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IBP1135_19

QUALITY CONTROL OF PE INSTALLATIONS: A


COMPARISON OF QC METHODS AND
EXPLORATION OF THE CHALLENGES AND
ADVANTAGES OF DEVELOPING NEW QC
APPROACHES
Michail Kalloudis1

Copyright 2019, Brazilian Petroleum, Gas and Biofuels Institute - IBP


This Technical Paper was prepared for presentation at the Rio Pipeline Conference and Exhibition 2019, held
between 03 and 05 of September, in Rio de Janeiro. This Technical Paper was selected for presentation by the
Technical Committee of the event according to the information contained in the final paper submitted by the
author(s). The organizers are not supposed to translate or correct the submitted papers. The material as it is
presented, does not necessarily represent Brazilian Petroleum, Gas and Biofuels Institute’ opinion, or that of its
Members or Representatives. Authors consent to the publication of this Technical Paper in the Rio Pipeline
Conference and Exhibition 2019.

Abstract
20% of electrofusion (EF) fittings, commonly used in plastic pipelines around the world,
are anticipated to fail before their designed service life. This failure rate is particularly
prevalent in newly installed, large diameter electrofusion welds. There exists a distinct
need in the plastic pipe installation industry for enhanced quality testing methods and
approaches to bring this staggering figure down for any company or contractor who use
or install plastic pipelines. There are QC test methods already available in the industry,
but how often are they employed and what are their limitations in actually identifying
anything more than a very poor-quality EF weld?
This paper explores and presents our experiences of the most common problems observed
in electrofusion welds through the use of case studies from installations; compare the
current QA/QC approaches available to the industry; and discuss the challenges of
developing new QC innovations for the PE pipe welding industry.

Plastic Pipes, Quality control, Plastic Joints, Failure analysis, NDT

1. Introduction

Plastic pipes have proven to be excellent alternatives to metal and steel pipes. They are lighter,
more reliable, don’t rust and are relatively cheap. The use of PE80 and PE100 plastic pipes has
been increased dramatically over the last 30 years as a result of these benefits. Although a lot
of research has been conducted in the production of PE pipe materials, bad, or in many cases,
non-existent quality assurance and quality control procedures can threaten the integrity of these
new pipelines, and harm confidence in PE as a superior pipeline material.
Pipe manufacturers, contractors and utility companies must establish and enforce tight quality
assurance and control procedures, throughout the supply chain, and ensure the requirements of
the relevant standards are followed, depending on the application and use of the pipeline.
This paper will explore the current quality control standards, and look at how they are currently
used and applied. It will also highlight the things that can go wrong when these quality steps
are not followed.

______________________________
PhD, CEng, Technical Manager, Impact Solutions UK
Rio Pipeline Conference and Exhibition 2019

2. Quality Control Standards

The performance of a Polyethylene pipeline is dependent on a number of factors, starting from


the production of the raw material, right through to the final installation of the pipe (Figure 1).
Proper quality guidelines are crucial at all steps throughout the supply chain to ensure the final
integrity of the pipeline system.

Figure 1. Supply chain of quality standards

A number of standards and guidelines exist to ensure this integrity, however in this paper we
will focus on the guidelines used within the United Kingdom water industry. Different standards
exist across the different pipe using industries, such as the gas industry.
In the United Kingdom the two standards used by the water industry are BS EN 12201 and WIS
4-32-08-v4. These standards look at the whole supply chain, and include standards for the
material compound, the extrusion process, storage of finished product, and conditions for the
installation of the finished product on the site.

2.1. Characteristics of Polyethylene Compounds According to BS EN 12201

BS EN 12201 covers the material compound to be used within the production of a plastic
polyethylene (PE80 or PE100) pipe. These are specified in part 1 of the requirements, and
shown in Figure 2 below. Commented [A1]: Justify the text layout.

Figure 2. BS EN 12201 requirements

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It is the responsibility of the resin and pipe producers to assure the quality of the compound.
This should be checked by the purchaser (contractor) before using the pipes to ensure that they
comply.
While MFR (Melt Flow Rate) and density are standard tests, care must be taken with the OIT
measurements (Oxidation induction time), with samples taken from both the outer and inner
wall surfaces, as these are likely to exhibit different results.
Further, the standard requires that the pipe material meets a number of other standards.
Hydrostatic strength at 20C should be tested, with no failure during a 100 hour test at 12MPa
(based on a PE100 material) allowed. Hydrostatic strength should also be carried out at 80C,
with no failures at 1000hrs when tested at 5.0MPa. Elongation at break of the material, as
measured using ISO 527-2 should be greater than or equal to 350%.
It is important that elongation measurements are consistent with regard the specimen parameters
tested, and this is based on the pipe size. Type 3, or Type 1 specimens, as specified in ISO 527-
2 should be used, at either 10mm/min extension speed, or 25mm/min extension speed. A
change in either geometry or extension speed can cause a different elongation result, and in
some cases classify a pass for a material which does not conform to the standard. It is important
any test report is closely scrutinised to ensure the correct specimens and conditions have been
tested.

2.2. Importance of Material Characteristics

Impact regularly carry out BS EN 12201 testing for water utilities to ensure the integrity of the
pipe material they are using. In this case, Impact were commissioned to check the pipe material
to be used on a 18km pipe line installation, with a material cost alone of £5,000,000.
A section of PE100 pipe, to be used in the installation was supplied to Impact. Testing in
accordance with BS EN 12201 was carried out, including oxidation, carbon black, density,
MFR and tensile properties. Tensile was carried out on 8 sections of the pipe provided, with 5
of the 8 sections failing to meet the requirements of 350% elongation.
Extensive carbon black analysis close to the failed surfaces showed evidence of bad dispersion,
with carbon black agglomerates near the affected failure zones. These agglomerates, as shown
in Figure 3, cause brittle failures and can affect the integrity of the pipeline installation, leading
to unexpected and premature failures of the material when placed under stress.

Figure 3. Optical Micrograph showing the carbon black agglomerates in a PE pipe area

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3. Quality Assurance in Plastic Welds

The most vulnerable part of the pipeline is the pipe weld. Even if the pipe material has passed
the requirements of BS EN 12201, poor welding can lead to catastrophic failures, and heavily
contributes to the 3.3 billion litres of water lost from pipe failures in the UK daily.
Plastic pressure pipes are joined using two common techniques, Electrofusion or Butt fusion as
shown in Figure 4 below.

Figure 4. Comparison of Electrofusion and Butt fusion welding techniques

In Electrofusion welding, a coupler is placed around the two pipes to join. The pipes are
scrapped carefully to remove contamination and the oxidised layer of pipe. An electric current
is passed through copper wires in the coupler, heating the plastic surface and fusing the coupler
and the pipes together. The method is ideal for fusing pipes already in situ, or in confined
spaces. Butt fusion is more common, and is used where one pipe can be moved. Each pipe to
be joined is placed against a heater plate at a specified temperature. Once the correct conditions
have been achieved the plates are removed, and the two pipe ends are forced together using
hydraulic rams, where they fuse together.
It is important throughout the welding process that conditions are monitored closely, and that
procedures are in place to prepare the pipes and couplers, as even small errors can leave
potentially catastrophic faults. In 2014 a gas leak in Harlem, New York led to an explosion and
the deaths of 8 people. A NTSB investigation concluded at a faulty electrofusion tapping tee
was responsible for the deaths, most likely due to poor welding. The fault had gone undetected
until the time of the explosion.
The most common causes of failure of a pipe joint is due to
a) Mud contamination of the weld surface
b) Cold fusion, or underheating of the weld surface
c) Mis alignment of the pipes
Industry studies have reported that as many as 20% of all welds will fail prematurely. The
report also concluded that the vast majority of these failures will be due to poor welding caused
by improper training, or lack of procedures, with only 1 in 10,000 welds failing due to non-
conforming material.
It is therefore vital that any installers of plastic pipes have proper procedures in place, to ensure
training requirements have been followed and are effective, as well as servicing and maintaining
equipment involved in the process.

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3.1. Current Test Methods for Pipe Welds


A number of methods are available for destructively testing the integrity of a pipe weld, as
shown in Figure 5.

Figure 5. Different test requirements for pipe welds

In all tests, the pipe weld section should fail in a ductile manner. Should a brittle failure be
observed procedures and materials should be scrutinised to identify the cause.

In Butt Fusion tests, a section cut across the weld interface is pulled apart using a universal test
machine. WIS 4-32-08 specifies a type A geometry for the dumbbell. The thickness should be
the thickness of the pipe wall, however should this exceed 25mm, the pipe should be sectioned
into extra specimens.
A pass result is based on the pipe failing in a ductile manner, and this can become subjective.
Previous versions of the WIS 4-32-08 standard only allowed a visual inspection of the failure
mode. However, the new version allows the use of the load extension curve, as shown in figure
6, to identify ductile or brittle failures. Experience however has shown that energy values above
300kj/m2 are expected to be satisfactory, with those between 250kj/m2 and 300kj/m2 requiring
reference to the fracture surfaces as before.

Figure 6. Load extension curves (left) showing a ductile and mixed mode failure. Reference pictures shown
(right) of failure types

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The electrofusion test, as specified in ISO 13954, is a peel decohesion test. The purpose of this
test is to assess the decohesion of weld specimens by placing them under tensile strength. The
test setup is shown in figure 7. The test has a number of limitations, including experience
showing that only very poor welded specimens show brittle failures, with the majority of
failures occurring through the pipe wall itself, rather than in the coupler. This provides an
inconclusive result and can cause poor welds to be classified as a pass.

Figure 7. Peel Decohesion Test

This can be compared to a previous method, specified in the old version of WIS 4-32-08,
whereby the load was applied at right angles to the coupler interface. When comparing this
method to the new version specified, a weld which failed under the old version in a brittle
manner, failed through the coupler in the updated version.

Figure 8. failure mode (left) of version 4 of WIS 4-32-08 against failure mode (right) of WIS 4-32-08v3

Further work is underway between a number of laboratories into better methods to destructively
test electrofusion welds. Work has been performed looking at using side groves on the
discontinued WIS 4-32-08 method on joints greater than 180mm, while a strip bend test has
been investigated on joints under 180mm (as is common in the USA).
However, destructive testing has a number of limitations. It is required that initial start up welds
are produced and sent to laboratories for testing. These are regularly not carried out in
conditions relevant to the actual welding, and sometimes well before installation actually
begins. They also require expensive couplers to be destroyed in the process, and delays in
getting test reports can cause either construction delays, or construction to go ahead regardless
of the test results, leaving potentially hundreds of faulty welds in the ground.

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3. Novel Non-Destructive Test Methods

A new development in plastic pipe weld testing is the introduction of techniques for non-
destructive testing. This means that pipe welds can be quality assessed while in situ, and on
actual pipe installations. A number of techniques are currently under development, or being
commercialised with the most common using one of the following technologies
a) Phased array ultrasonics
b) A-Scan ultrasonics
c) Microwave technology
d) Terahertz technology
e) Digital radiography
The different technologies all have differences in their benefits and flaws, with some unable to
see a full range of defects, such as voids, contamination, misalignment or lack of fusion. Little
work has been performed on the long term affect of different defects in a pipe weld, and how
this correlates to failures in destructive or non destructive welds, and this work is currently
ongoing.

3.1. A-scan Ultrasonic Inspection

A scan ultrasonic inspection is a simple method, whereby low cost ultrasonic probes are
combined with a simple generator on conventional computing equipment. The result is a low-
cost solution for assessing potential defects in an electrofusion weld. A computer programme,
running an algorithm is able to assess in real time the returned ultrasonic signal, and display a
pass/fail, Go, or No Go reading back to the operator, allowing quick and effective screening of
a pipe weld.
The system is portable and can be used on most Electofusion joint geometries, including tapping
and branch tees. The system has been blind tested in both the UK and American markets, where
it has passed in comparison to destructive testing.

Figure 9. A scan Inspection Process

Ultrasonic inspection can be used in conjunction with further quality controls, such as the
requirements of EN 12201, equipment maintenance and proper operating procedures. The A
scan inspection can be used as a final step to give confidence in the pipeline installation.
During the installation of a fire main at a high profile and high volume UK based factory, the
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client specified the use of A scan inspection, as well as further QA control methods including
destructive testing. A scan inspection was carried out on all pipe welds, with the system
identifying two defective welds. These were cut out and destructively tested, confirming the
results of the NDT inspection.
As a result, the contractor was able to provide their client with a higher confidence that the
critical pipeline had been installed correctly and would perform to the high standards required
of it.

4. Conclusions

The pipeline industry needs to continue to develop further quality assurance and control
methods to protect the reputation of plastic pipes. Collaboration is required across the industry.
Pipe manufacturers, contractors and end users need to implement and agree strict, but realistic
QA/QC programmes. Further, laboratories need to continue to develop more robust methods
for destructively testing welds, which minimise costs to the contractors, including time delays,
while producing less subjective and more consistent results. Finally, NDT techniques need to
be further developed, and crucially correlated against long term failure modes in order to
standardise the multiple methods available and produce reliable results.