Sulzer - managing water in tunnel building

Installing a Sulzer XJ drainage pump.
Installing a Sulzer XJ drainage pump.
Dewatering with Sulzer XJ drainage pump.
Dewatering with Sulzer XJ drainage pump.
Dewatering in a German tunnel project.
Dewatering in a German tunnel project.

Major tunnelling projects involve the movement of large volumes of water. Pablo Garcia, global business development manager at Sulzer, discusses the range of pumps needed throughout a tunnelling project and the support structure that keeps them operational.

Tunnelling technology has developed rapidly over the past few decades,  delivering shorter travel times and safer journeys through mountainous areas or below more congested areas. Tunnels have the potential to improve transport links, support infrastructure and, as a result, the wider economy.

However, where there are tunnels, there is water, and its management is a key consideration in any major tunnel construction project. Engineering teams may have to extract significant volumes of water from the construction site in order to stabilise the ground or prevent flooding of the work area. As a result, the selection, operation and maintenance of pumps and related equipment can therefore have a significant impact on costs and schedule compliance.

Water management Tunnel boring machines and drilling equipment require a reliable supply of cooling water, which must be recovered, extracted and treated after use. In addition, personnel working on site need access to safe, clean water for drinking and sanitation.

Each of these applications may involve multiple stages of water management. Water removed from a work site might first be transferred to settling tanks underground, for example, to reduce its solids content before it is pumped to the surface. Once there, it may undergo further treatment stages, either on or off-site to bring it to a condition suitable for safe discharge back into the environment.

Pumps for all purposes Together, these water management tasks mean tunnelling projects require numerous pumps. It is not uncommon for a large project to operate several hundred pumps across the worksite for the duration of construction, ranging from small submersible units to very large components for large volume dewatering applications.

In tunnelling, pumps are critical items for maintaining suitable working conditions and hitting production targets. If a pump fails or underperforms, tunnelling operations may have to stop, leading to extra costs and schedule over-runs.

Therefore, the selection and specification of pumps and associated equipment requires significant attention and specialist input. Ideally, conversations with equipment providers should begin early in the project. During the design phase, a pump supplier can do more than simply make recommendations about the most appropriate type, number and size of pumps for a given application. They may also be able to suggest new solutions, previously not considered, that could lead to significant cost savings and performance improvements over the lifecycle of a project.

Selection criteria Pump selection is based on several different parameters. The most fundamental of these is the required flow rate and head. Deeper construction sites inevitably require larger, more sophisticated pumps. Another key factor in construction applications is the quantity of solids in the water.

Heavily contaminated water can damage or block a pump of unsuitable design and manufacturers have developed their ranges to handle different levels of contamination. For example, drainage pumps are designed for water with a low solids content while slurry pumps can tolerate mud mixtures with up to 70% solids.

The performance requirements for pumps in tunnelling applications are varied. While slurry pumps can operate to heads of up to 95 m, high-pressure pump designs required for deeper ­applications are prone to rapid wear if used with heavily contaminated water. This can create the requirement for additional settlement, or other water treatment processes, underground prior to extraction.

In long-term, large-scale dewatering applications, the energy consumed by pumps can comprise a significant part of their total lifecycle costs. High-efficiency pump designs, which may have a higher initial cost due to their materials and construction, can  often deliver significant savings. The pump supplier should be able to provide comprehensive through-life cost calculations to support its recommendations.

Service and support When selecting a pump supplier for a major project, engineering and procurement teams should consider additional factors beyond the basic technical specifications of the equipment. The supplier should have a broad portfolio of products to meet all the project’s needs. Sourcing from fewer vendors simplifies procurement and vendor management activities, as well as the handling of operational issues like the provision of spare parts and technical support.

Vendors should have the scale and local presence to fully support the project. While every engineering team aims to minimise uncertainty before work starts, underground operations are never entirely predictable. If the pumping requirements change significantly during a project, it is important that additional or upgraded equipment is readily available.

Finally, the supplier should have the resources, capabilities and expertise to support its products in a demanding construction environment. The ability to quickly resolve an issue on a pump operating hundreds of metres underground in a remote location can avoid significant delays for a project. Companies with experience in major projects have developed specialised support capabilities, for example, providing containerised service ­facilities that allow tools, equipment and an ­appropriate inventory of spare parts to be held on site for 24/7 availability.

For a cost-effective and reliable dewatering project, it is important to assess the ability of providers to deliver a comprehensive range of products with all the necessary technical support and maintenance inventory. This will reduce project complexity and ensure that every pump is correctly matched to its application for the ­duration of the construction project.