Industrial Vacuum Cleaner Options for Cleaning Confined Spaces  

Industrial Vacuum Cleaner Options for Cleaning Confined Spaces  

Heavy duty industrial vacuum cleaners can eliminate the need to enter confined spaces for cleaning, reducing hazards and costs in a variety of ways. 

Whether it’s eliminating the need to enter a permit-only confined space to clean accumulations of combustible dusts from grain elevators, or eliminating the amplified ergonomic, fall and overexertion hazards associated with cleaning non-permit confined spaces, such as blast recovery and sludge pits, industrial vacuum cleaners are an accepted engineering control to mitigate safety hazards and support compliance with OSHA and NFPA guidelines.

Employing industrial vacuum systems in housekeeping routines to remove dust and debris not only creates a safer environment but also saves companies tens of thousands of dollars per year in labor costs, equipment maintenance, material expenditures (through reclamation), and through increased uptime by reducing lengthy production interruptions for manual cleaning. In environments where cleaning needs to occur in confined spaces, especially in permit-required spaces, the ROI of an industrial vacuum cleaning system quickly rises when vacuums allow for cleaning from outside the enclosed space or cut man hours in half.

OSHA defines a confined space as one that is large enough for an employee to enter fully and perform assigned work, is not designed for continuous occupancy and has a limited or restricted means of entry or exit.

A confined space becomes a permit-required confined space when inherent, introduced or potential serious hazards to health or life are present, such as hazardous atmospheres, materials that can engulf workers with spaces that can trap someone and other recognized serious hazards.

Permit-required confined space procedures are costly in terms of evaluation, training, PPE and the additional manpower needed to not only monitor entry, but to remain at the ready for the duration of a task, turning a one-person assignment into a four-person assignment.

Although necessary for safety and health, coordinating time-consuming entry into permit-required spaces for cleaning is sometimes regarded as a nuisance which can result in less frequent housekeeping and maintenance activities in those spaces.

Some equipment that qualifies as confined spaces and are common in most industries, include tanks, silos, reaction vessels, vats, boilers, pits and mechanical conveyor enclosures. Combustible dusts and respiratory irritants are common hazardous substances that industrial vacuum cleaners mitigate in permit-required spaces.

In many plant environments, portable heavy duty industrial vacuum cleaners that are built to meet the rigorous demands of 24/7 industrial operations, facilitate cleaning from outside of confined spaces, as recommended in NFPA 350 Guide for Safe Confined Space Entry and Work 8.4.1.1, eliminating the need for entry.

OSHA  does not regulate non-permit confined spaces, but cost and safety-oriented plant and safety managers understand the exacerbated safety hazards that exist when manually cleaning such spaces and look for solutions, such as industrial vacuums, to mitigate them.

Just as no two confined space areas have identical conditions, no two vacuum cleaning applications are the same. Many factors influence vacuum cleaning system design including the characteristics of the material cleaned (such as: abrasiveness, corrosiveness, flammability or explosion hazard), volume collected, bulk density, particle size, filtration goals, maximum temperature, total number of pick-up points, the number of simultaneous operators, hose size, longest vertical and horizontal tubing runs from vacuum, available floor space and collection container considerations. Most industrial vacuum cleaner systems require standard equipment with option capabilities to best fit a facility's application.

The range of industrial vacuums available for specific applications and debris, coupled with tools and accessories tailored to application needs, have advanced the equipment beyond general housekeeping and safety uses and into production tools that increase uptime and improve product quality. Below are some of the basic vacuum cleaning systems that can make cleaning confined spaces more economical for facilities and safer for workers.

Combustible Dust Vacuum Cleaners

Every plant has unique processes and thresholds when it comes to combustible dust. There is no one size fits all vacuum cleaning applications and no single standard or one industrial vacuum cleaner that can meet the requirements for all combustible dusts.

Companies really need someone who has intimate knowledge of how chemicals react in certain environments and has experience in NFPA standards to help them choose the right combustible dust vacuum cleaner.

Combustible dust vacuums are completely grounded and bonded to meet the NFPA 70 requirements for grounding and bonding. These vacuums also meet the definition of an “intrinsically-safe system”. Although some combustible dust vacuums are available with electric motors, compressed-air-powered vacuums that do not use electricity and do not generate any heat from operation are the first defense to explosion prevention. These vacuums can also be powered by inert gas such as nitrogen or argon in lieu of compressed air for an additional factor of safety.

Portable Compressed-Air-Operated Vacuum Cleaners

Compressed-air-operated vacuum cleaners are the workhorses of industrial vacuum cleaning systems, cleaning up everything that will fit in the material hose from abrasives, fine powders, litter and metalworking chips/fluids and sands and flammable liquids. These vacuums are also ideal for use with abrasive cement particles that can damage electrical equipment over time. Compressed-air-powered vacuum cleaners operate on the Venturi principle and by design create their own vacuum without motors or moving parts, making them intrinsically safe. No moving parts or motors also means that units generate no heat and last longer because there are no parts to fail. They are the most economical and energy efficient industrial vacuums.

Variable orifice venturi allows operation with the lowest air consumption possible yet enables users to double the vacuum level with more compressed air for more difficult cleaning tasks such as high-density materials, viscous liquids or longer vacuum distances.

Some models of portable compressed-air-operated vacuums are also available in packages specifically designed and ATEX certified for combustible dust and flammable liquid applications. Combustible dust vacuums are available with unique pulse jet filter cleaning systems that, with the push of a button, backwashes accumulated dust from the filter, eliminating the need to manually clean the unit and virtually eliminate filter blinding.

Continuous Duty Vacuum Cleaners

Continuous duty vacuum cleaners are designed to withstand 24/7 operation and to handle some of the toughest materials including heavy steel shot or mounds of fine powders. Powerful enough to pick up a bowling ball, portable continuous duty vacuums are available with motors ranging from five hp to 30 hp with add-on intercept vessels to expand collection capacity and improve material handling. Continuous duty vacuums have been used by metal finishers to eliminate workers descending into a three-foot-deep trench confined space with awkward footing to manually shovel and scoop heavy blast media, cutting clean up time by more than 50 percent and eradicating several ergonomic hazards.

Break Away Vacuum Cleaning Systems

Dual purpose break-away vacuum cleaning systems are powerful, portable units that operate much like a central vacuum cleaning system that is able to break away from tubing networks and used independently elsewhere in the facility to clean up spills.

These break away central vacuum systems use powerful portable vacuum units in concert with several small tubing networks. For instance, if a user is working in a 100 by 200 square-foot area and there are two more areas in another building, individual tubing networks are created in each space and the portable unit moved from one tubing network to the next. These systems provide the convenience of a multi-inlet central vacuum cleaning system, with the energy efficiency and flexibility of a portable vacuum.

Powerful suction is what enables facilities to add extension wands that allow operators to clean permit-required confined space from the outside without sacrificing power. Higher suction is created with a positive displacement pump (PD pump) vacuum producer. PD pumps are capable of generating high vacuum and excellent airflow, so they have the ability to pull massive amounts of material over distances and pick up heavy materials not typically associated with an industrial vacuum cleaner.

Portable industrial vacuum cleaners have the potential to eliminate entry into permit-required confined spaces for cleaning, decreasing labor, administrative costs and losses related to illness or injury caused by serious hazards and ergonomic, slip and fall, overexertion, inhalation and explosion hazards that are increased in small spaces.

Working with an innovative vacuum cleaner manufacturer that has decades of expertise with tens of thousands of materials in a wide range of industries guarantees the best possible solution for cleaning confined spaces safely.

This article originally appeared in the July/August 2021 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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