Breweries and distilleries can be infamous for their “snake pits,” the areas of the facility where transfer hoses can become a tangled mess.
Flow panels and hoses are widely used to route product and cleaning solutions through brewery and distillery piping systems, and they are a cost-effective initial investment. However, as a facility grows, so do the number of connections — and that can quickly get out of control.
These snake pits can pose serious problems for your facility’s efficiency and the safety of your workers. Let’s examine five major risks associated with snake pits, and what you can do about them.
1. Employee safety hazard
This is perhaps the greatest and most important risk when it comes to snake pits. I’ve seen cases where process rooms were so crowded that multiple hoses had to be used to make a connection 15 feet away. Employees need to access your flow panel in order to switch, connect and clean hoses, and an unruly snake pit can be a dangerous trip hazard or worse.
2. Sanitation and CIP obstacles
Just like piping, hoses have to be cleaned on a regular basis, especially if your product contains sugar (e.g., a sweetened flavor mix or the glucose in beer). The clean-in-place (CIP) process requires employees to disconnect hoses from tanks that contain product and connect them to tanks that house cleaning solution — but the more disorganized your flow panel is, the more opportunity there is for error.
I’ve seen this mistake happen on numerous occasions: where one wrong hose connection caused cleaning solution to be pumped into an entire tank of product. In one case, thousands of dollars’ worth of vodka went to waste, costing time and money.
3. Loss of valuable real estate
Every square foot of space counts, especially in an alcohol-producing plant. A snake pit situation is uncontrolled and inefficient — a wall cluttered with connections and a floorspace overrun by hoses and connectors means you have less space for equipment and traffic flow. This area of your facility needs to be a functional space, but the more disorganized it is, the harder that is to accomplish.
4. Potential recipe errors
Having an excessive number of hoses is not only inefficient, it can also lead to mistakes in the mixing process at a spirit manufacturing facility. The more disorganized your flow panel, the greater the risk for hoses to get hooked up incorrectly and cause the wrong ingredients to be mixed with the wrong spirits (or for two spirits to be mixed together accidentally). For example, a fruit flavoring used in vodka can mistakenly get routed into your tequila line, ruining the whole batch.
This risk is partly due to the opportunity for human error. Every hose has both a destination and a point of entry, and the operator has to know what’s at the point of entry. Since this is a manual process, one is basically asking the operator to operate from memory or crude mapping techniques. Most of the time the connection is correct and the proper transfers occur, but if the connection is incorrect, the product recipe can be ruined.
5. Opportunity for large spills
A snake pit of hoses is an easy target for product spills. A disorganized flow panel can cause confusion and translate into wasted product. In one instance, a hose from a tank connection was mistakenly hooked to a pipe on the flow panel that wasn’t in use, and the attached piping had previously been cut. The result? Ten thousand gallons of blended whisky flowed from the storage tank, through the hose and directly onto the floor — all because of a mismatch of hoses.
Flow panel and snake pit solutions
Perhaps you’re thinking about your growing snake pit or wondering how to prevent a costly mess in your facility. I would offer two solutions to mitigate these risks:
- Organize and eliminate unused port connections
- Install a valve bank with associated automation
Of course, the appropriate solution depends on the severity of your situation and your available resources.
Organize and eliminate unused hoses
If you’re looking for a low-budget option, this is it. Many mistakes can be avoided by labeling your hoses, pipes and flow-panel connections. This avoids confusion and is one more safeguard for employees who are disconnecting and reconnecting hoses in the cellar. More importantly, as a maintenance step, reconfirm and make changes to hose labels as routing changes as well.
Also, consolidate by disposing of old piping that is no longer in use. As your facility grows, it’s easy for piping to be abandoned, which increases confusion as it accumulates. Up to a third of the lines on many flow panels go unused. Usually, these “dead lines” are formerly active lines that became obsolete when a change in processing altered what was on the other side of the wall.
Plus, removing this piping can be a challenge since cutting metal creates sparks, which could ignite in a spirit manufacturing plant filled with flammable fumes. Therefore, many owners simply put this off and leave the pipes in place rather than bring in a firm that can reconfigure them safely.
Install a valve bank with associated automation
A valve bank is a true design solution that can efficiently replace a flow panel. This square or rectangular matrix can control the flow of a variety of liquids in a more compact and organized manner. Its smaller footprint conserves precious real estate in your cellar while reducing trip hazards.
An automated system also reduces the risk for error by limiting human interaction with the interface itself. An operator opens and closes the bank from a control room by choosing which recipe is required. Automation can prevent potential errors. An operator hooking up hoses and physically controlling a snake pit can only rely on his notes and knowledge of what pipes are connected to, but an automated valve bank is programmed for consistency.
When it comes to blending flavors and spirits, an automated valve bank can also reduce the risk of recipe error. Recipes can be programmed into the system so that only appropriate proportions and allowable actions can occur. Plus, automation ensures the correct valve is opened at the right time compared to manually timing the release of certain product.
Managing the cost of an automated valve bank
Cost is a major factor here, because a valve matrix is much more expensive than a flow panel or adding a hose connection. The ultimate question is: How much are you willing to risk? Human error or a costly spill is always a big deal, but it can be a life-threatening scenario in a facility that produces combustible alcohol.
The right partner can assess your facility and processing to determine the most cost-effective solution. Also, keep in mind your entire facility doesn’t have to be comprised of valve matrices. There is typically an easily identifiable, high-risk area in the processing line where you can switch to a valve bank while still keeping manual valves or flow panels in other portions of the plant. This is a compromise that doesn’t require as much of an upfront investment while still capitalizing on low-hanging-fruit opportunities to fix a recurring problem area.