This week’s Pipeliners Podcast episode features first-time guest Mich Hager of K9 Pipe Inspections discussing the unique world of using highly-trained dogs to support leak detection.
In this episode, you will learn about why dogs are very effective at detecting leaks in pipelines, the process of using dogs to detect leaks, how long it typically takes dogs to find a leak, the effectiveness of dogs compared to other inline inspection tools, and more interesting information about this opportunity for pipeline operators to enhance their leak detection program.
Pipeline Leak Detection: Show Notes, Links, and Insider Terms
- Mich Hager is the president of K9 Pipe Inspections. Connect with Mich on LinkedIn.
- K9 Pipe Inspections uses highly-trained dogs to locate leaks along buried oil, natural gas, and swd (saltwater disposal) pipelines.
- Leak Detection is the process of monitoring, diagnosing, and addressing a leak in a pipeline to mitigate risks.
- ILI (Inline Inspection) is a method to assess the integrity and condition of a pipe by determining the existence of cracks, deformities, or other structural issues that could cause a leak.
- News Article: $19 Billion Later, Pentagon’s Best Bomb-Detector Is a Dog.
- API (American Petroleum Institute) represents all segments of America’s natural gas and oil industry. API has developed more than 700 standards to enhance operational and environmental safety, efficiency, and sustainability.
- API RP 1175 (API 1175) established a framework for Leak Detection Program management for hazardous liquid pipelines within the jurisdiction of the U.S. DOT (specifically, 49 CFR Part 195). API RP 1175 is specifically designed to provide pipeline operators with a description of industry practices in risk-based pipeline LDP management and to provide the framework to develop sound program management practices within a pipeline operator’s individual companies.
- API RP 1185 (Pipeline Public Engagement) is a new Recommended Practice that is designed to help change the conversation between pipeliners, the public, and concerned entities to find pipeline solutions.
Pipeline Leak Detection: Full Episode Transcript
Russel Treat: Welcome to the Pipeliners Podcast, episode 174, sponsored by P.I. Confluence, providing software and implementation expertise for pipeline program governance applied to operations, Pipeline Safety Management, and compliance, using process management software to connect program to implementation. Find out more about P.I. Confluence at piconfluence.com.
Announcer: The Pipeliners Podcast, where professionals, Bubba geeks, and industry insiders share their knowledge and experience about technology, projects, and pipeline operations. Now your host, Russel Treat.
Russel: Thanks for listening to the Pipeliners Podcast. I appreciate you taking the time. To show that appreciation, we give away a customized YETI tumbler to one listener each episode. This week, our winner is Jeremy Groover with Industrial Degauss. Jeremy is a former guest of the podcast and he is now a winner of the customized YETI. Yes, you have to enter to win. To find out how you can do that, stick around till the end of the episode.
This week, Mich Hager is going to come on to the podcast and talk to us about using dogs for pipeline leak detection. I hope you enjoy this episode as much as I did. Mich, welcome to the Pipeliners Podcast.
Mich Hager: Hey, thank you so much for inviting me on. I really appreciate it.
Russel: I have to tell you, Mich, I have been wanting to have somebody with your expertise on the Pipeliners Podcast pretty much since I started. I think I told you this off-mic when we were prepping that I ran into a group at the Pipeline Pigging and Integrity Management [PPIM] conference three years ago, and could never convince them to come on and talk about dogs and pipelining. I am so glad to have you on.
Mich: Hey, I am really glad you found us. Really cool thing is last year we were on the pipeline right-of-way and we had a couple guys suggest that we talk with you or listen in on your podcasts. It’s been full circle to get invited on, because I found you on the right of way. It’s pretty cool.
Russel: That’s awesome. That’s exactly where I want to be found. Listen, how did you get in…First, before we dive in here, tell me a little bit about yourself, your background, and how you got into working with dogs.
Mich: My background — I got my degree in psychology from the University of Montana. I really started focusing into animal cognition, and what I found is the hands-on is really important.
I started working with police and military canine trainers while I was working as a behavioral therapist with the humans. From there, I actually took some pre-existing research, what has been out there with leak detection with dogs, and then specialized and advanced it into our program today and what we have. I brought a lot of pieces together with what I was doing in the past.
Russel: You’re a behavioral therapist by education?
Mich: Yeah. Psychology by profession and worked with humans, but my goal was always to work with animals and canines. I brought that all together and now we find leaks for pipelines.
Russel: What’s this? You’re working with the people, or working with the dogs?
Mich: [laughs] Oh, boy. I’d say it’s more of just a preference. It’s amazing how much I can actually transfer over with, I guess, techniques and strategies in regard to cognition and behavioral changes when it comes to animals.
The biggest thing is communicating with the animal, or working with the natural-born hunters. What we need is to bridge that gap of communication and make sure our goals come together. We’re basically out hunting on a pipeline.
Russel: Tell me a little bit about that. How did working with dogs get to working with dogs on pipelines? How did you start working with dogs?
You talked about the canine training with police or some of the other things that are probably more commonly known. How did you get from that to working with them on pipelines?
Mich: I was working with canine trainers that were doing explosives work, narcotics. I was working in shed hunting. It was a fun thing we were doing up in the north.
Russel: Shed hunting, you’re going to have to tell. A lot of our listeners will know what that is, but not all of them. What is shed hunting?
Mich: Referring to antler shed hunting. Every spring, elk, deer, and moose shed their antlers. Using dogs to go and find that. Anyone that shed-hunts knows that it’s brown gold, it’s worth good money, and it’s very fun. Easter egg hunting for adults.
Mich: Working with dogs, hunting for a target odor is something that I’ve always been playing with and had a goal of being a part of and specialized in it, so to speak.
Russel: How does a dog key on a pipeline leak? How do they recognize a pipeline leak?
Mich: Our system is we have a tracer odorant that’s injected into the line. The real great part of that is it’s novel to that pipeline, or it’s novel to that environment, so to speak. Think of it as, when they’re going out there, there’s only one odor they’re looking for, and they’re out there hunting for it.
It puts us in a position of working on a lot of different lines as well. We are not stuck to only, say, a crude oil line or a natural gas line. We can put our tracer in essentially any line that can hold it and go out and hunt for that target odor.
Russel: That sounds really straightforward, I guess, but I would think that a pipeliner would have a whole lot of questions about putting something into the flow stream. How difficult is it to get that injected into the flow or injected into the pipeline?
Mich: Our tracer, it’s an industry-approved odorant. It is proprietary. It’s our secret sauce, so to speak, but we just run it by that company’s engineers. Honestly, our service works really great with hydro testing and air testing.
A lot of the time, they’re already doing a pressure test, and we just come in and become a part of that, put our tracer in, and go above the surface.
Russel: Interesting. I know enough about dogs, because my mother was big into dogs and raised purebreds. I know that they have very keen olfactory senses, and they have a very…Anybody that knows dogs knows they have an ability to track scents, but how small of a leak can they find, and how deep of a pipeline can they find that leak in?
Mich: Honestly, this system, it’s been tested in research study down to 12 feet. We’ve worked on lines as deep as 12 feet. I’d say our deepest leak we found was right around the 7-foot mark. That brings in the specialty of our tracer odorant as well.
It really shines when we have to work with really deeply buried lines. The depth doesn’t matter as much, so long as we have enough time for that vapor to the surface. It’s really actually quite simple, once the dogs are on the right-of-way.
They work above the surface. They’re as fast as their handler will let them. They do a scratch dig indication. We let them have an aggressive response. I’ll be honest, I don’t know how many times those dogs have indicated, we’ve taken the hydrovac and pothole straight down.
We just look in the hole and say, “Oh, there it is.” It’s sometimes a little bit anticlimactic. It’s amazing what their noses can do, and the size of most pinhole leaks are really, really surprising. We’ve had ones where the line had been pressured for several days, and it was simply because we had gotten — weather had delayed us.
When we got in there, it only had probably a baseball-sized clump of mud to the side of this pipe after three days. The dogs just completely pinpointed it and hit on it. This is truly what they’re set up to do, I guess you could say.
Russel: I guess the thing that’s amazing to me about this, and it makes sense to me, given the little bit I know about it, but I would think that dogs are uniquely equipped to find the very, very small leaks, more so than other kinds of technology.
Mich: Yeah, honestly, there is actually…I love this study, because it is very interesting to me. The Pentagon actually had a task force out for about a six-year program. They spent $19 billion…
Russel: That’s billion with a B, right?
Mich: $19 billion to find a better way to find bombs. At the end of the study, they found out dogs were still the best bomb detectors. What gets me is, if you can trust a dog to find an IED that was created by someone who’s trying to not be detected, and you don’t know where it’s located, it seems like a no-brainer that we have a system where we know where the line is.
We know what the odor is, and we want to be able to find it. It’s a canine handler’s dream to have the marked route of where we’re going to search. There’s dogs doing very, very advanced, specialized things out there, and we trust our lives with it.
Russel: I guess I hadn’t thought about that, but you’re making a really interesting point in that the nature of what you’re asking these dogs to do — in the spectrum of what we ask dogs to do in this domain — this is one of the more simpler tasks.
Mich: Yeah, you have a biological hunter that will literally track things that don’t want to be found. We have something we want to find, and we’re setting them up to find the best success we can manage, so pretty cool.
Russel: Knowing where you’re searching and knowing exactly what you’re searching for, and there being no caution around finding it, it’s different, I guess, than some of the other things that dogs that are trained on scent are doing. Either their search area’s not defined, or they have to approach with caution. In the context of that, it’s simpler, it would appear to me.
Mich: Yeah, those aspects are fairly cut and dry for a dog. Our biggest thing is just setting them up so they can go do their work. I’ll be honest, we’ve gone on right-of-ways, and everyone’s so excited expecting the big shebang or something real exciting.
We go out, and sometimes our dogs find it so fast, we’ve had it where it was at the end of the line, but it only took us, say, 30 minutes. Our dog hit it. They were really anxious about this leak, so they literally had a hydrovac truck right behind us. We potholed, it was there, and then we’re like, “Okay, well, what’s next?” That was it. The dogs are really great at their jobs.
Russel: How do you go about training one of these dogs? What’s the process for getting a dog to do this kind of work?
Mich: The biggest thing is having the right kind of dog. It’s drive, that stamina, and that environmental stability. So long as we have those raw aspects, we’re basically playing a game of using those bioskills of them being exceptional hunters and getting their paycheck at the end of the day.
A saying I always have is, “My dogs are ball addicts or tug addicts, and I’m the ball dealer.” They’re working their hearts out just to get that moment of play and engagement with their handler, with the ball, and they’re crazy for it.
They’re crazy to work for us, and it’s really cool and awesome to see.
Russel: There’s a lot that people could learn from dogs. Working to play is one of those things you could learn from a dog. They like to work, but they like to play, too.
Mich: Yeah, absolutely.
Russel: One of the things I think that’s interesting to me is, you would think, I guess, if you didn’t know anything, that the dogs would work for treats, right? What they really work for is play.
Mich: Yes, and play with their handler is really important. That relationship and that strong engagement, it makes that much stronger of a working dog and team, so to speak. They are extremely motivated to go out and do what they do best for that end reward.
Russel: Are there any breeds that work better than others?
Mich: Like I said before, any breed with that strong drive, stamina, and environmental stability can be a detection dog, but there’s a certain element of grittiness we also desire. You’ll see we have a lot of Dutch Shepherds, Malinois on our team.
There’s a certain grit, we don’t want a dog that gives up, so to speak. When you are around our dogs, you’d see that our handlers have to be the ones to hold them up and work them, because these dogs will never say no, and they’ll never quit.
We love that aspect, and we have to take care of those dogs, because those dogs will work their hearts out for you. We have very serious dogs.
Russel: I have a vision of one of these dogs running around in West Texas through a bunch of cactus and just going crazy and disregarding all of the briars and everything else that could be in the way of getting what they’re trying to get done, and just being really persistent and focused on that, in spite of the obstacles.
Mich: Yeah, definitely.
Russel: What you’re looking for, I guess.
Mich: Yep, honestly, the perfect example I have is I was on…We had some friends over. They were playing fetch with my dog and another bird dog named Sophie, a nice little lab. They were playing fetch, and they told me, “Hey, Sophie’s tired, but Bjorn’s still playing.”
When he came back, I looked at his feet, and he had enough quills to make a porcupine envious. That was a pretty key difference in those kinds of dogs. They were throwing a ball in a cactus patch. Sophie was smart enough to say, “No,” and that dog, Bjorn, I spent the whole evening cleaning out his feet and just cursing the scenario.
That’s a good example of how these dogs, how their minds work. They’ll go through a tornado if you ask them to.
Russel: I’m an engineer, and I grew up in the oil and gas business, so I’ve been around it a long time. You really grew up in a completely different business and then found yourself in oil and gas, right? A different path into this business.
What’s the biggest challenge in doing what you’re doing in the pipelining world?
Mich: Some challenges we come across is, the biggest one is convincing this industry of how these dogs work and how specialized they are at finding micro leaks. I’ll be honest, we’ve had scenarios where we’ve worked back-to-back, where other leak detection technology was used. It failed, and then we got called in. Our biggest thing is convincing these operators that, “Hey, this is the most sensitive leak detection tool you can access. It does work, and it does exist.” A lot of people want to work with what they know.
Russel: Sure. I always say there’s valid reason for that. The nature of pipelining is we’re very hyper-safety conscious, and for good reason. Change represents risk, so doing something different, it’s a problem. It presents challenges from how you manage your overall risk.
I know that, in API 1175, which is pipeline leak detection is a programmatic standard, they talk about putting a leak detection program together. Most of the systems I’m aware of — and I tend to work in the computerized side of leak detection — those are either about finding a very big leak very fast or a moderately-sized leak pretty fast. They’re never about finding the really, really, really small ones.
I think it’s an interesting challenge about how does that fit into an overall program, and when as a part of a program do you use dogs as a mechanism versus all the other things that are available in the toolkit? Do you have thoughts about that, as to how dogs fit into an overall program?
Mich: Yeah. What we’ve seen is we’ve had clients get a hold of us because they have very serious zero leak policies. They care about that one percent that you can’t pick up on — those very micro leaks, those pinholes — and what they want is a line that’s 100 percent.
I promise I won’t get political, but I do think the demand for those zero leak standards is going to get more stringent real quickly. That’s where the dogs are truly shining, are those very, very small micro leaks that nothing else can pick up, so to speak.
Russel: I think it’s really interesting point. My dad used to say some pretty brilliant things that I didn’t realize were brilliant until I was in my 30s, but that’s a whole another story. He used to say that, “You know, Russel, if you take care of the nickels and dimes, the dollars and five dollars take care of themselves.” I think that’s — in a leak detection program standpoint — if you take care of the little bitty stuff, it tends to help you with the bigger stuff, just as an overall program.
You made the comment about not getting political, but I do think that the industry is pressing to improve its performance around all kinds of leaks and emissions. I think we are going to be doing that regardless of the political environment.
What the industry is wrestling with is what’s the right technology or approach for doing that? We tend to think about robots and tools and sensors and stuff like that, and thinking about dogs is a little outside of where we would go first, I guess. Just being engineers and given what we know and what we’ve trying — I am defending the pipeliners — but I’d like to see them using more dogs.
Mich: I’ve seen that as well, where the technology is very comfortable. It’s known. It has its place. We’re more a specialized niche that fits in as an additional tool to that toolbox.
Russel: What do you think pipeliners need to know about using dogs as a component of their leak detection program?
Mich: I think the biggest thing to know is that using these dogs can really save a lot of time, manpower, and money. We’ve seen it several times, where these companies are working so hard. These project supervisors are cutting down a line. They’re trying to isolate it within, say, a mile or two and using these technologies to that point and then bringing us on to go and pinpoint this leak. When in truth, that, say, 12 to 15-mile run, they could have just brought in the dogs.
We can run it really quick. There’s minimal manpower and time needed. Those dogs, they’re just dialed right on with that precision. We’ll put them right over the top of the leak, so saving money and time. These dogs are really a great tool.
Russel: I know there’s probably a lot of factors in this. How long of a run could you run in a single day?
Mich: What I put out there is with a smaller team, 8 to 12 miles is the distance I put out there, but it really depends on environment. If you asked me to go West Texas, a nice, cleared right-of-way, those dogs will go as fast as their handlers will allow them, what I call the dumb end of the leash. Now, if you said, “Hey. We want you to go down…”
Russel: Wait a second. Let’s clarify for the listeners.
Russel: Which end is the dumb end — the handler end or the dog end?
Mich: It’s definitely the handler. The dogs are the stars.
Mich: 110 percent. On the flip side of that, if you said, “Hey. We want you to go through the swamps of Louisiana for a line that we don’t even know where,” that’s very different. To be honest, we get called in for the toughest scenarios, where the foliage, the environment…It could be a 50-year-old pipe where the right-of-way is no one really knows. I’d say that’s a pretty good number. More miles, we just bring in more dogs.
Russel: I got it. What’s the process of mobilizing? You get a request from somebody. What’s the process of mobilizing? What are the steps you have to go through to get ready to get on the right-of-way?
Mich: What we’ve found is a lot of our phone calls, as much as we wish they’re proactive, they’re mostly reactive. They’ve already tried to find the leak. They’re frustrated. They’re on a timeline. They want us there yesterday.
We specialize in emergency response. We’ve got the phone line, and I always have a team ready to mobilize. As soon as we have paper in hand signed, I’ve got a team on the road. We’ve got resources up north and down south in the Permian.
Basically, once we get there, we’ve got to get that tracer into the line. Whether it’s an air test, hydro test, or an in-service line, we want that tracer odorant pressurized, and roughly 24-hour period to get that tracer enough time to rise to the surface. That’s our main key. It’s just that vapor to the surface for the dogs.
Russel: I’m going to run this back, just to make sure I understand it. There’s whatever the paperwork is, whatever the contracting is. There’s the time to get to the site. There’s getting the odorant in, and then about a 24-hour wait period. I would say 48 hours is typically a minimum response?
Mich: From the moment we get the dogs on the right-of-way?
Russel: Well, from the time you get a phone call.
Mich: Yeah. I’ll be honest, sometimes it’s faster than that, even.
Russel: Yeah, just depending on how long it takes you to get there and get the odorant injected.
Mich: Yep. That’s something we really cater to, because those are the types of phone calls we get. A lot of times, we have a team down, say, in the Permian. They call us. We just jump over and make it happen.
Russel: I have to ask this question. Just how fun is this? How much fun are you having running around with dogs, going out and playing? It sounds like that would just be…I have friends that, I’m sure they think that would be heaven.
Mich: I’m here to tell you, we love what we do. I think some people think we’re just out there doing a dog walk, and that’s all there is to it. There is a lot on the back-end, paperwork, and getting us into motion, but we live for those moments where we get to go out on the right-of-way and work with our dogs, because we’re a team.
We train daily to be the best team possible, and it’s really a great partnership. Anyone that has a dog knows that that’s the ultimate team, ultimate co-worker.
Russel: I agree, I agree. Well, maybe we’ll flip the script a little bit. What would you like to ask me, if anything, about leak detection and all of that?
Mich: Actually, something we’re wondering is where the future is for, I guess, pipeline transportation. We’ve been seeing a lot of hydrogen in the news, and where do you think it’s going to go with hydrogen transport in pipeline industry?
Russel: That’s a really interesting question. I’m certainly no expert in this, but I do listen to a couple of podcasts on the domain, so I’ll tell you what I know. First thing is I can put hydrogen…Hydrogen’s another hydrocarbon. Hydrocarbon, hydrogen, it’s the same thing.
You can inject hydrogen into a natural gas line and transport it with the natural gas, but then you’ve got to do something at the other end to separate it back out from the natural gas. That requires infrastructure. The other thing is that hydrogen, if you’re going to use it as a fuel, it’s a cryogenic fluid.
It’s like 120 degrees below zero. I probably don’t have that number exactly right, but super-cold. When you put it from the service tank into your tank for transportation, it’s at 15,000 PSI, which is extremely high pressure, and not the kind of thing you’d want a human to do. You’d want a robot to do that.
There’s some pretty significant obstacles from an infrastructure standpoint before hydrogen could be going into widespread use. I think the more important question you asked is how long are we going to be using pipelines?
Mich: Or how are they going to be re-purposed?
Russel: I can’t imagine we’ll be not using pipelines 50 years from now. If you look at, even with all the renewables, wind energy, and all that kind of stuff, there is not enough of that to generate the power, and you can’t use it as a transportation fluid.
You’re not going to be flying jet aircraft or moving supertankers any time soon without hydrocarbons as the fuel.
I think we’re going to see them around for a long time. I do think that the energy mix is going to evolve, but I think we’re going to be having pipelines for a long time. The other thing I think that’s probably true and material here is, to the extent pipelines can keep themselves out of the news and not have incidents, they’ll have more of a lifetime.
Mich: I absolutely agree.
Russel: Pipeliners are like the offensive linemen of football. We only get our names called on the PA when we do something wrong, when we screw up. One of the reasons I wanted to bring you on is my theory is there’s a lot of pipeliners out there that wouldn’t think about dogs for this kind of thing.
I think that could be a really important part of an overall program, particularly for finding the very small leaks. What that looks like and how you build that into a program, I don’t know, but anyways, a rambling answer to your question, but yeah, that’d be my response to that.
Mich: The future of pipelines and where it’s going is something that really interests us. I agree with you about, I guess, public perception and portrayal in the media. I think something also interesting is, instead of a defensive approach, a proactive approach.
I think tactics that the industry could use to show more proactivity versus after-the-fact. Good public image of, “Here’s what we’re doing to ensure and keep that quality, and it is out there.” We’ve worked for some awesome companies that have zero leak policies that hold an amazing standard. I think it isn’t shown very well to the public.
Russel: Yeah, it’s hard to cut through all the noise to get that message out, but there are people, like the API’s got a program in this domain. There’s an interesting new standard. I just did a podcast with Shawn Lyon at Marathon and Carl Weimer of the Pipeline Safety Trust on stakeholder engagement.
They’re authoring a new API standard that’s designed to talk about the two-way engagement of communications between the operating companies and the other stakeholders, pipelining end users, first responders, local governments, landowners, all that kind of stuff. I think those kind of initiatives are going to be really important going forward.
Listen, this has been fun. I want to go out and play with the dogs. I want to learn about how to handle your dogs. You think I could be smart enough to be on the stupid end of the leash?
Mich: [laughs] I tell you what, we’ll come down, and you can meet the team and see if you want to be running with that group. They’re a wild bunch, and they’ve got a lot of energy when they aren’t working.
Russel: I’ve got an office down on a pipeline right-of-way in the Houston area, and we would love to have you down. We are a dog-friendly office. It’s rare I go to the office and there’s not at least one dog there. We’ll see if we can’t get you down there and maybe let your dogs run around and play a little bit. That’d be awesome.
Mich: Awesome. I’ll definitely take you up on that one.
Russel: I hope you enjoyed this week’s episode of the Pipeliners Podcast and our conversation with Mich. Just a reminder before you go, you should register to win our customized Pipeliners Podcast YETI tumbler. Simply visit pipelinerspodcast.com/win to enter yourself in the drawing.
Russel: If you have ideas, questions, or topics you’d be interested in, please let me know on the Contact Us page at pipelinerspodcast.com or reach out to me on LinkedIn. Thanks for listening. I’ll talk to you next week.
Transcription by CastingWords