BCR: Achieving Maximum Impact with Minimal Expense

November 1, 2001
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Kiln modifications have helped Lachance Brick save fuel costs, reduce emissions and increase product quality—without breaking the bank.

The kiln work included new manifolds, burner installation, rebricking of hearths, a new combustion air blower, gas safety train and field wiring, and was completed in six weeks.
For Lachance Brick in Gorham, Maine, firing was becoming a real problem. The company fired and flashed its pavers, face brick and other products in a 16-brick-high, oil-fired Miller crossflow kiln built in the 1950s. Oil prices were increasing, and the Maine Department of Environmental Quality was putting pressure on the facility to lower its emissions, limiting the number of gallons of oil the plant could burn each month and thereby restricting the amount and color range of brick the plant could produce.

“With oil prices increasing so rapidly, we just could not live with the uncertainty of what the ultimate cost would be, and we needed to maintain our product line to stay competitive,” said Peter Lachance, president of Lachance Brick. But Lachance didn’t have many options—in 2000, oil was the only fuel available in Gorham.

When Lachance learned in the fall of 2000 that a new natural gas pipeline was being run from Sable Island off Nova Scotia and would be available to Maine residents by the spring of 2001, he jumped at the opportunity. “Our other plant up in Auburn [Maine] has been on natural gas for about four years now, and they’ve had positive results. Additionally, it was more or less something that we could lock a price in on. So we went ahead and signed a contract with Maine Natural Gas and had a gas line run into our location.”

The control system enabled Lachance to computerize its operations for a minimal expense.

Maximizing the Modifications

Before the kiln could burn natural gas, its oil burners had to be replaced with gas burners. For Lachance, this was an opportunity to begin modernizing the plant. He considered purchasing a new, modern kiln, but the cost and production implications of that type of investment were daunting.

Lachance started looking for alternatives. He had heard from other brick manufacturers that a computer-based process control system from Kil-Tel could be added to older kilns to monitor and control the firing process. To Lachance, this system sounded like the perfect solution.

“We wanted a system that would allow us to computerize our operations for a minimal amount of money,” said Lachance. “The Kil-Tel system seemed to be ideally suited for our operation. The cost and programming of the system, as well as its overall operation, seemed to be relatively pain-free.”

The system is designed to continuously monitor and gather data from all data sources associated with the firing process, including temperatures at all burner control zones, undercar, crown and duct locations; draft pressures at multiple locations along the kiln; gas flow (either overall or in individual zones); pusher pressure and ram position; and on/off status for motors, fans blowers and pumps. It also acquires data from devices such as PID loop controllers for burner zones, rapid-cool sections and similar control elements that perform their own signal acquisition. The computer system organizes this data into the categories and groupings that are important for the kiln and then performs standard kiln operations, such as editing/loading a firing curve, tracking a kiln car, initiating/controlling flashing, and monitoring and resetting the progress of a periodic run. Since Lachance wanted to maximize the efficiency of his overall firing process, he chose to include complete pulsed combustion control as an integral part of the supervisory computer system

The plan for the kiln modifications was developed by Kil-Tel Systems and ceramic engineer John Storer-Folt, and involved replacing the original oil burners with new high-velocity gas-fired burners from Hauck Manufacturing Co. In March 2001, the kiln was pulled offline and work started. Complete new air and gas manifolds were installed along each side of the kiln, with piped drops at each burner incorporating air impulse valves and ratio regulators from Kromschroder Inc. The kiln work, including new manifolds, burner installation, rebricking of hearths, a new combustion air blower, gas safety train and field wiring, was performed by Industrial Refractory Services, Inc. The computer-based supervisory control system, including pulsed combustion control, was supplied by Kil-Tel Systems, Inc. Within six weeks, the kiln was back in operation—and a new learning process had begun.

Overcoming the Learning Curve

The modified kiln provided Lachance Brick with a number of new opportunities, but there were also a few challenges. Before the modifications, the kiln had been fired manually. Employees that were used to watching the kiln now had to watch a computer monitor.

“We had a lot of training to do in going to a computerized system, trying to get our personnel to look at a computer instead of the kiln,” Lachance said.

Another challenge was trying to negotiate a gas contract. “Maine Gas helped quite a bit in determining how much gas we would potentially use. We ran for approximately six to eight weeks and tried to trend our daily consumption so that we could put together a fairly confident package as to what we would need for gas through a 12-month period,” Lachance said.

Measuring the Benefits

Switching from oil burners to a sophisticated, computer-controlled gas-fired system has provided Lachance Brick with predictable fuel savings. The company’s product quality has also increased. The pulsed combustion system helps the kiln fire evenly, and flashing has become a defined, repeatable exercise.

While Lachance is pleased with the overall operation of the system, he has yet to find out what it’s really capable of. “We installed the system going into a busy season, and we’ve had our hands full just trying to learn how to achieve the same colors we had before and fulfill all of the orders that we had through the summer. We really haven’t gotten to a point where we’ve been able to really see what the kiln can do,” Lachance said.

Once business slows, Lachance plans to spend some time experimenting. “This winter, we’ll take a really close look at the additional colors we’re able to achieve and try to make some inroads in some other markets that we really haven’t been involved in before.”

Planning Ahead

For Lachance, these kiln modifications are just the beginning of a complete modernization of Lachance Brick’s Gorham facility. “We’ve been working with John Storer-Folt for about the last three months to try to develop an overall five-year plan as to where we want to go,” Lachance said.

For now, Lachance is pleased with how the initial kiln modifications are improving his operations. “It’s important to try to stay ahead of everybody and try to upgrade our facility. These modifications have moved us up into the 21st century of brick making,” he said.

For More Information

For more information about the Kil-Tel control system, contact Kil-Tel Systems Inc., 9013 N.E. 37th Place, Bellevue, WA 98004; (425) 451-7689; fax (425) 450-1722; or e-mail sales@kiltel.com.

For more information about the Hauck burners, contact Hauck Manufacturing Co., Box 90, Lebanon, PA 17042; (717) 272-3051; fax (717) 273-9882; e-mail hauck@hauckburner.com; or visit www.hauckburner.com.

For more information about the air impulse valves and ratio regulators, contact Kromschroder Inc., 1595 G Georgetown Road, Hudson, OH 44236; (330) 342-0595; fax (330) 342-0596; e-mail info@kromschroder.com; or visit www.kromschroder.com.

For more information about the kiln work, contact Industrial Refractory Services, Inc., 2300 S. Main St., Fort Worth, TX 76110; (817) 924-9991; fax (817) 924-9533.

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