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How Does Offshore Pipeline Installation Work?
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Laying pipe on the seafloor can pose a number of challenges, especially if the water is deep. There are three main ways that subsea pipe is laid -- S-lay, J-lay and tow-in -- and the pipelay vessel is integral to the success of the installation.

Buoyancy affects the pipelay process, both in positive and negative ways. In the water, the pipe weighs less if it is filled with air, which puts less stress on the pipelay barge. But once in place on the sea bed, the pipe requires a downward force to remain in place. This can be provided by the weight of the oil passing through the pipeline, but gas does not weigh enough to keep the pipe from drifting across the seafloor. In shallow-water scenarios, concrete is poured over the pipe to keep it in place, while in deepwater situations, the amount of insulation and the thickness required to ward of hydrostatic pressure is usually enough to keep the line in place.

Tow-In Pipeline Installation

While jumpers are typically short enough to be installed in sections by ROVs, flowlines and pipelines are usually long enough to require a different type of installation, whether that is tow-in, S-lay or J-lay.

Tow-in installation is just what it sounds like; here, the pipe is suspended in the water via buoyancy modules, and one or two tug boats tow the pipe into place. Once on location, the buoyancy modules are removed or flooded with water, and the pipe floats to the seafloor.

Surface Tow Pipeline Installation
Surface Tow Pipeline InstallationSource:

There are four main forms of tow-in pipeline installation. The first, the surface tow involves towing the pipeline on top of the water. In this method, a tug tows the pipe on top of the water, and buoyancy modules help to keep it on the water's surface.

Using less buoyancy modules than the surface tow, the mid-depth tow uses the forward speed of the tug boat to keep the pipeline at a submerged level. Once the forward motion has stopped, the pipeline settles to the seafloor.

Off-bottom tow uses buoyancy modules and chains for added weight, working against each other to keep the pipe just above the sea bed. When on location, the buoyancy modules are removed, and the pipe settles to the seafloor.

Lastly, the bottom tow drags the pipe along the sea bed, using no buoyancy modules. Only performed in shallow-water installations, the sea floor must be soft and flat for this type of installation.

S-Lay Pipeline Installation

When performing S-lay pipeline installation, pipe is eased off the stern of the vessel as the boat moves forward. The pipe curves downward from the stern through the water until it reaches the "touchdown point," or its final destination on the seafloor. As more pipe is welded in the line and eased off the boat, the pipe forms the shape of an "S" in the water.

S-Lay Pipeline Installation
S-Lay Pipeline InstallationSource:

Stingers, measuring up to 300 feet (91 meters) long, extend from the stern to support the pipe as it is moved into the water, as well as control the curvature of the installation. Some pipelay barges have adjustable stingers, which can be shortened or lengthened according to the water depth.

Pipe being lowered into the water via a stinger for S-lay installation
Pipe being lowered into the water via a stinger for S-lay installationSource:

Proper tension is integral during the S-lay process, which is maintained via tensioning rollers and a controlled forward thrust, keeping the pipe from buckling. S-lay can be performed in waters up to 6,500 feet (1,981 meters) deep, and as many as 4 miles (6 kilometers) a day of pipe can be installed in this manner.

J-Lay Pipeline Installation

Overcoming some of the obstacles of S-lay installation, J-lay pipeline installation puts less stress on the pipeline by inserting the pipeline in an almost vertical position. Here, pipe is lifted via a tall tower on the boat, and inserted into the sea. Unlike the double curvature obtained in S-lay, the pipe only curves once in J-lay installation, taking on the shape of a "J" under the water.

J-Lay Pipeline Installation
J-Lay Pipeline InstallationSource:

The reduced stress on the pipe allows J-lay to work in deeper water depths. Additionally, the J-lay pipeline can withstand more motion and underwater currents than pipe being installed in the S-lay fashion.

J-Lay Pipelay Vessel S7000
J-Lay Pipelay Vessel S7000Source:

Types of Pipelay Vessels

There are three main types of pipelay vessels. There are J-lay and S-lay barges that include a welding station and lifting crane on board. The 40- or 80-foot (12- or 24-meter) pipe sections are welded away from wind and water, in an enclosed environment. On these types of vessels, the pipe is laid one section at a time, in an assembly-line method.

On the other hand, reel barges contain a vertical or horizontal reel that the pipe is wrapped around. Reel barges are able to install both smaller diameter pipe and flexible pipe. Horizontal reel barges perform S-lay installation, while vertical reel barges can perform both S-lay and J-lay pipeline installation.

Vertical Reel Barge
Vertical Reel BargeSource:

When using reel barges, the welding together of pipe sections is done onshore, reducing installation costs. Reeled pipe is lifted from the dock to the vessel, and the pipe is simply rolled out as installation is performed. Once all of the pipe on the reel has been installed, the vessel either returns to shore for another, or some reel barges are outfitted with cranes that can lift a new reel from a transport vessel and return the spent reel, which saves time and money.