Can Digitalization Help Avoid Swiss Cheese Pipes?

Wes Edmiston, Cumulus Digital Systems
Tags: preventive maintenance, reliability-centered maintenance

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Microbiologically-induced corrosion is hampering project productivity and asset longevity. Here’s how a digital system can help.


Currently, the processes and tools used to conduct a pressure test on piping systems are archaic. Out-of-date revisions are causing duplicate testing, and inaccurate tracking is causing piping flushes. These and many more issues are creating a laundry list of problems with the current testing method, resulting in massive safety and productivity problems in the form of microbiologically-induced corrosion (MIC) and Swiss cheese pipes.  

Digitalization offers a compelling and effective alternative that successfully replaces manual processes and cumbersome paperwork with a more reliable solution. However, an important functional problem remains — is the industry ready to fully integrate digitalization into piping inspections? 

To answer this, it’s important to first understand what is causing the problem. 

Causes of MIC and Swiss Cheese Pipes

Microbiologically-induced corrosion, or MIC, is one of the most common causes of pipe failure in oil and gas facilities. In fact, approximately 70% of all internal leaks in pipelines are caused by MIC.¹ This represents a significant productivity pain point for both project owners and contractors in the energy industry. 
From a scientific perspective, a microorganism must be present in the form of archaea, bacteria, or eukaryotes for MIC to occur.² These microorganisms thrive in environments like low chloride waters. In practice, MIC is most likely to occur during testing activities that require pipes to be pressurized and filled with water.  
In extreme cases, MIC can cause erosion and actual holes in the pipe, hence the term “Swiss cheese pipes”. Two primary pressure testing errors that cause this to happen are:

  1. Utilizing inappropriate water sources or improper parameters.
  2. Leaving stagnant water in the pipes for too long.

Both mistakes produce costly and time-consuming problems.

Problems Associated with MIC

When MIC is detected, it’s likely that a retest will be ordered, creating additional exposure hours and driving up project expenses. This, in turn, poses an increased risk to worker safety; the more time spent on a task, the greater the chance for a rupture or other safety risk to occur.
Unfortunately, the presence of MIC is not an isolated problem. In fact, it is indicative of three larger industry problems surrounding pressure testing procedures: 

  1. Equipment malfunction. The industry’s pervasive use of outdated equipment (such as chart reporters) creates processes that are subject to interference and damage. 
  2. Version control issues. Revisions aren’t accurately tracked, leading to inaccurate documentation that can cause tests to occur at incorrect values. 
  3. Expensive rework. When retests are ordered, it creates more work and delays the project schedule. 

To rectify these problems, hardware providers have launched tools that streamline pressure testing processes. Additionally, many companies have developed their own home-grown point solutions. 

However, as a whole, the industry has been slow to change. These siloed solutions only solve portions of the underlying problem. A more pervasive, long-term solution is sorely needed.  

Utilizing Technology to Eliminate Swiss Cheese Pipes

The good news is that a holistic solution to MIC and Swiss cheese pipes, which are symptoms of larger industry problems, already exists. Digitalization, specifically connected worker technology, can proactively monitor quality issues in real-time while eliminating rework and costly mistakes. 
Connected worker technologies link workers with the digital world through tools such as mobile phones, IoT sensors, and wearable digital equipment. By providing workers with real-time information and tracking their progress, this technology can have a significant impact on quality and productivity. The result is an upskilled frontline workforce with improved performance.

Examples of this include utilizing a mobile app that provides workers with interactive checklists and instructions that automatically update with real-time information, or deploying a Bluetooth-enabled digital pressure gauge that captures pressure testing data every second and uploads it to the cloud.
The impact of implementing connected worker technology in the context of pressure testing has many benefits, such as:

  1. Better procedure adherence. By ensuring workers can’t continue until the proper operating procedures are followed, pressure testing will be more efficient.  
  2. Improved quality control. Each pressure testing crew member will have up-to-date information in the field to ensure they are using the right testing parameters. They can also verify that the work has been done correctly by using pictures, checklists, and digital work data.  
  3. Greater progress visibility. By integrating with digital pressure gauges, the exact progress and status of each pressure test can be accurately tracked from afar. 

Because of these benefits, quality personnel are able to view digital records of all completed work, which streamlines the piping inspection process. This simplifies everyone’s job, improves the project’s bottom line, and effectively eliminates Swiss cheese pipes.

The Future of Pressure Testing

While a digital system sounds great, what exactly would pressure testing look like in an ideal world under the proposed system?  

To start, all preemptive work will be completed correctly and verified prior to the pressure testing crew’s arrival. This means all connections are tight, all nondestructive testing is complete and cleared, and all necessary welds have been made. Moreover, the team will have digital records to know exactly when and how this work was done. 

Next comes a smooth setup process. There won’t be any cold springs in the piping, and all blinds will be known. The volume of the test package is accurately documented in one centralized, digital location so a water truck can be ordered to meet exact specifications. Everything is ready to go.
The test is ready to begin, and the crew has all the information they need to start the test. The fill-up is a success; everything is properly vented, and no pockets are left in the line. There is digital documentation on exactly when the filling started. 
The test goes smoothly, with seamless integration between hardware and software. There’s no need to worry about protecting the area around the chart recorder because everything is being digitally monitored and recorded.  
After closing out and completing the test, a digital alert notifies the team that the five-day water in the system maximum is coming up, so they drain and dry the system. The test is a resounding success, with no risk of MIC, inaccurate information or rework. Swiss cheese, who? 
It may sound like a pipe dream, but the benefits that stand to be gained are massive. With project margins under attack, this level of digitalization is sorely needed by the industry in pressure testing and beyond.  
What do you think: is the industry ready? 


1. Javaherdashti, R. 2022. A Brief Introduction to Microbial Corrosion in the Oil Industry. Journal of Petroleum Technology. 
2. Little, B.J. Lee, J.S. 2009. Microbiologically Influenced Corrosion. Kirk-Othmer Encyclopedia of Chemical Technology.