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Automation to increase frac operation margins

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Insights to a high impact frac pump automation project in the Permian Basin

Manuel Klein
Co – founder EKU Power Drives

The low oil price environment is challenging operators and service companies in the US Oil and Gas industry to reduce production cost. Well stimulation operations are OPEX intensive and frac gathers most of that burden. A typical well site can easily exceed 35 MW of installed power. Therefore, the power automation potential to increase margins from well – site operations is immense. The central theme is to boost the return on net operating assets by lowering OPEX while maintaining the same productivity.

Analysis of typical frac pump utilization with load histograms has shown that the frac pumps are by far less effective as expected. Moreover, pumps hardly run at full load during well completion; and only 2% of operation time requires more than 80% of the installed power. Even worse, pump s are unproductive more than 50% of the operating time, burning fuel and adding time to the hour meter. The asset effectiveness is defined as work performed against work capability installed. If an installed pump of 2MW would always run at maximum rated power, the effectiveness would be 100%. In total, the asset effectiveness in frac equipment is close to 25%, which is way lower than any other comparable industry. Mining, for example, has an asset effectiveness of close to 60 %.

The main step to increase the asset’s effectiveness is automating the power control. First to eliminate idle operation, and second, on a low consuming power state, the automation must enable immediate power on demand. Commonly, frac pumps idle half of their operating life because it is the easiest available approach to have immediate power, and the manual process to initialize the power after a shutdown is a huge burden. Many frac operat ors must run the tractor engine bef ore being able to activate the wet kit which hydraulically powers the starters to crank the frac pump engine. The process can take several minutes per frac pump, disabling the operators to have a continuous production process and short intervals between stages.

Furthermore, manual operation also disables critical data quantification which can be obtained if automation is implemented. The J1939 CAN Bus network and the detailed components monitoring generates the required data to provide a good data mining. After understanding frac pump states, EKU has gathered the requirements to enable immediate power on demand, while reducing the energy consumption during unproductive operation. The project goal was to eliminate 95% of idle operation and enable to have full power within seconds without increasing the wear on the equipment.

The invention of an independent energy management system to accurately control the power on the frac units is a profitable solution. The Engine Standby Controller (ESC) replaces the lead – acid batteries, voltage equalizer and the hydraulic starter wet – kit with a lithium – ion battery, electric starters and a fast charging, heater and bypass lubrication system. The automation controller embedded within the ESC enables the frac units to enter a READY state, meaning that the powertrain (engine and transmission) is constantly available for immediate start, while the powertrain is OFF. Besides, it collects maintenance and performance data, providing crucial preventive maintenance insights and give s the operator the productivity input needed to enhance the process. Finally, the tractor is no longer required during the completion operation, substantially reducing OPEX.


A number of opportunities the READY state and data automation creates are extensive. The service providers can interconnect each frac pump and influence the operating hours throughout the entire fleet, gaining better maintenance planning. In addition, the maintenance manager knows the wear on individual parts, doing target maintenance and reducing its parts inventory. The distribution of operating hours can be streamlined to the schedule; avoiding equipment in the yard or risking failures due to late maintenance. Plus, on the pad back – up units are no longer accumulating operating hours.

The ESC has been intensely field tested in the Permian Basin. The first unit that was installed has accumulated 2,579.5 operating hours (oph) in 9 – month operation; of which 1,231 oph are actual pump hours and 1,348.5 oph would have been unproductive operation, now are characterized as READY hours. The equipment with the ESC increased its asset effectiveness from 24% to 51%. As a result, the frac pump required 30 % less maintenance with an increase of 5% equipment availability. Equally important fuel costs per frac pump has been reduced by USD 50,100, No time has been lost due to deep discharged batteries and oil filters replacement was three time s less.

Rolled out to an entire frac fleet operating expenditures can be reduced by USD 0.9 million for typical Permian operations with modern zipper frac and multi – stage/multi – pad operations .

In conclusion, the innovation of the ESC system, has demonstrated a consistent OPEX reduction on the field, while maintaining and raising the production output. The use of a READY state, results on an immediate increase of asset effectiveness, equipment availability and a reduction of common expenses such as maintenance and fuel.

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