of Equalizer Inc.

This cyclical nature, coupled with a prolonged drought in the South Central United States, had Equalizer searching to find another commodity to store and distribute throughout Texas. “We have 100,000 tons of storage space under two domed warehouses and an A-frame building at the Port of Victoria (Victoria, Texas) and underutilized assets to fill,” said Stevens.

About the same time Equalizer was looking to expand its business beyond agriculture, the hydraulic fracture drilling business was expanding throughout the South. A key component of the drilling process, frac sand, was in high demand and short supply, leaving an opportunity for Equalizer.

Stevens took advantage of the opportunity and contracted to store and distribute the in-demand commodity. However, he noticed a significant increase in the pace the fine sand went from barge to storage to truck.

It was evident to Stevens that his company needed to upgrade barge-unloading efficiency. Today, they have found their stride through the addition of equipment to the process, including a Terex Fuchs MHL380 D material handler, which significantly boosts unloading speed and reduces costs.

A Month on Water
Frac sand can be an extremely difficult product to produce. Since it must be virtually pure quartz or silica, a limited number of mines and quarries throughout the United States are capable of making a product that meets the API RP 56 sand specification. As a result, producers are able to get a premium price for the sand, and the market is such that frac sand can be economically shipped to customers hundreds of miles away from the production facility.

For Equalizer, this provided the perfect opportunity to expand its distribution business and tame the cyclical effects of the fertilizer market. The company struck a deal with several mining operations in Illinois to receive, store and supply frac sand to the mine’s fracture drilling customers working in Texas.

Equalizer’s location at the Port of Victoria makes it advantageous for both the mine and its fracture drilling customers. “The port is 30 to 40 miles (48.3 to 64.4 km) inland from the main shipping channel, making it a strategic location for Equalizer,” said Dave Donneral, scrap and material handling equipment manager for CLM Equipment Co. Inc., a Terex Fuchs equipment distributor. “This reduces round-trip delivery of the sand by 60 to 80 miles (96.6 to 128.7 km).”

From the Illinois production facilities, the frac sand is loaded into 1,500-ton (1,360-metric ton) hopper barges. “The sand must stay dry, so the hopper barges have a series of over/under fiberglass lids to seal it from the elements,” said Stevens. Equalizer stores a number of different frac sand products, ranging from 20/40 to 30/50 to 40/70 mesh.

Multiple barges are sent down the Illinois River and are transferred several times to navigate through the Mississippi River to where it outlets into the Intracoastal Waterway. From there, the barges are navigated into the Port of Victoria, were they are staged for offloading into Equalizer’s storage and distribution facility. “The Port of Victoria has excellent access for barges,” says Stevens. “It takes about a month for the barges to make the trip from Illinois to Texas.”

Fever Pitch
While it may take a month to hit port, Equalizer does not have much time to offload the sand and clean the storage hold. Docking fees and demurrage costs can eat away at the company’s profit. Hundreds of trucks pass through Equalizer’s gates, eroding the stockpile of sand. And weather can make it difficult to offload the commodity. “We must keep it dry, and we experience too much shrinkage to offload when the wind approaches 30 knots,” said Stevens.

A problem for Equalizer was that the excavator the company used for offloading fertilizer did not deliver the speed or efficiency required for the volume of frac sand received. According to Donneral, “The excavator had only a 35-ft. (10.7-m) reach and a 3-cu.-yd. (2.3-cu.-m) bucket,” which made it laborious and time-consuming to offload vessels that averaged 35-ft. (10.7-m) wide, 16-ft. (4.9-m) deep and nearly 200-ft. (61.0-m) long.

Each hopper barge consisted of four “under” and five “over” fiberglass lids, including two end caps, which had to be removed. “The excavator could only offload three lids at a time before the barge had to be repositioned for further offloading,” said Donneral.

Efficiency with the excavator wasn’t where Stevens needed it to be, and there was no getting around it. Equalizer needed a material handler to increase efficiency.

Stevens originally searched the private market for the right material handler, and he looked at a number of different models. However, not all matched what he wanted in a machine. “Some didn’t have the capacity we were looking for or a cranked boom, and others offered an elevating but not extending cab to make it easier to offload material,” said Stevens.

The company found the perfect match for its needs in a used Terex Fuchs MHL380 D material handler being used in a similar port application in Florida. “The company was upgrading to a new MHL380 D, so I thought it had to be a good fit for the job,” said Stevens.

The MHL380 D had a cranked boom design and a 70-ft. (21.3-m) reach, twice that of the excavator Equalizer used. “The cranked boom shifts the arc of the machine’s reach toward the handler, so it is easier to offload material from the vessel, especially when working against the wall closest to the handler,” said Steve Brezinski, heavy equipment product manager – material handlers for Terex Construction. Stevens added, “We can offload five lids at a time with the MHL380, so we move the vessel only one time with the handler versus four times with the excavator.”
­­Equalizer’s crews were impressed by the handler’s capacity and efficiency with offloading the frac sand. It effortlessly discharged the sand into a receiving hopper, where a 3-ft. wide (0.9-m) conveyor carried it to the domed and A-framed storage buildings. Cycle times dropped to below 30 seconds with the handler.

Even with all benefits and efficiencies gained through the use of the used MHL380 D handler, there was still something missing. It was one final need that was satisfied by CLM Equipment.

New Machine Fills Need
Stevens contacted Donneral about trading up to a new MHL380 D. Stevens liked having the warranty that comes along with a new machine. Additionally, “CLM gave us a fair trade for the used machine, and we were able to get the deal done by the end of the year, so we could take advantage of the 50 percent machine bonus depreciation,” he said. “Dave and CLM have been very responsive to our needs.”

Equalizer equipped the stick of the new handler with a video camera that allowed images to be shown on a display screen inside the operator’s cab. Along with the camera, the handler’s hydraulically elevating/extending cab offers a 20-ft. (6.2-m) maximum eye level elevation and up to 7-ft. (2.2-m) forward extension, allowing the operator to better see into the vessel. “The camera and cab design also eliminates a spotter required for offloading with the excavator,” said Donneral.

The MHL380 D’s lift capacity has enabled Equalizer to equip the machine with a 4-cu.-yd. (3.1-cu.-m) clamshell bucket, increasing the speed at which the sand is removed from the barge. “The sand weighs 2,700 lb./cu. yd. (1,602 kg/cu.-m), so it is handling nearly 5.5 tons (5.0 mt) of material with each grab,” said Stevens.

Not only this, but the new MHL380 D allows crews to quickly remove and reinstall the barge’s lids, and they can lower a 9,000-lb. (4,082-kg) skid steer into the belly of the vessel for final cleaning. “If the rain rolls in, we have to quickly reset the lids to keep the sand dry, and the MHL380 allows us to set five lids within 10 to 15 minutes,” said Stevens. This emergency cover process took more than twice as long with the excavator.

With the addition of the new MHL380 D material handler and other equipment changes Equalizer made to its operation, crews can unload a 1,500-ton (1,360-mt) barge – from docking to final cleaning – in about six hours, less than half the time it took using an excavator. The MHL380 D completes its portion of material offloading within three hours, averaging 500 tons (454-mt) per hour production. “The speed at which the MHL380 offloads the sand has helped us to significantly reduce our barge unloading costs,” concluded Stevens.

Rick Zettler is president of Z-Comm, a company specializing in construction and aggregate equipment marketing, public relations and freelance writing. He can be reached at [email protected]

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