Tanks must be cleaned from time to time for various reasons. One reason is to change the type of product carried inside a tank. Also, when tanks are to be inspected or maintenance must be performed within a tank, it must be not only cleaned, but made gas-free.
On most crude-oil tankers, a special crude oil washing (COW) system is part of the cleaning process. The COW system circulates part of the cargo through the fixed tank-cleaning system to remove wax and asphaltic deposits. Tanks that carry less viscous cargoes are washed with water. Fixed and portable automated tank cleaning machines, which clean tanks with high-pressure water jets, are widely used. Some systems use rotating high-pressure water jets to spray hot water on all the internal surfaces of the tank. As the spraying takes place, the liquid is pumped out of the tank.
After a tank is cleaned, provided that it is going to be prepared for entry, it will be purged. Purging is accomplished by pumping inert gas into the tank until hydrocarbons have been sufficiently expelled. Next the tank is gas freed which is usually accomplished by blowing fresh air into the space with portable air powered or water powered air blowers. “Gas freeing” brings the oxygen content of the tank up to 20.8% O2. The inert gas buffer between fuel and oxygen atmospheres ensures they are never capable of ignition. Specially trained personnel monitor the tank’s atmosphere, often using hand-held gas indicators which measure the percentage of hydrocarbons present. After a tank is gas-free, it may be further hand-cleaned in a manual process known as mucking. Mucking requires protocols for entry into confined spaces, protective clothing, designated safety observers, and possibly the use of airline respirators.