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Spring cleaning at the Schwechat Refinery

Reading time: 7 min

The Schwechat Refinery turned 58 in April, making it a plant in the prime of its life. It goes without saying that regular medical check-ups are always a good idea; for refineries a so-called “turnaround” is mandatory once every six years. It also has enormous dimensions: 3,180 people joined in to dismantle, clean, maintain, repair and then rebuild it all back together in the end.


6 am. This is the time the rush hour has already started in the Schwechat refinery during the turnaround. Teams flood in through the three gates with buses, cars, trucks and hundreds of bikes converging on the compound; it’s like this for a whole month, every day. In the midst of the hubbub you can often see the overall turnaround manager, Stefan Hölbfer, hopping on his bike from one facility to the next: “A project like this cannot work without human contact. It’s one thing to plan it down to the very last detail, but a key factor is also that the teams know that you’re here for them and that only works with direct contact on site”.

Four weeks of mammoth figures

In the past people used to refer to the inspection weeks as a standstill, but this term doesn’t quite seem to fit when you look at today’s agenda: In these four weeks more than 306 tonnes of steel will be processed and inspections carried out on 480 heat exchangers, 16 furnaces, 510 containers and 2,677 valves, in addition to replacing more than 12,6 kilometers of pipes. Operations at the refinery have been partially shut down in advance and all of the hydrocarbons cleared. All of these tasks mean that the workers need a lot of energy. This is reflected in the orders in the canteen – around 200,000 Leberkäse rolls (bread rolls stuffed with meat loaf) will hit the spot during the turnaround, along with 20,000 liters of soup and 300,000 liters of soft drinks.

Harald Horvath Turnaround Manager, OMV Refining & Marketing
To realize this kind of work you need professionals that we have gathered from the entire European market. The mixture of experience and expertise always has to be just right to get the right results.
Harald Horvath, Turnaround Manager, OMV Refining & Marketing

By the end, everyone involved will have put in around 600,000 man hours and it will seem to Stefan Hölbfer like he has been in the same number of meetings. But this effort is necessary to master a project like this. Maximum energy is needed right from the start in order to open up every critical point of the plant. This step needs to be done swiftly, as those responsible can only see what’s required given the state of the plant once it has been opened and only then can they estimate the true scope of the repairs. One thing is certain – despite even the most precise planning, there are always surprises in store on a turnaround like this.

Distillation plant: Working on an open furnace


The greatest challenge this time around is on the distillation plant. It goes by the name RD4 and forms the heart of the refinery. This is where crude oil is transformed into the basic products needed for the subsequent production of bitumen, petrol, heating fuel and many more. Once the team has opened one of the two furnaces, the experts quickly recognize that there is a lot of work ahead here. The exterior walls had to be repaired in certain places and multiple mounts needed replacing. This is hardly a surprise, given the fact that they have withstood temperatures of around 400°C since 1972.

First the requisite spare parts need to be acquired as quickly as possible, but they are specially custom-made, leading to the pressing question: How fast can the parts get here? The waiting period is spent replacing multiple crude oil pipes on the furnace. The day comes and the spare parts are delivered right on time – the relief is palpable. Every available worker helps to get the furnace ready and their efforts pay off. The furnace repairs are completed three days ahead of schedule.

Stefan Hölbfer Overall Turnaround Manager, OMV Refining & Marketing
You have to imagine that our plant has been expanded into multiple levels and work progresses next to or above each level. Every single step has an impact on the following step. This means that massive logistics come into play for every stage of every procedure.
Stefan Hölbfer, Overall Turnaround Manager, OMV Refining & Marketing

Working with high pressure – also at the washing station

The complexity of the turnaround is also seen in the 480 heat exchangers. During operations they serve as the refinery’s radiators, as substances flow through them to get to the right temperature for further processes. Some of the heat exchangers are more than 12 meters long, weigh more than 20 tonnes and have to be dragged out of the nooks of the plant so that they can be cleaned. Harald Horvath: “We have one week to get all of the plant’s heat exchangers to the washing station. It’s only after this that we can carry out the inspection and talk about repairs. This is a sequence of a lot of jobs, where one expert company after another handles the heat exchangers. If all of the heat exchangers are not at the washing station in the first week, the whole process of inspection and repairs won’t work”.


So, the heat exchangers – like lots of other parts – land at the washing station, where the build-up of the past six years is blasted off with water under 1,200-bar pressure. To ensure that all of the parts end up back in the right place, they are marked with a chip. In the first two weeks the washing station operates nonstop, in three shifts, so that the turnaround management can see as soon as possible how much work is needed for each of these elements.

Final checks: first half done

In the last days of the turnaround the hustle and bustle gradually starts to die down. More and more systems are ready to start up again. The roads that were previously thick with traffic slowly return to normal and the bicycle-stands thin out. However, there are also new additions to the compound in the form of the employees of the TÜV inspection agency. Together with those responsible from OMV, they apply their stringent criteria and checklists to monitor the handover of the individual aggregates and make sure they are functioning safely. Here the most important thing is that all of the pipes, columns, tanks, valves and much more find their way back together perfectly. In addition, the potential for leakage is evaluated on every facility that has been overhauled, using pressure testing, before they are brought on line again, one at a time. The team has thereby brought one of the most intensive and comprehensive turnarounds in the history of the Schwechat Refinery to a successful conclusion. Stefan Hölbfer: “We truly had the best people working on this turnaround. There has been an exceptional team spirit throughout the entire workforce; the whole site has been working together towards a single major objective. It’s a great feeling to have been a part of this and it also makes me very proud!”

Whistle to kick off the second half


One down, one to go – and so the preparations for the next round are already underway in the Schwechat Refinery. After all, only half of the refinery was inspected this year, namely the part that is responsible for producing fuels – the petrochemicals units will follow in 2017. But what’s the point in a job that’s only half-done? Because a turnaround of the entire refinery would take around twice as long and need twice as much manpower. But nobody here can or wants to imagine a two-month-long stop to production, while bringing 7,000 workers on site would stretch the grounds of feasibility. Where to put all these people? How to handle the traffic? And most of all: Who would make 400,000 meatloaf rolls, possibly even with pickles?

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